Contemplating the future of center field in Yankee Stadium seems strange, doesn't it? Jacoby Ellsbury is under contract through at least 2020 (plus a team option in 2021), and Brett Gardner, who would play center field on at least twenty other teams, is locked up through at least 2018 (team option for 2019). And, while the rest of the team has seemingly been in upheaval over the last several years, the team's center field situation has been stable for the better part of two decades. Over that time, they've received average or better production relative to the position fifteen times, including the last five years running. One could argue that it is the least worrisome position on the team by a significant margin, and I'm not sure that anyone could disagree. In that case, why worry? Because it's what we do, and prospect week is upon us.
Enter Jake Cave.
Drafted in the sixth round in 2011, Cave entered the organization as a fairly highly-touted prospect. The draft position belied his talent, as his $800,000 signing bonus was more befitting of a supplemental first or second round pick - he slipped due to the oh so dreaded 'signability' concerns that plagued the pre-slotting MLB amateur draft. Cave was felt to have a strong commitment to Louisiana State, where he would play center and pitch, having touched 94 on the mound in high school. The Yankees saw him as a center fielder, though, and trotted him out there for his professional debut on August 22, 2011 ... where he promptly fractured his kneecap, and subsequently missed the rest of 2011 and the entirety of 2012 recovering from the injury.
It was a borderline catastrophic injury, which some feared would limit his mobility, pushing him away from center into one of the corner outfield slots, if not all the way to first base. Luckily, that has not been the case, as Cave has played 221 of 247 professional game in center, and he has been healthy since returning to action in the second week of 2013. And, of equal importance, he does not seem to have missed a beat.
Cave spent the entirety of 2013 as a 20-year-old at Charleston, batting .282/.347/.401 with 37 2B, 6 3B, 2 HR, and a 117 wRC+. He also stole 18 bases, though he was caught nine times, as well. He also drew praise for his defense in center, with a knack for tracking down fly balls and a cannon arm. It would be difficult to call what was essentially his professional debut anything other than a success, despite the lack of over-the-fence power and the lack of efficiency on the basepaths - particularly when you consider that he basically jumped from high school to A ball. For comparison's sake, fellow 2011 high school draftee and top prospect Greg Bird spent time in both Rookie Ball and Low-A before making the jump to Charleston; this is the traditional course for high school draftees.
In 2014, Cave produced similarly strong numbers. He spent the majority of the season at High-A Tampa, batting .304/.354/.395 with 18 2B, 4 3B, and 3 HR in 416 PA (116 wRC+) and forcing a late season promotion to Double-A Trenton, where he would rake to the tune of .273/.344/.455 (121 wRC+). Cave saw his power spike in Trenton, hitting 10 2B, 5 3B, and 4 HR in just 197 PA. The home run numbers may not be too impressive, but keep in mind that the Eastern League is dominated by pitcher friendly parks (including Trenton). His defense remained a plus, and he continued to flash above-average speed in the outfield and on the basepaths (despite being successful on only 67% of his stolen base attempts). Additionally, Cave showcased more patience at Double-A, seeing more pitches per plate appearance and walking in 9.1% of his PA.
Cave is athletically built at 6' and around 180, with a thick lower half, which he utilizes well in his swing. He has a quick bat that stays in the zone for a long time, though his swing is a bit long and complicated (including a toe tap). His swing is generally level, yet it does have something of an uppercut on pitches lower in the zone. It hasn't inhibited his ability to make contact thus far, but it may be a concern against premium velocity. He struggled a bit against lefties in Double-A, but he hasn't shown much of a platoon split on the whole. I don't know how much home run power he will develop, and his all fields approach is not befitting of taking advantage of Yankee Stadium. He has the frame to add muscle, and the bat speed to take advantage of it, so he could max out around 16. A reasonable expectation is probably eight to twelve.
Defensively, Cave is an above-average defender in center, with solid range and excellent instincts. He takes efficient routes to the ball, and gets the ball in quickly due to a plus arm and a quick release. Some consider him the team's second best defensive outfielder in the system behind Mason Williams, and that seems accurate to my eyes - Williams has more range, but Cave has the superior arm. If it isn't a Gold Glove profile, it isn't too far off.
What may make or break Cave's overall value (bridging the gap between fourth outfielder and regular, or regular and above-average regular) is his base-running ability. He has above-average speed, and he is skilled at taking the extra base, both in terms of turning singles into doubles and going from first to third. However, he has not been able to steal bases at an efficient rate, somewhat negating that value added otherwise. If he could continue to steal fifteen to twenty bases but do so at an above-average rate, I think he could be a starting center fielder on a contending team, and be an asset along the way. And he has the speed to do so; it just seems a matter of honing his craft, be it by learning how to time/read pitchers better, or by getting better jumps.
Put all of this together, and you have one of my top five or six prospects in a surprisingly strong Yankees farm system. In the words of Keith Law, I see him as a GUY - someone who can hit .280/.360/.450 at his best, with superb defense and well above-average baserunning. That package in center field is incredibly valuable to any team, even one with two above-average players at the position right now.
And for that, you have a fantastic sleeper for the season to come, someone's center fielder of the future, and my unrequited prospect crush of 2015.