How Important Is Brett Gardner's Return to the Yankees Playoff Hopes?

Peter AlfanoContributor IIMay 13, 2012

How Important Is Brett Gardner's Return to the Yankees Playoff Hopes?

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    Brett Gardner hit 15 home runs since joining the New York Yankees in 2008.

    Compare that to Josh Hamilton, who had 18 homers entering Sunday night's game against the Los Angeles Angels.

    Curtis Granderson hit 11 for the Yankees who have a lineup filled with power hitters such as Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Raul Ibanez, Robinson Cano and Nick Swisher.

    And yet Gardner may play a pivotal role in the Yankees playoff hopes and how far they advance.

    Yes, that Brett Gardner.

    Even though he bats ninth in the order instead of the leadoff spot where we would like to see him, Garden gives the Yankees an element of speed and a situational hitter who can move runners along and also bring them home without having to hit the ball over the fence.

    We chronicled several weeks ago how the Yankees have abandoned any semblance of a running game and that still is the case. Part of it is Gardner's absence because of an injured right elbow. He was off to a good start, batting .321 with three RBI and two stolen bases in nine games.

    Gardner led the American League with 49 steals in 2011 and had 47 the year before.

    He also is the best defensive outfielder on the team and makes Yankees Stadium smaller the way he covers ground.

    We don't want to get carried away; Gardner is only a .265 career hitter. The Yankees, however, have become too one-dimensional for the most part. When they hit home runs they usually win. When they don't, then any team can beat them.

    Granderson has apparently forsaken his running game to focus on hitting 40 homers again. He hit 41 in 2011 but still stole 25 bases. He has one steal this season.

    Derek Jeter stole 16 bases last season when he was 37 years old. He has only two in three attempts in 2012, when he has been hitting close to .400.

    Gardner alone won't change the way the Yankees approach offense. He does give them more options, however, and frankly we're not thrilled with the alternatives.

    Barring a trade, here's who the Yankees will rely on until Gardner returns.

Ibanez Back in the Field Again

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    Ten years ago Brett Gardner would have been backing up Raul Ibanez.

    But Ibanez, who will be 40 on June 2, was signed by the Yankees to alternate with Andruw Jones as the designated hitter, not be the everyday left-fielder.

    Ibanez is having a good year with the bat, hitting .273 with seven home runs and 21 RBI.

    He is adequate at best in the outfield, however, and is best-suited as a short-term fix in left.

Getting a Jones for Playing the Field

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    Andruw Jones is giving the Yankees pretty much what he did last season.

    He is batting .240 with four home runs and eight RBI.

    That's okay as the DH against lefties, but as a part-time outfielder, Jones is a carbon copy of other Yankees who don't hit for average and rely on the long ball.

    If the Yankees acquire a right-handed hitting outfielder before the trade deadline, they will probably release Jones.

Let's Nix Jayson as a Yankee Left-Fielder

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    Jason Nix. Really.

    This is what the Yankees have to offer as a reserve infielder/outfielder?

    With Brett Gardner sidelined, you might expect the Yankees to promote their Bryce Harper or Mike Trout or even Kirk Nieuwenhuis.

    Nix is a 29-year-old journeyman who played for the Toronto Blue Jays last season and is now filling in at short and in the outfield for the Yankees.

    He has one hit in his first 10 at-bats, and being a Yankee now, we shouldn't be surprised that his hit was a home run.

    We'd rather have Laynce Nix.

A Word for the Wise

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    DeWayne Wise is another journeyman who has kicked around the majors and minors for 10 years. He is 34 and certainly not the answer in left field for the Yankees.

    Wise has never hit more than .250 and is not known for having much power.

    He is a spare part who fills out the Yankees roster and functions as a pinch-hitter. He also gets an occasional start in the outfield.

    If Gardner does not return by mid June, it's time for general manager Brian Cashman to pick up the phone and see who might be available.

    The outfield prospects in the Yankee farm system are too young and green to take a chance on right now.

No Joshing: Williangham Might Be Available

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    We know that the Minnesota Twins signed Josh Willingham to a three-year, free-agent contract during the offseason.

    That was when the Twins envisioned becoming contenders in the AL Central again.

    But Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau have struggled and the Twins are 10-24. It could make the 33-year-old Willingham a great trade chip for teams with postseason aspirations.

    Willingham is hitting .295 with seven homers and 19 RBI. He is a left fielder who would fit in perfectly with the Yankees. He has experience and power. He provides insurance for Gardner and Nick Swisher, both of whom have been injured.

    The Twins will want the Yankees to part with a prime prospect so it will be a difficult decision for general manager Brian Cashman, who may be reluctant to part with young farmhands.

    Still, the World Series is the ultimate goal every season for the Yankees, so it will be interesting to see what happens if Gardner's return is delayed again or if he has trouble finding his stroke once he is back in the lineup.