When Spring Training opened at George M. Steinbrenner Field this year, competition was in the air. Melky Cabrera stayed in camp instead of playing for his country so he could compete with up and coming prospect Brett Gardner.
The opinion on Gardner has been mixed up to this point. There continues to be a slew of fans loyal to the “Melk Man” insistent that the Yankees keep him in center field. Gardner fans would disagree, citing that his speed is more of an asset than Melky’s arm.
Many of the naysayers against Gardner argued that he simply did not produce at the Major League level. It’s a well known fact, however, that Gardner has experienced adjustment periods at each level. Don’t believe me? See for yourself.
Looking further, you’ll find that Gardner hit .343 and drove in six in his last 10 games in 2008. He also added (no offense to Johnny Damon) potent speed at the top (or bottom) of the lineup.
In fact, he had 13 stolen bases in 42 games, placing fourth on the team in stolen bases behind A-Rod, Bobby Abreu, and Damon.
The total amount of games played between those three: 439.
The total number of stolen bases between those three: 69.
That’s a steal approximately every three games for Gardner and one every five games for the trio. If you break it down further, Damon has been the biggest base stealing threat in recent years. He averaged a steal a little more than once every five days.
Of course, if you want to compare Gardner to his competition, you’ll find Gardner blowing Melky out of the water in that category.
With speed comes less power, which would be a problem for many lineups. This is the New York Yankees we’re talking about, so power isn’t an issue. With Mark Teixeira and A-Rod in the middle of the lineup and the return of Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada, the Yankees shouldn’t be worrying about power.
Speed, however, should be a concern. What better combination than Gardner and Damon? To have speed at the top and bottom of the lineup will provide the Yankees with a double threat on the base paths and allow Derek Jeter many opportunities for hit-and-runs in the two spot of the batting order.
It’s pretty clear that no matter who wins the starting job in center field, he will bat ninth anyway.
Finally, it’s the battle of speed versus arm strength. While it’s easy to understand why many fans love Melky’s arm, you can’t stress how important the speed game is in center field. With the size of the Yankees outfield, it’s important to be able to cover a lot of ground.
Instead of a ball being allowed to drop and Melky holding batters to a single due to his arm strength, Gardner would get to balls that might otherwise drop in for hits.
It’s also safe to say that Gardner’s ability to read the ball off the bat and take the proper routes is greatly under appreciated. Shelley Duncan has acknowledged Gardner’s ability to strengthen the defense of the Scranton Wilkes-Barre outfield in 2007 and 2008 and would most likely agree he will do the same if in center field everyday in the Bronx.
There’s one thing that hasn’t come up in this debate nearly as much as it should, however. Gardner’s attitude is one that will remind many Yankees fans of that of Paul O’Neil, Tino Martinez, and the Yankees of the '90s.
No one, including himself, is claiming Gardner to be a superstar. What Gardner is, however, is a player who works hard and operates on the attitude that hard work, dedication, and teamwork win baseball games. He’s also a player who simply “wants to play the game.”
When Johnny Damon signed with the Yankees, many Yankees fans accepted him after seeing the dedication he took to the field every day. Paul O'Neil won over the fans with that same attitude—play hard or go home.
One of the other aspects of the game that has been said to plague the Yankees locker room in the “money years” has been attitudes and egos. Gardner’s the type of player who gets his team going and makes his teammates want to play harder. In Scranton, the speedy outfielder was one of the most trusted men on the team and someone that was always open for conversation, whether it was the media or a teammate in need.
It’s hard to believe that would change with a new address.
If you still don’t trust in Gardner, you could always look at his numbers this spring. A .417 batting average, an OBP over .500, and two stolen bases aren’t something any Yankees fan is complaining about.
A patient eye would be another welcome addition to the bottom of the order, and this spring he’s done just that: two walks, with no strike outs, batting primarily in the one or two hole in the lineup.
And as for power, maybe it’s just Spring Training, but Gardner has managed to be the leader in team slugging percentage this spring with two home runs and two doubles. That being said, Gardner is no powerhouse and isn’t going to knock out 15 home runs a year. But how many home runs do you expect from Melky anyway?
But don’t take my word for it, watch Gardner for yourself and maybe you’ll believe in him too.