One of my “virtues” has been having a great idea, but not running with it right away. Such has been the case with my thoughts on Brett Gardner, as I have been meaning to write about him for quite awhile.
Within a day or so, Yankee manager Joe Girardi will take his cue from GM Brian Cashman and name Brett Gardner the Yankees starting centerfielder for the 2009 season—at least until Gardner struggles for a little while, then Nick Swisher or Melky Cabrera (if not traded) will get more time in center.
The Yankees certainly have little patience with young players.
But the Yankees should have made their centerfield decision much earlier, not based upon a small stretch of spring training games, but by Gardner’s professional history.
Since I saw him back in his short season, Staten Island days in 2005, I have been a fan of Brett Gardner.
As a third round draft pick out of the University of Charleston, he burst on the pro scene by hitting .284 BA/.377 OBP/.376 SLG/.753 OPS with 5 HR’s in his first 335 PA’s.
That Staten Island team was 52-24 for a .684 winning percentage and won the NY Penn League Championship by sweeping both playoff rounds.
Besides Brett Gardner, do you know who else was on that team that is a Yankee prospect? NOBODY, unless you include the recent spring training production from Eduardo Nunez.
Other recognizable names on that team, again, which won the NY Penn League Championship, included catcher PJ Pilittere, 2B Reegie Corona and LHP Zachary Kroenke, the last two players having been Rule 5 picks off the Yankee roster this season.
It just goes to show that you do not need superstars to win baseball championships. But Gardner was the centerfielder/leadoff hitter for a league championship team in Staten Island, his first professional season.
After his Staten Island success, the Yankees skipped Gardner over Low A Charleston, a move which reflected the positive thoughts the Yankee organization had with Gardner. It is interesting that Gardner played college baseball in Charleston, but it is the only Yankee minor league city Gardner did not play.
Gardner’s stay in High A Tampa was short, as he dominated the Florida State League with his style of play—hitting for a good average, getting on base (.433 OBP), stealing bases and playing good defense, the same things he has been doing this spring training and throughout his entire career.
Gardner played 63 games in Tampa before his in-season promotion, generating a .323 BA/.433 OBP/.418 SLG/.851 OPS with 30 stolen bases and scoring 46 runs.
He was just as effective in Double A Trenton that year, hitting .272/.352/.318/.670 OPS with 28 stolen bases and 41 runs in 55 games. Once again, Gardner was the centerfielder/leadoff batter combination which helped his team to make playoffs. The Thunder lost in the first round.
Although his numbers were down from Tampa, Gardner was never over-matched at the plate. I saw him on several occasions that year, and he provided the same Gardner-type game with high energy, good OBP (.352), stolen bases and good defense.
What impressed me was Gardner’s approach the next year in 2007. Brett the Jet started the season in Trenton, adjusted and improved his offense.
In nearly the same number of games in Trenton as the prior season (54 games in 2007 to 55 in 2006), Gardner improved to .300 BA/.392 OBP/419 SLG/.811 OPS with 18 stolen bases and 43 runs, while continuing to play good defense.
He was promoted to the Triple A Scranton Yankees mid-season and producing a .260 BA, .674 OPS with 21 stolen bases and 37 runs.
The Trenton Thunder won the Eastern League Championship in 2007, and the Scranton Yankees had the best overall record but lost in the first round of the playoffs. Gardner was the centerfielder/leadoff hitter combination on both of those teams.
Like the prior season, in 2008 Gardner was kept at the same level (this time Triple A Scranton) as he finished the prior season. Once again, Gardner adjusted and improved his game to produce .296/.414/.422/836 OPS with 37 stolen bases and 67 runs.
Gardner continues to excel when he is given time to adjust to a new level. He doesn’t really struggle when promoted, but he does improve the next time he plays there.
This method of working hard and making his game better continued into the major leagues, when after he was promoted from Scranton the first time, Gardner produced .153/.227/.169/.396 OPS with 17 strikeouts in only 68 plate appearances, not the production you want from a leadoff hitter.
For the first time in his baseball life, it was clearly evident that Brett Gardner was completely over-matched at the plate.
The Yankees mercifully sent him back down to AAA to improve on several factors of his game, namely pitch selection and becoming more aggressive in his at bats. While that may sound contradictory, Gardner was taking good hitting pitches early in the count, then chasing bad pitches when behind the count.
When recalled in August, Gardner was a different player, forging a .294/.333/.382/.715 OPS with the same speed (8 SB vs. 1 CS) and good defense. Once again, Gardner improved his second time through a league, something which has continued into this 2009 spring training.
Here is an excerpt from something I wrote last October:
“Brett Gardner should be given the centerfield job. Despite what Bill Madden calls ‘a singles-hitting flyweight with zilch extra-base pop destined for a career as a fourth outfielder and pinch runner,’ Gardner has been nothing short of a winner in every stage of his pro career. After a slow start to this season, Gardner hit .357/.386/.667/1.034 OPS in his last 10 starts in CF. And these weren’t your typical out of contention September starts either. Opposing starting pitchers in those last 10 starts included Mark Buehrle and Gavin Floyd of the AL Central Champion Chicago White Sox, Jesse Litsch (13-9, 3.85 ERA), AJ Burnett (we all know who he is) and Roy Halladay of the Toronto Blue Jays plus Dice-K and Tim Wakefield in Boston. Gardner had 3 of the 6 Yankee hits (including a double) against Halladay in Roy’s 20th victory that day. And Gardner plays great defense, too.”
Brett Gardner has proven on the field time and again that he adjusts to higher competition and begins to produce at high levels. He has also proven that he is a big part of his teams making the playoffs and winning titles as a centerfielder/lead off hitter.
While Girardi is likely to announce soon that Gardner is going to start this year as the Yankees centerfielder, this is a decision that did not need to be made based upon one spring training, but by Gardner’s history of in season and season to season adjustments.
Although it is different than what the Yankees are used to in centerfielders with Earl Combs, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Bernie Williams, Gardner is the speedy centerfielder type the Yankees have not had since the Mickey Rivers era in the late 1970’s.
That time period produced three AL titles and back to back World Series Championships in 1977 and 1978. Also, in 2003 the Yankees lost the World Series to the Florida Marlins, with significant production coming from the top of the lineup speedy centerfielder Juan Pierre.
George Steinbrenner was so enamored with this type of player that he went out and signed Kenny Lofton for the 2004 season. After reading the Joe Torre-Tom Verducci book, we learned that signing was the beginning of the end for the Torre-Cashman relationship over Kenny Lofton vs. Bernie Williams.
The Yankees now have “their own home-grown Juan Pierre” who gets on base, plays good defense and helps disrupt the other team.
The game has changed in the post steroid era where pitching, defense and speed have become in vogue once again. The Tampa Bay Rays proved how important those three factors are when they made their World Series run last season. Gardner provides what the Yankees sorely need—speed and defense.
In all of the levels Gardner has played in, he has always been 81 percent or higher in his stolen base attempts and has been one of the top defensive centerfielders.
Gardner should be the Yankees centerfielder this season and beyond—at least until Austin Jackson proves he can handle the job.