Brett Gardner To Take Care of Center-Field Green

Ryan MatlackContributor IApril 1, 2009

NEW YORK - JULY 05:  Brett Gardner #11 of the New York Yankees hits a run scoring sacfrifice fly in the sixth inning against the Boston Red Sox on July 5, 2008 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. The Yankees won the game 2-1.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

It’s actually refreshing. And surprising. Did anybody expect the Yankees to settle for Brett Gardner?

Most supposed they would either be once again looking at Melky Cabrera in center field, breaking in the turf at the new Yankee Stadium. If not, it looked like it could be an aging free agent, or the ever declining Johnny Damon (one might blame the absence of facial hair).


But here’s the catch. Maybe the Yankees didn’t settle. The Yankees uncharacteristically picked a man not for his track record but for his performance as of late. So many times we have see rent-a-sluggers and rent-a-aces dawn the pinstripes for a season or less because of lustrous careers.


The Bombers have so often looked past recent failures in the hope that they will resurrect a career that has simply met its maker.


Examples? Just to name a few, Jose Canseco, Roger Clemens (during his latest Yankee Stint), and most recently, Ivan Rodriguez.


However, some more long-term signings have also failed to translate into attaining the championship trophy that is expected to make its home in the Bronx. Fans and analysts will gripe about how tilted the playing field is because of the Yankees payroll, a complaint that is based on an ignorant theory that money translates into success.


As soon as we saw the payroll shoot up and the coveted home run hitters and flamethrowers walk in to the Yankee Clubhouse, the conveyor belt that seem to stretch from ring manufacturing factories to 161st street and River Avenue, came to a halt.


Although its isn’t the fault of a single player, free agent signings such as Gary Sheffield, Mike Mussina, Jason Giambi, and Randy Johnson haven’t brought a 27th championship to New York.


So now that the Yankees have moved out of the house that a single player built, to a stadium that the State of New York built (a controversial issue, as the taxpayers have helped fund parts of the new complex), so begins a new era.


The Front Office is coming out of another busy offseason that included a spending spree of $424 million on aces A.J Burnett and CC Sabathia and first baseman Mark Teixeira.


Although these signings create the fear that the inaugural season of the new Yankee Stadium will be similar to the last eight, that refreshing feeling comes when looking over the other sections of the roster.


The bullpen is inexperienced but fresh, sure to have more stamina than those of the past that included veterans Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill, quality relievers that were simply burnt out after continuous appearances. Aside from Mariano Rivera and Damaso Marte, the rest of the bullpen is under the age of 20.


Home-grown stars such as Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, and Jorge Posada still roam the diamond, and it looks as though the Yankees will rely on Cody Ransom to occupy third base until Alex Rodriguez returns to the lineup.


Besides filling the whole at first with a big name free agent, the Yankees went through their farm system and put aging veterans in positions that complimented their remaining talent. Hideki Matsui and Posada will take turns at the DH, while the aging Damon will move to left to favor his lack of an arm, and more recently, speed.


Instead of sending Xavier Nady back to the National League, Cashman and the Yankees used last August and September played Nady on regular basis, almost as a tryout. He made the cut, and will now have a chance to secure himself as a fixture in the Yankees outfield.


Then there was that task of finding a Center Fielder, the quarterback of the outfield, and arguably one of the most prestigious positions on Yankee history. Yankee Stadium has seen greats such as Joltin’ Joe, the Mick, Bern Baby Bern, and now Brett Gardner. No pressure, right?


However, there is reason Brett Gardner has fended off the competition and earned himself a spot on the starting roster. He should, and might, understand that he isn’t putting on the shoes worn by number five or seven.


Brett Gardner has to pull on No. 11’s spikes and run out to center at the New Yankee Stadium, something no one has ever done before. When he does that on Apr. 16, he will become the greatest  center fielder to have ever started at the New Yankee Stadium, thus kicking off a new era in New York Yankees Baseball.


One could find a fancier way of describing Gardner’s main asset, but where is the originality in that? He’s really, really fast. Physically, he might remind some of Mickey Mantle. At 5’10" and 185 pounds, he’s just an inch smaller and 13 pounds lighter than the Mick in his prime.


All the outfielders in contention for the  center field spot played well. As of Mar. 31, Gardner is the top hitting outfielder with a stunning average of .390, but is followed closely by Melky Cabrera at .351, Xavier Nady at .293, and beardless Johnny Damon at .288. None of the four has had any trouble seeing the ball down in Tampa this spring.


But certainly a high average wasn’t the reason Joe Girardi put Gardner on the opening day roster. The 26 year-old has bounced around the organization after playing college ball at the College of Charleston, and just got his first chance to play for the big club last year.


Although he hasn’t racked up stolen bases, home runs, or runs batted in, he’s performed where he failed last summer in the Majors. Hitting. An average of nearly .400 proves this convincingly. With his speed, Gardner is a major threat on the base paths, something the Yankees seldom have.


Perhaps the second-year skipper did decide on Gardner because of an average, because it’d be hard for the speedster to steal bases if he weren’t on base.


Meanwhile, his main Competition, “The Melkman,” got his first start with the Yankees at 20 years old. By 2006, he was the everyday  center fielder and with a .280 batting average and .360 OBP, Cabrera was often on base to be knocked in by sluggers such as Rodriguez and Giambi.


Alas, Cabrera slumped heavily last season and was even sent down to the minor, while Gardner was headed on flight in the opposite direction. He would hit under .230 and be a part of the first Yankee team to miss the playoffs since 1994.


However, he did hit a walk-off hit against the Red Sox, a feat that will boost any rookie's confidence. It may have carried over to this March. 


Although it is just Spring Training, with Gardner’s success, the Yankees have been exceptional. The team has showed little difficulty eating their way through a competitive grapefruit schedule, posting a 21-10-1 record as of Mar. 31.


It’s too early to say that Gardner will be a success. He has faced the pressure of competing for the position few thought he would obtain, and now is pressured to keep it when it counts.  


In a lot of cities, fans will root for the underdog, the player or team that beats the odds and reaches glory. Most Yankee fans, like there Legendary Owner, George Steinbrenner, just focus on the glory of winning a championship.


With his back to the wall, and his eyes on the plate, Brett Gardner just might help them get there.