The Constant Gardner

Coming into spring training Brett Gardner has something to prove to the Yankee brass.  He has to prove that he belongs on the field playing at the crown jewel position of the New York Yankees.  The same position that has seen such past greats as Earl Combs, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Bobby Murcer, and Bernie Williams.  Brett Gardner has to prove he’s the 2009 center fielder for the Yankees.

The road to making this team hasn’t been an easy one.  Gardner is a good old Southern boy born on August 24, 1983 in Holly Hill, South Carolina.  With a population of around 1,300 Gardner attended high school at the Holly Hill Academy and later attended the College of Charleston where he was as unrefined as a ballplayer that the school would only take him as a walk-on.

Gardner remained an undrafted player after his junior year and if drafted at all he was projected to go in the lower rounds of the Major League baseball draft.  It was in the second half of his final year at Charleston that teams started to take notice of his talent.

The New York Yankees called on Gardner and drafted him in the 3rd round of the 2005 Major League draft.  He was assigned to the Short Season-A, Staten Island Yankees in the New York-Penn League.  Gardner played 73 games for the Yankees hitting .284.  He showed promise as a base stealer by swiping 19 bags in 22 attempts (86%), and helped the Yankees grab the McNamara Division title.  In the playoffs Staten Island beat the Auburn Doubledays in the finals to take the New York-Penn League championship.

In 2006 Gardner moved up the Tampa Yankees where he played in 63 games before moving up to the Yankees Double-A affiliate the Trenton Thunder.  Gardner finished the year playing in 118 games and batted .298 (.323 in Tampa and .272 in Trenton). He proved his prowess as a base stealer once again as he nabbed 58 bases in 70 tries (83%).  Once more Gardner helped his team as the Thunder took the North Division crown of the Eastern League before falling to the Portland Sea Dogs in the semi-final round.

Gardner started out the 2007 season with the Thunder where in 54 games he hit .300 and drove in 17 runs while getting caught stealing only 4 times in 22 attempts (82%)

Things got tougher for Brett when he moved up to the Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barrie Yankees for the second half of the season.  Gardner’s batting average fell to .260 and he only knocked in 9 runs in 45 games.  However, he was still proving to be a threat on the base paths as he stole 21 of 24 bases (88%)

In 2008 Gardner had his dream come true as he was called up to the Bronx on June 30.  The dream turned into somewhat of a nightmare as Gardner found out there was a world of difference between the levels of talent at the Triple-A level opposed to the major leagues.  Gardner struggled mightily at the plate hitting only .161 in 56 at bats.

Gardner who had a reputation of being patient at the plate in the minors tried to use that same ploy in the majors, only to have it backfire.  Gardner turned patience into reluctance and pitchers threw pitches in for strikes often putting the young player into a 0-2 count.  Gardner struck out nearly once every 4 at bats (23.6%).  The one bright spot in Gardner’s time in New York was his speed and stealing ability.  When he did get on Gardner stole 13 times in 14 attempts.  That wasn’t enough to keep him around and on July 26 he was demoted back down to Scranton.

He had to wonder if he had seen his 15 minutes of fame.

Gardner used his time in Scranton to improve his game.  He worked with hitting coach Butch Wynegar to change his stance slightly by lowering his hands.

On Aug. 15, Gardner was recalled to the Yankees and hitting Coach Kevin Long continued to work on Gardner’s mechanics, taking out the stride in his stance, which allowed him to get to the ball quicker.  The changes paid off as Gardner finished the rest of the season batting .283 (.228 overall).

In the off season Gardner continued to work at his hitting.  Watching all of his at bats during the 2008 season along with continual batting practice has helped Gardner reinforce the corrections he’s made in his mechanics and also the areas he needs to improve.

So far, the result of hard work has paid off.  In the eight games Gardner has played in he has gone 8-for-21 for a .381 BA.  He hit his 3rd home run of the 2009 pre-season equaling the number he hit in Scranton last year.  He has a lofty .435 OBP and a SLG% of .905.

“I’m seeing the ball well and my timing’s pretty good right now, just trying to take advantage of good pitches to hit,” Gardner said of his recent success.

Gardner is in a battle with Melky Cabrera who held the position most of last year until he was demoted to Scranton because of a substandard season.  Cabrera who had his own rough beginning when he was promoted to the Yankees in 2005 came back in 2006 and had a very productive season (.280 BA, 7 HR, 50 RBI).  He followed it up with another outstanding season in 2007 as Cabrera batted .273 with 8 HR and 73 RBI.

However, in 2008 Cabrera regressed at the plate and wasn’t showing the patience he had in the previous two seasons.  Cabrera’s average dipped to .249 and his OBP and SLG% plunged as well.  Cabrera was only hitting .201 with runners in scoring position when he was given a ticket to the minors.

When he went down, Gardner came up.

Cabrera returned to the club in September and had his first plate appearance on Sept. 17.  Cabrera finished the month hitting 6-for-13 for a .462 average and a .923 OPS.  There was something positive to build on in the off season.

Cabrera spent the winter playing ball, working hard in his home town of Santo Domingo and adding muscle to as he put it, “add strength and agility.”

The stage was set for a battle royal between Cabrera and Gardner in spring training.

We’ve seen Gardner’s numbers so far this spring, but what about Cabrera?  He knows he has to come out and sparkle otherwise he will be the odd man out and that could mean a trade.

Cabrera’s numbers have been solid, but so far not in Gardner’s universe.  Cabrera is hitting .278 with 0 HR, 2 RBI, a .381 OBP and a .389 SLG%.

In fielding percentage both Gardner and Cabrera are about dead even.  Cabrera has no errors in 14 total chances while Gardner has one error in 13 total chances.  Gardner has more speed, and both have good arms with Cabrera’s being slightly stronger.

Right now, it appears that Gardner has the inside track to start the season in center field, but keep in mind there is a lot of spring training left.

Manager Joe Girardi told reporters, “It’s still wide open. There’s a lot of things that can happen in the next few weeks. I don’t think it’s fair to really start judging too much now.”

The competition between Cabrera and Gardner should remain fierce and it will be a fun duel to watch.  Gardner knows that consistency and continued hard work will pay off in the end.  As for Cabrera, he knows he let down last year and now has to fight for the position that he’s already won before.

However, the ever upbeat Gardner put it this way.

“I hope that we both make the team and both make a positive impact.”

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