Throughout his career, Brett Gardner has never had a set position in the field or in the lineup. He has constantly moved back and forth between left field and center field and has moved up and down the lineup, usually first or ninth. When he first came up, he was a good enough fielder to push veteran Johnny Damon over to left field and manned center field himself. After a year in center, Gardner was forced to left as the Yankees dealt for the power-hitting Curtis Granderson. Three years later, Gardner found himself batting leadoff and playing center field while Granderson was sidelined for the year. For the first time in his career, it looked like Gardner would finally emerge as the Yankee center fielder of the future with Granderson’s contract expiring. However, that wasn’t the case.
In a surprising move, the Yankees inked Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year, $153 million contract to take over the top of the lineup and start in center field. Once again, Gardner was being forced to left. Then there was the period of time where Gardner was the supposed “trade bait” when the Yankees signed veteran outfielder Carlos Beltran for three years, $45 million. Gardner’s future with the Yankees had taken a full 180-degree turn in a matter of weeks.
When the trade rumors swirled, Brian Cashman voiced how valuable Brett Gardner was to the Yankees, and how they would not be actively shopping him. Many fans were skeptical as the Yankees had a surplus of outfielders and so many other issues that needed to be addressed. A few weeks later, Cashman was true to his word; Brett Gardner signed a four-year, $52 million extension with a team option for a fifth.
Finally, the Yankees had rewarded Gardner for his hard work and his stable bat, speed, and defense in the lineup. Together, he and Ellsbury form one of the best defensive outfield combos in baseball, and with both in the lineup, the Yankees finally have something that they haven’t had in a while; speed on the base paths. This year Gardner has 14 stolen bases in 15 attempts, and Ellsbury has 18 bags in 20 attempts. Defensively, I’m sure Yankee pitchers are pleased to have two of the games fastest players chasing after balls in the gap.
When you think about the Yankees, most people think about the power bats in the middle of the lineup and all the super star names that have signed over the years. Gardner’s .270 career average won’t blow you away nor will his 29 career home runs, but his 175 stolen bases and .352 career OBP will turn some heads. The most interesting statistical category to look at is WAR or Wins Above Replacement. From 2010-2013, Gardner never had a WAR of under 4.0 (excluding his 2012 campaign that sidelined him 146 games) and topped at 7.3 in 2010. Take a second to think about that; if Brett Gardner was not in the lineup, those close pennant races would have been a lot different. I’m not saying Brett Gardner was the reason the Yankees made the playoffs, but he was certainly an intricate piece to the team.
“I think because of the names and the people in the middle of the order, sometimes a guy like that can be overlooked,” manager Joe Girardi told Jorge Castillo of NJ.com Thursday. “I’ve talked about, when we haven’t had him, how much we’ve missed him.”
Jacoby Ellsbury started the season off as the leadoff hitter, and Gardner was relegated to batting ninth. When Carlos Beltran went down with an injury early on, Girardi quickly moved Ellsbury to third and slid Gardner back up top in the lineup. Since moving back to his table setting role, Gardner is hitting .279 with a .332 OBP. Combining his speed on the bases with Ellsbury’s in the three spot, has given the Yankee middle of the order many more scoring opportunities. His effort and success has not gone unnoticed either.
“Gardy’s done a really good job at the top of the order,” Girardi explained to NJ.com. “It really lengthens our lineup. It puts a lot of speed up top in front of these guys who can hit the doubles and the home runs, so it’s seemed to work OK.”
A bit of a surprise this year out of Gardner is how well he has hit at home, and the amount of power he has shown as well. Entering Thursday’s game, Gardner has hit .345 with a .885 OPS in his first 30 home games of 2014. Luckily for him, he will have at least another four years of playing at the hitter-friendly (especially for lefties) Yankee Stadium.
It’s funny to think of Brett Gardner as a Yankee veteran with guys like C.C. Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, or even Hiroki Kuroda on the roster. In reality, Gardner is the second longest tenured Yankee, behind only the great Derek Jeter, and now he’s locked in for four more years. It’s about time people took notice of the outfielder who may just be the most reliable player in the lineup.