Gardner aims to take root with Yankees
Rookie ready to fight for starting center field job in 2009
NEW YORK -- About two weeks have passed since the last piece of sod was installed in the outfield at the new Yankee Stadium, the turf being painstakingly groomed as construction continues on the building rising around the green patch.
Brett Gardner is hoping that, come Opening Day, he'll have the honor of being named the first center fielder in the facility's history. With a possible vacancy at that position, the 24-year-old began to state his case in a pair of stints during his rookie campaign.
"Obviously that's still several months away and there's a lot of things that can happen between now and then," Gardner said recently. "I know that I can play at this level and hopefully they know that.
"I haven't done as well as I would have liked since I came up, but at the same time, I feel like I've definitely grown as a player and learned a lot of things. Just being up and being around the guys has been a great learning experience, not only on the field, but off of it, too."
A third-round selection of the Yankees in 2005, Gardner has logged a fan in manager Joe Girardi, who repeatedly called him a "pest" on the basepaths. In the season's closing days, Girardi spoke about hoping to assemble a more balanced 2009 lineup that finds multiple ways to score.
"Athleticism is important, so you can create some runs besides hits and home runs," Girardi said. "I think the most rounded offenses are the ones that can score lots of different ways and I think that's important.
"The goal is to play in November next year, and when you get to November, you have to have ways to score runs. It's not easy to just go up there and slug. Usually the teams that slug don't necessarily win the World Series."
A slow starter historically at each level throughout his Minor League career, Gardner sputtered some in his first callup before returning in mid-August.
Working with hitting coach Kevin Long to tweak his swing and alter his stride, Gardner batted .294 (20-for-68) with four doubles, two triples, nine RBIs and 10 runs scored in 25 games from Aug. 15 through the end of the season, laying the groundwork for what he hopes will be his first full big league campaign.
"It just completely changes your timing and direction," he said. "It's obviously all for the better and all for me to be more consistent, but at the same time, it's not something you can just flip a switch on and it works automatically. I definitely felt a lot more comfortable with that as I got more at-bats. It's something I'm going to continue to work on."
Beginning on June 30, Gardner batted .153 (9-for-59) in 17 games before he was optioned back to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on July 25. Back at the Minor League level, Gardner served as a catalyst for a club on its way to an International League title, eventually pushing for a promotion as he ironed out his approach.
"That's the name of the game up here, consistency," Gardner said. "You've got to take a consistent swing up there, every at-bat, all game long. I don't think I was doing a very good job of doing that, especially against this caliber of pitching. It's hard to get by when you're not consistent."
Gardner batted .339 at Triple-A in 14 games before the Yankees, hoping to spark their languishing playoff hopes, made a significant move on Aug. 15 by recalling Gardner and optioning slumping center fielder Melky Cabrera.
As currently constituted, the Yankees figure to have decisions to make regarding their outfield. Bobby Abreu, the club's right fielder for more than two seasons, was among 65 Major Leaguers to file for free agency on Thursday, immediately following the completion of the World Series.
Xavier Nady is arbitration-eligible and appears in line for a corner outfield spot, while Hideki Matsui is envisioned as a designated hitter. Johnny Damon is under contract for another season and has spoken about preferring to play center field.
But the Yankees will also have to consider the case of Cabrera, a strong defensive player who was New York's Opening Day center fielder in 2008 but batted .249 with eight home runs and 37 RBIs in 129 games and was shipped to Triple-A to work on various aspects of his offensive game.
At 24, Gardner is actually more than a full year older than Cabrera, who debuted with the Yankees in 2005 and began to play regularly a year later.
Part of what the Yankees have asked Cabrera to tackle at Triple-A is reading pitchers and getting better jumps on steals; something Gardner can boast as an advantage. He was caught just once in 14 stolen base attempts with the Yankees this year and was successful in 37 of 46 tries at Triple-A.
"That's always been my biggest asset, my speed," Gardner said. "The first thing I've got to do is work on taking a consistent swing up there and do my best to give myself an opportunity to get on base and make things happen."
Gardner said that he plans to report to Spring Training in January and knows, by the time the Yankees' hectic offseason shakes out, he may be considered as a fourth outfielder. But as general manager Brian Cashman prepares to begin winter business, Gardner hopes his performance in limited duty may open the door to regular play.
"There's some things I can do to help out, coming off the bench and pinch-running or playing defense, things like that," Gardner said. "I feel like if I play every day, I can do things to help the team win ballgames. Hopefully they feel the same way."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.