Pesky Gardner impressing early
Speedster adds two hits, two steals to resume for starting job
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Grapefruit League campaign may only be getting started, but Brett Gardner is already showing the Yankees some of what they'd hope to see if they carry him on the roster.
Playing for the third consecutive day, the speedster made his presence known at the top of the Bombers' lineup, stroking two hits and stealing a pair of bases in a 5-4 loss to the Twins on Friday.
"That's just my game, that's just my job," Gardner said. "If I didn't do that, I wouldn't be here right now. I wouldn't be in Minor League camp either. I'd have a desk job somewhere. That's the main part of my game and that's why I am where I am."
In a battle with Melky Cabrera to be New York's Opening Day center fielder, the 24-year-old also belted a home run on the second pitch he saw Wednesday in the Yankees' Grapefruit League opener, though he acknowledges that was a fluke.
This showing, in front of 7,998 at Hammond Stadium, was more like it. Gardner flashed bunt in the first inning, moving the infield, and then legged out a infield single before stealing second base and scoring on Cody Ransom's RBI hit.
In his second at-bat, Gardner stretched a single into a double in the fourth inning by challenging center fielder Carlos Gomez into bobbling the pickup. Finally, he worked a walk in the fourth inning and again stole second on catcher Mike Redmond.
"That's what we love to see, because he creates havoc," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "He can be a pest, and we like that."
Said Gardner: "This early, I think the main thing you worry about is your timing and seeing the ball out of the pitcher's hand. I feel pretty comfortable and I'm pleased with the way things are going."
Friday presented an opportunity for Girardi to take a closer look at both of his continuing outfield battles, boarding Cabrera and Gardner onto the pair of buses along with right-field competitors Xavier Nady and Nick Swisher.
For at least one game, Gardner was the clear-cut winner, as Cabrera went 0-for-3 and left three men on base. The plan is now for Gardner to sit Saturday and Cabrera to play against the Twins at home.
"It's a fair battle, and these guys are going to fight it out the whole way," Girardi said.
It is too early to handicap a winner. The Yankees themselves won't begin serious evaluations until the last two or three weeks of camp, but most of his teammates already know what kind of player Gardner could be if and when he settles into a big league job.
"He leads off the game and gets on base, and he already puts the pitcher in defensive mode," said pitcher Ian Kennedy, who played with Gardner at Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
"You have to think about him always at first base. He's going to steal -- it doesn't matter what pitch. He's one of those guys that's a pest. You love to have him on your team, because he's always going to make things happen."
Swisher shares the same agent, Joe Bick, with Gardner, but the Yankees newcomer had not met the center fielder face-to-face until this spring. That doesn't mean he hadn't seen him.
When Gardner was up last September, the Yankees played a four-game series against the White Sox in New York. Residing in manager Ozzie Guillen's doghouse at the time, Swisher did not play, but he still noticed Gardner.
"This dude comes running around first base like a bolt of lightning, and it's like, 'Wow,'" Swisher said. "This dude is moving."
Kennedy said that Gardner has the type of speed that permits him to challenge even routine ground balls, gushing that Gardner is "one of those special players that is probably going to play in the big leagues for a long time."
"That is his game, and I love that," Swisher said. "I try to push him every day. He's that scrappy guy -- one of those guys that if he gets on the basepaths, he's going to kill you. I love the way he plays. He grinds out every at-bat, he grinds out every day."
In fairness, neither Cabrera nor Gardner match up well with the prototypical "Yankees center fielder," not that anyone is waiting for Mickey Mantle or Joe DiMaggio to walk out of the corn fields.
Girardi acknowledges that Gardner isn't the type of big power guy that even Bernie Williams was during the dynasty years, but there are other ways he can contribute and shake up an offense. Johnny Damon is the Yankees' leadoff hitter for '09, but it's not out of the realm of possibility to think Gardner could eventually be there.
"The game has kind of changed a little bit, where second basemen are hitting 25-30 home runs," Girardi said. "You like having that balance, because every day you can't slug it out. If you have guys that can do things on the basepaths, you can win a lot."
In fact, Girardi believes it may soon become a necessity to lean more upon players with speed.
"I think it's going to go back to that, probably because of the testing, just to be flat-out straightforward," Girardi said. "You're going to probably see some speed in the game, because you're not going to have as many home runs. You're going to have to find ways to create offense."
The landscape nearly changed in December. Gardner said he had heard reports that the Yankees were close to dealing Cabrera to the Brewers for Mike Cameron, talks that eventually fizzled into a forgotten rumor.
Never paying much attention, Gardner said he would not allow the winter buzz to impact the way he prepared for the season. He is taking a similar approach to the center-field competition, saying that he does not think about it.
"I don't think Melky does either," Gardner said. "It's beyond our control. All we can do is come out and play hard every day and hope we play a part in this season.
"There's only one spot and there's two of us. If he's the starting center fielder on Opening Day, I don't know where I'll be. That's why I don't worry about it. I don't know what's going to happen."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.