Cabrera not going down without a fight
Despite Gardner's hot start, center fielder remains in thick of battle
TAMPA, Fla. -- If you have already written Brett Gardner in for Opening Day, it had better be in pencil. Melky Cabrera still has plenty of time left.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi said Thursday that Cabrera is very much alive in the spring battle to break camp as the team's starting center fielder, despite a scorching-hot start by the challenger Gardner.
"It's good to see both guys playing well, because it somewhat backs up your beliefs," Girardi said. "The season is different than Spring Training, but they both look very comfortable playing and they're both playing very hard. I'm happy with that. It's always nice to have your beliefs backed up."
Gardner entered Thursday batting .382 in Grapefruit League play, showcasing his plus speed on the bases and a surprising three home runs. But Girardi said that Cabrera has come on in the last week to 10 days, raising his average to .242 with two doubles and a triple in 33 at-bats.
"Melky's playing at a very high level, as well," Girardi said. "I'm happy with the way Melky is playing. He's really started swinging the bat, and you see him doing little things -- bringing the defense in with drag attempts and shooting balls by them.
"It's interesting. Gardy started a little quicker, but, to me, it's been a fun competition to watch."
Cabrera, 24, said that he never worried when Gardner got off to a hot start, which included a home run in his first at-bat of the spring and an early average that hovered well above .400.
"I feel pretty good with the opportunities that Joe is giving to me right now," Cabrera said through an interpreter. "He's the one that's going to make the last call. I don't worry about other people. I just worry about the things that I can do."
Cabrera said he reported to camp focused after a disappointing 2008 campaign that saw him optioned to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in mid-August, when the Yankees promoted Gardner for a second stint.
Rejoining the Yankees in September, Cabrera hit .462 (6-for-13) that month, lifting his final average to .249 before he headed to play in the Dominican Winter League with Aguilas.
"This offseason, I worked really hard, so when the opportunity came, I'd be ready to play," Cabrera said. "I worked on defense and hitting and was working out every day. It's helping a lot. I'm ready to go."
Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano, a close friend of Cabrera, said that the center fielder's troubling 2008 and demotion to Triple-A would pay dividends down the road.
"I would say it's going to make him a better player," Cano said. "He doesn't want to go down again. If you don't want to go down, you've got to do your work and you've got to play hard. It's frustrating for anybody to play up here for years and get sent back down. Nobody wants to go back there."
Girardi said that Cabrera's approach -- which he called "tremendous" -- showed signs of maturity.
"I think it's important, because it shows a player doesn't panic," Girardi said. "In this game, things aren't always going to go the way you want this day or the next day. Melky didn't panic -- he kept working and doing his thing."
Girardi said that he would hope to have all the decisions on his team made before the Yankees leave Florida on April 1, though some lingering choices could seep into the team's two exhibition games at the new Yankee Stadium on April 3 and 4.
Defense will be one important factor when Girardi and his coaching staff begin to break down the Cabrera-Gardner debate. Cabrera holds a distinct advantage with a strong throwing arm, but Gardner charges the ball and gets rid of it quickly, helping him make up some ground.
Both players get good jumps on balls and offer flexibility, Girardi said. Cabrera can play all three outfield positions, and Gardner will see time in left field this spring.
"We want those guys taking control of the outfield, running down as many balls as they possibly can," Girardi said. "Especially with the belief we have with our pitching. We feel that we're going to be able to win some games 2-1 or 3-2. We're not going to have to slug because of our pitching, so that defense becomes important."
There is even a chance, Girardi said, that the Yankees could wind up listing both Cabrera and Gardner on the Opening Day roster.
"I'm of the belief that we can carry them both and get production out of both of them," Girardi said.
Bombers bits: Cano (right shoulder bursitis) is scheduled to resume defensive duties on Friday at Fort Myers, Fla., playing six innings against the Twins. ... Damaso Marte (left shoulder inflammation) threw his second bullpen session Thursday since returning from the World Baseball Classic, and he is scheduled to pitch Sunday against the Rays. ... Phil Coke suffered a bruised left thigh after being struck with a line drive on Wednesday. He received treatment and is expected to pitch this weekend.
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.