Gardner wins Yanks' center-field job
Speedster beats out Cabrera in Spring Training competition
TAMPA, Fla. -- The Yankees have officially announced that Brett Gardner has won a starting job to open the 2009 season, likely making him the first player to patrol center field at the new Yankee Stadium.
Gardner, a 25-year-old rookie, beat out Melky Cabrera in a Spring Training competition, which manager Joe Girardi had declared to be relatively even leading into the final week of camp. Girardi informed both players of his decision early on Sunday.
"Both of them played great," Girardi said. "Melky had a tough year last year, but he came into camp and was ready to go and played very well. Gardy finished up strong and had a great camp. We're just going to go with Gardy."
Gardner hit .385 (20-for-52) with three home runs, six RBIs and five stolen bases in 22 spring games for the Yankees, impressing the coaching staff by continuing to showcase plus speed in the outfield and on the bases.
The 24-year-old Cabrera skipped an opportunity to play in the World Baseball Classic in hopes of securing a job, putting up a good fight. Through 21 spring games, Cabrera batted .340 (18-for-53) with one home run, nine RBIs and two stolen bases.
Speaking highly of what Gardner had done to win the job, Girardi also repeatedly complimented Cabrera's work.
"The thing about Melky is, Melky is still a young player," Girardi said. "He's only 24 years old. If he continues on what he did this spring and the work that he put in, Melky can be a force, too."
Girardi said that the Yankees plan to carry Cabrera as a reserve outfielder to open the regular season, playing all three positions in backing up Johnny Damon, Gardner and Xavier Nady. Cabrera is out of options, so he would need to be exposed to waivers in order to be sent to the Minor Leagues.
"Melky is going to have a lot of important things for us," Girardi said. "There's a lot of things Melky can do. He's a switch-hitter, we can put him anywhere in the outfield and he can run. What happens April 6 doesn't necessarily mean that's what's going to happen June 1st."
Gardner made a positive impression with the Yankees in his second stint last season, promoted from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre when the slumping Cabrera was optioned to the Minor Leagues. Gardner hit .294 (20-for-68) after being promoted for the second time, including four doubles, two triples and eight steals.
"He continued what he did the last three weeks, where he was patient and saw a lot of pitches," Girardi said. "He hit a lot of hard line drives and was productive for us the last three weeks of the season. He just carried it over."
Gardner left George M. Steinbrenner Field before the Yankees' 9-8 victory over the Pirates was complete on Sunday. But he addressed his spring in a group interview with reporters on Friday, saying that he had shown enough to prove he could play every day in the Major Leagues.
"I feel like I can," Gardner said. "Obviously, a lot of people don't take Spring Training too seriously because a lot of times you're not facing top guys every day. I think it's a time for everybody to get ready and show they're ready for the season to start."
As strong as his spring was, Gardner said that it could have been even better.
"I think there's things that I could have done and probably should have done, some at-bats that I gave away," Gardner said. "For the most part, it's gone well and it's been a good learning experience for me, and I've continued to make strides at the plate."
According to Girardi, Gardner did not show much emotion when informed that he would begin the season as the Yankees' center fielder. Of Cabrera's reaction, Girardi said: "Any player is going to be upset with that decision."
Speaking through an interpreter, Cabrera said he would be ready for defensive duty or pinch-running assignments when needed.
"That's the manager's decision," Cabrera said. "I'm going to be ready for whatever they need me for. I'm just going to be part of this team."
The Yankees will likely use Gardner as the No. 9 hitter in their order on April 6 at Baltimore, which would allow them to use Derek Jeter to break up the lefty combination of Gardner and Damon to counteract late-inning bullpen moves.
Girardi said that there would not be any additional demands on Gardner with the high-profile assignment.
"Just do your part -- that's all we're asking guys to do," Girardi said. "Play good defense, be smart on defense, have tough at-bats. [It's] no more than we're asking any other guy."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.