Since the Curtis Granderson injury, Brett Gardner has stopped being platooned with Marcus Thames in left field. Gardner is now the starting center fielder and is making the most out of his opportunity.

Not that the opportunity wasn’t warranted in the first place. I have repeatedly said that Gardner should have been the starting center fielder, even last season when he struggled early on. I wrote this piece last season on why Brett the Jet should have been the starter . It is that the Yankees (and their fans) have no patience for anything which goes badly, especially when a young player struggles.

They want that struggling guy out, and they want him out now.

But Gardner’s professional history is that he struggles early in his first time at a new level, then adjusts and improves “second time through.”

His first pro season was in short-season Staten Island, then was skipped over Low A Charleston (ironic since he played college ball in Charleston, but it was the only minor league city he did not play) his first full season. Beginning in High A Tampa in 2006, Gardner shined, then was moved up to Double A Trenton, where he slashed .272 BA/.352 OBP/.318 SLG/.670 OPS.

He began 2007 in Trenton and improved his play at that level to .300/.392/.418/.810 OPS—a marked improvement. This garnered a promotion to Triple A Scranton for the balance of that season where he slashed .260/.343/.331. Beginning the 2008 season in Scranton, Gardner repeated that  level, improving his game to .296/.414/.422 and improving his OPS by 160 points.

Isn’t it amazing how Gardner adjusts to the higher level second time through, building on all three percentage numbers? That is something I never have seen before—a huge testament to Gardner’s character and feel for the game.

All Brett the Jet needed was a full time opportunity, not just a month of April at bats like in 2009 before he lost his starting job, but a good half a season to get his game of speed and defense going.  

Gardner hit his second home run of the 2010 season on Friday night against the Twins, and after the May 14, 8-4 Yankee win, Gardner’s numbers and presence are impressive. Despite going hitless at the plate, he continued to help the Yankees win the Gardner way when he made two great catches in the outfield.

People were wondering if Gardner would get on base around 35 percent of the time to utilize his speed.

But Brett has a .394 on base percentage, contributing to his 17 stolen bases and Yankee-leading 31 runs scored. Getting on base at a great clip, playing good defense and even hitting at the top of the lineup, Gardner has done more than people had envisioned.

Gardner’s success in the major leagues began after his prior failures at the major league level.  But Gardner adjusted very well after his recall from Scranton late in 2008, hitting much better in September. After a slow start to his 2008 ML season, Gardner hit .357 BA/.386 OBP/.667 SLG/1.034 OPS in his last ten starts in CF. And these weren’t your typical out of contention September starts, either.

Starting pitchers in those last ten starts included Mark Buehrle and Gavin Floyd of the Chicago White Sox, Jesse Litsch (13-9, 3.85 ERA in 2008), AJ Burnett (we all know who he is) and Roy Halladay of the Toronto Blue Jays, plus Dice-K (he was good then) and Tim Wakefield in Boston. Gardner had three of the six Yankee hits (including a double) against Halladay in Roy’s 20th victory that day .

Brett continues to show his ability to help win games today. With his speed and current stolen base/caught stealing ratio of 17 to 1, it is likely that if there is any type of hit in an inning after Gardner gets on base, the Yankees will score a run. He showed that electric speed last Friday night when he scored from first on Mark Teixeira’s hard double down the right field line.

No one else in baseball scores on that double.

He also scored after a two-out walk last night on another Teixeira double, and started the wining rally in the ninth inning with a lead off double off of Jonathan Papelbon. He scored three runs last night for a now team leading 31 runs scored.

I remember when NY Daily News columnist Bill Madden called Gardner “a singles-hitting flyweight with zilch extra-base pop destined for a career as a fourth outfielder and pinch runner.” Madden also wailed on Austin Jackson in that piece , then a Double A prospect. Is Madden ever correct about anything?

Madden just finished a book about George Steinbrenner , which is probably a good read. I remember one of the Steinbrenenr stories after the 2003 World Series about the Florida Marlins.

With Juan Pierre at the top of the Marlins order, he wreaked havoc for the Yankees all series long. Big Stein wanted his own type of “Pierre guy” and forced the Yankees to go out and get Kenny Lofton.

Joe Torre, a big supporter of Yankee centerfielder Bernie Williams, that Lofton incident was the beginning of the end for Torre.

The Yankees now have their own home grown Juan Pierre.

Could Gardner, with even more production move a slumping Derek Jeter out of the lead off spot?

Gardner has been nothing short of a winner in every stage of his pro career, with several minor league championship rings, and a new one in the Show. After a slow start to his major league career, Brett has become quite a force in that powerful Yankee lineup.

That is likely to remain for quite a while.


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