Brett Gardner is a player who’s always been a bit hard to pin down. When he first came up in 2008, he flashed great defense and speed. His minor league track record also showed a player who was patient and prone to adjusting, even if it took a bit of time at each level. Then, in 2009, he had some success. He stole 26 bases, had a respectable batting average, and walked 9.2% of the time he came up to the plate. Predictably, he also fielded well. Despite that improvement, I had some questions. While Gardner’s prowess on the basepaths and in left field were hardly in question, I wondered, both publicly and privately, if he could sustain his success. After all, he was a low power guy and I thought that pitchers would be unafraid to challenge him, realizing that if they did, the worst that would happen would be a single. This, of course, would negate Gardner’s best attribute at the dish: his plate discipline.
Then came 2010, when Gardner “broke out.” He didn’t hit for any sort of power, but he walked 13.9% of the time and showed himself to be an undoubtedly elite defender. It seemed that the potential we saw in 2009 was real. Gardner proved he could be an above average hitter, even if his offensive is driven mostly by his on-base ability. His pairing of average to slightly better offense and fantastic defense has provided the Yankees with incredible value over the last two seasons, even if there was a bit of a step back for Gardner on offense in 2011.
Yesterday, Mike E mused about whether or not trading Gardner would be a good idea. He ended his piece by saying this:
I truly believe he’d be one of the best fielding centerfielders and best leadoff hitters, but if the Yankees are still convincing themselves he should be hitting in the nine-slot playing left field, I’m willing to say goodbye.
I definitely agree that I think Gardner could be a solid center fielder and having the conversation about switching his position with Curtis Granderson‘s is worth having. In fact, SG at RLYW tackled this issue back in October. But, I’ll disagree with Mike in saying that if Gardner doesn’t get moved to CF, it’s better off that he’s traded.
Gardner probably still has some room to grow offensively, but in any trade that would send him out of the Bronx, he would not be a centerpiece. Rather, he’d be one of the extra pieces. Because of that, I think his value to the team is better as the left fielder and (sometimes) leadoff hitter. The Yankees have an asset in Brett Gardner, and need to deploy him properly.
In 2009, Gardner showed that he could hit lefties, sporting a .350 wOBA (.316 wOBA vs. RHP that year). However, since then, his wOBA vs. LHP has dropped. It was at .332 in 2010 and .290 in 2011 (102 wRC+ and 75 wRC+ respectively). For comparison’s sake, he wOBA/wRC+’d .351/115 and .328/101 against righties in 2010 and 2011 respectively. I should note, though, that his low numbers against lefties in 2011 were mostly driven by a complete lack of power (.272 SLG; .039 Iso) despite a solid OBP (.344) and walk rate (12.9%). While Gardner’s walk tool is not neutralized against lefties, the Yankees have a much better lefty-masher on the roster in Andruw Jones and he needs to be in there against lefties. It’s not as much a slight on Gardner as it is a promotion of Jones. Of course, Gardner can always come in for defensive purposes in the late innings. But, when a lefty is on the hill, Jones needs to be out in left. This is magnified in the A.L. East, considering the staggering amount of talented left handed starters, like David Price, Matt Moore, Ricky Romero, and Jon Lester.
Against right handed pitching, though, Brett Gardner needs to be the leadoff hitter. He has the combination of plate discipline and speed that makes a leadoff hitter good. If he is used that way, and continues to play outstanding defense, he is valuable to the Yankees–more valuable than he would be in a trade.
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