After missing all but sixteen games of the 2012 season, the Yankee outfielder will be looking for a bounce back, healthy season. The question is, should he still be in left field, or should he take over his probably rightful spot in center?
Name: Brett Gardner
Bats: Left Throws: Left
Age as of Opening Day 2013: 29 (born 8/24/1983)
Height: 5'10" Weight: 183 lbs.
Remaining Contract: 2nd-Year Arbitration, Free Agent 2015
2012 Statistics: (MLB) 16 games, .323/.417/.387, 2 SB, 127 wRC+, .362 wOBA
A lingering elbow injury that ended up requiring surgery after repeated setbacks during the season kept Gardner off the field for all but sixteen games in 2012. Perhaps the most interesting question concerning Gardner's return to the Yankees may be whether or not the team decides to move him to center field in place of Curtis Granderson, who was a bit of a mess on defense last year. A move to his more natural position shouldn't be an issue for Gardner, who seems to cover all the ground in the world in two seconds anyway, but he has always played second fiddle in that regard to the flashier player. The team has supposedly had discussions about the switch, but do they have it in them to go through with it? We'll see.
Everyone knows what to expect from Gardner defensively. He is a human vacuum that tracks down anything hit within six zip codes of his position. He is the anti-Raul Ibanez. What to expect from Gardner at the plate is a little more difficult to pin down. His best season offensively came in 2010 when he posted a .277/.383/.379 line with 47 stolen bases. Gardner's 112 wRC+ was easily the best of his major league career, and combined with his ridiculous defensive ability to be worth 6.2 WAR. The offensive numbers fell off just slightly in 2011, but more stolen bases and home runs (!!) in addition to (somehow) improved defensive numbers again made him a 5+ win player the following year. If Gardner can continue to be that player with the bat, his value to the team will remain very high. Should his injured elbow be back to 100%, there is really no reason to believe he can't put up that type of season again.
Gardner led the American League in stolen bases for the 2011 with 49, but he'll now be competing with the Mike Trouts of baseball to take that title again. The disruption that Gardner manages to cause on the base paths is huge for its distraction factor. Too much attention directed Gardner's way means less attention directed at the batter, and mistakes are more likely to happen as a result. Until the Yankees traded for Ichiro last season, the lack of stolen base threat on the team was obviously apparent with Alex Rodriguez leading the team in that category up until that point. Gardner puts the idea in a pitcher's mind that he might steal, simply by making it to first base. Having that a regular presence on the team again in 2013 is an added aspect of the game that the team seriously lacked for most of last year.
The 2013 Yankee outfield, with the exception of Curtis Granderson, looks to be much more light-hitting than those of recent memory. Replacing Nick Swisher with Ichiro Suzuki, who is on par with Gardner in terms of offensive power, means that the Yankees will be going for light hitters in two of their three outfield positions. Fortunately, those two bring advantages of their own in being a vast improvement defensively over the players who played full time in those spots last season. Whether or not that will be enough to make up for their small ball over home runs remains to be seen.