Gardner bolsters case for a spot
Speed, consistency have outfielder in roster contention
TAMPA, Fla. -- There was less than an hour remaining before first pitch on Saturday, and outfield prospect Brett Gardner found the lineup card mysteriously absent from its usual location in the Yankees' clubhouse.
Told he was playing center field and leading off, Gardner replied, "You sure about that? Cool."
With that, he was off to do what he has done with success all spring. One misplaced batting order aside, Gardner has shown an understanding of his role, piquing the interest of Yankees manager Joe Girardi as he looks to assemble his first roster at the helm.
The 24-year-old Gardner may not be your prototypical Bronx Bomber, but his plus speed and improving consistency may bolster a case for his inclusion on the Opening Day roster.
"It is intriguing," Girardi said. "He's also a very good outfielder. He's making a tremendous amount of progress. He's a pest."
The Rays had an up-close snapshot of Gardner's "havoc," as Girardi calls it, on Saturday. Facing Rays starter Jeff Niemann, Gardner legged out an infield single in the first inning, then stole second base on catcher Josh Paul before being forced out on a double play.
Gardner also stroked a solid single to center field in the fifth inning, improving him to 2-for-3 for the afternoon. On the play he was retired, a routine ground ball to second base leading off the third inning, Gardner nearly beat the play by hustling down the line.
"That's just part of my game, playing hard on every play," said Gardner, who is hitting .409 (9-for-22) this spring. "That's what I bring to the table.
"All I can do is continue coming out here and working hard every day to show them I'm ready to play in the big leagues. When I get the opportunity, I'll be ready for it."
Gardner split last year between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, batting .300 in the Eastern League despite missing five weeks with a broken hand.
Once promoted to Triple-A, Gardner hit .260 in 45 games but could not escape an injury there either -- he crashed into an outfield fence on one particularly jarring play, trapping the baseball where his protective cup should have been and missed a week of games.
"It was pretty scary," said Gardner, who is experiencing no problems as a result of that close call.
Though he was disappointed with his performance at Triple-A, Gardner was selected for duty in the Arizona Fall League, and said he paid special attention to improving his consistency at the plate. He feels the work has benefited him in his second big league Spring Training.
It is a Yankees camp already flush with outfielders; Melky Cabrera will, in all likelihood, start in center field on Opening Day, leaving Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui to figure out left field and installing Bobby Abreu in right field.
Shelley Duncan, among others, also boasts the ability to play a corner outfield position, but Girardi is leaving open the possibility that he could carry a player like Gardner as a fifth outfielder to come off the bench late in games as a pinch-runner or defensive replacement.
"It's important to have enough outfielders that if you need to make changes, you can do that," Girardi said.
Gardner said that if the Yankees select him to play in a role like that, he could make the transition. Though some players have difficulty playing sporadically, Gardner believes his success so far in camp is proof he could handle that sort of atmosphere.
"It's kind of a test here in Spring Training," Gardner said. "You come off the bench in the sixth or seventh innings and even if you're not starting, you have to stay ready. For a guy like me, I can come off the bench and help in the field or on the bases with my speed. That's part of what I have to do to help the team win."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.