After spending a week in Tampa watching Yankees Spring Training games the headline above is the biggest question I came home with. I thought Gardner was a year away, at least. I had an idea of his speed, but hadn't seen it. I thought a full year at AAA would be the best thing for him, and for the team. Now, I'm not so sure.
Gardner has been lighting up the Grapefruit League, through 15 games he's hitting .393 with an OBP of .469 while slugging an impressive .536. He looks ready. In the game I saw him play against the Reds in Sarasota Gardner singled twice in his first two at bats and immediately swiped second. He's got 6 stolen bases so far and has yet to be caught.
Patience at the plate, speed to burn and the instincts to translate that speed onto the base paths. He's ready. But where does he fit in?
A few weeks back I wrote an entry calling for the Yanks to sign Corey Patterson to fill the Homer Bush role off the bench. I thought then, and still do, that the Yanks need to have a guy with great speed on their bench who can come in late, steal a bag, score from first on a double, etc. Patterson was one option, but as reader Alex K. from NY pointed out to me in an e-mail, Gardner could do the same thing.
There are a couple schools of thought, and really four options with Gardner. The first idea, and this is probably how I would lean if I was taking a long view of the Yankees future, is to send Gardner to AAA and let him get a full season's worth of regular at bats. He looks ready now, but he's young and regular playing time would probably be the best thing for his development.
Another notion is to make the best use of Gardner to make the Yankees a better team this season. Meaning, keep him on the roster, use him as your fourth outfielder (start him when Melky is serving his suspension), and whenever Posada or Giambi gets on base late in a game, run Gardner out there to swipe a bag. Part of me likes this idea. I don't know where Gardner fits in team's long term plans. Their top two prospects in the minors, by most accounts, are Jose Tabata and Austin Jackson, both guys play the outfield, both are more highly regarded, long term, than Gardner.
Now, the options. The Yanks could carry anywhere from 10 to 12 pitchers, if I had to guess at this point, I'd put it at 11. That leaves 14 spots for position players. 12 of those spots are locked down already by Damon, Jeter, A-Rod, Giambi, Posada, Abreu, Matsui, Melky, Cano, Betemit, Duncan and Molina. Fighting it out for the final sport or two are Morgan Ensberg, Jason Lane, Gardner and possibly another utility guy, either Cody Ransom or Alberto Gonzalez, although I think it's probably safe to rule the last two guys out.
Lane would give the Yanks some insurance at first and another outfielder. Ensberg can handle first or third. Both of them hit righty (although neither does so very well). Ensberg is having a decent Spring (.313/.371/.469) but has yet to hit a HR. Lane has 2 bombs, but the rest of his numbers are bad (.250/.308/.528). Both of these guys were reclamation projects, low risk/high reward guys who have had some success in the past. Honestly, I don't think either is going to do more than Josh Phelps did for the Yanks last year. They're filler, and they don't really fill a need. It would be a crime if Ensberg or Lane took even 1 at bat away from Shelley Duncan. From a roster perspective, keeping Gardner makes sense.
Another option would be to make a trade. I wrote about the unprecedented reliance the Yanks will have on rookie or inexperienced (Hughes isn't technically a rookie) pitchers this year. If they could land a guy who could eat some innings in the rotation, that would be a welcome addition. So would a stable bullpen arm. The problem is, Hideki Matsui would probably be the best trade candidate and I don't really see any teams matching up. It would have to be a team that believes it can win now, has money to burn, and has a surplus of either starters or bullpen arms. If they could move Matsui in this type of deal, then I'd say put Gardner out there in center or left, with Melky patrolling the other spot right from opening day. I hold no illusions that this will happen at this point. Matsui isn't going anywhere, there's nowhere for him to go.
There is a fourth, and final option. One that I hesitate to mention. Melky could be your fourth outfielder, and Gardner could start in center. This would be a pretty bold move by Girardi and Co. and I really don't see it happening. However, the appeal of having a guy like Gardner batting ninth is high. The lineup would flip over and Johnny Damon, who is a very good run producer in the leadoff spot, would have a chance to knock Gardner in.
All told, I think Gardner is going to wind up in AAA, but if it were up to me, he'd be the fourth outfielder and he'd probably start in center during Melky's suspension to start the season. Who knows, he may never give the position up.