It is an old baseball adage that one who draws conclusions from spring training successes and failures is foolish in their analysis. That being stated and accepted as a precept, Brett Gardner is nevertheless starting to excite Yankees fans as he continues to set the Grapefruit League on fire with his bat, in addition to the speed that is his staple. The most hallowed of all positions in baseball, centerfield in the Bronx, has been in flux for the Yankees since Bernie Williams last wore the pinstripes in 2006. Johnny Damon proved unable to field the position anymore — his speed and range limited by injuries and age — while Melky Cabrera has never been able to create adequate offense to satisfy the expectations of the fans, team, and organization. The various shortfalls of recent centerfielders have left the position once manned by Earl Combs, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle, ironically as one of the biggest holes in an annually near-universally strong Yankees lineup.No one is comparing Gardner to these former Bronx Bomber legends, but his gaudy spring statistics are starting to make the baseball world take notice of the 24-year-old Yankees prospect. Sporting a .375 batting average, a .444 OBP, and a ridiculous 1.225 OPS, Gardner has even shown flashes of power, banging out three long balls in 12 games this spring — quite an improvement over the zero he hit in his 42 games with the big club last season. Again, no one expects Gardner to continue to perform in such a Ruthian fashion once the regular season is under way, but these numbers are solid indicators that Brett has evolved and matured at the plate to a point where he may be ready to assume every day duties as the first centerfielder in the new Yankee Stadium. An increase in offense combined with Gardner's established solid plate approach (.389 OBP in four seasons on various minor league levels) and lethal speed (13 steals in 42 games with NYY) will create a potent weapon that the Yankees, with all the money they've spent, have never been able to acquire from an outside source. In addition to the defensive deficiencies caused by New York's lack of a true centerfielder, Gardner also provides the Yankees a proto-type leadoff hitter, an entity which they have not featured atop their lineup since Chuck Knoblauch left the team via free agency after the 2001 season. If Gardner can ascend to the leadoff role by maintaining his offensive productivity, the one-two punch of he and Derek Jeter — two players with speed that consistently get on base — will set a devastating table for Mark Teixeira and the other Yankee sluggers to clear. In fact, when commenting to the New York Times on an infield hit that resulted from a bobble in a spring training game, Gardner said plainly that his job is to "get on base." He is a player who already possesses the perspective and intelligence to succeed at the major league level, and to fit into a Yankee culture whose pulse is kept slowly beating by the remnants of the old gaurd. Gardner, unlike modern Yankees ringers like Giambi and A-Rod, plays hard and unselfishly, with no regard to personal statistics, and goals that are centered around achieving victory for his team. This sentiment was again expressed by Gardner to the Times when he explained, "You just want to prove to everybody that they can trust you out there and that you can help them win,"Where as over the past few seasons, the Yankees have been forced into a station-to-station "wait for the home run" style of baseball, that has failed them at critical points, — most notably in the playoffs — placing Gardner and Jeter at the top of the lineup brings a swiftness and intelligence to the offensive mix that will result in fluid movement on the base paths and an outpouring of RBIs from the vaunted Yankees lineup. Gone are the days when lumbering masses like Gary Sheffield and Jason Giambi clogged the lanes like boulders on an interstate, forcing the Yankees into a one-dimensional offensive frame that was consistently their inevitable downfall. While at one time there was thought to be a competition for centerfield between Gardner and Melky Cabrera, the latter's struggles this spring have created a perceived distance between the two candidates. Cabrera has been entirely unimpressive during Gardner's tear, batting a disappointing .259 with no home runs and a .375 OBP. Factor in Brett's speed advantage and fielding prowess, and the competition would seem to be over. While Girardi may continue to give Melky some opportunities against lefties because of his experience and the genetic fact that he is right handed, if Gardner can show a proficiency against southpaws he will take over the position altogether. While it is true that one treads in murky waters when trying to use spring numbers to project success, in this case, the statistics of both Gardner and Cabrera do seem to point to some clear conclusions. While Gardner struggled in his first limited run in the majors last season, his spring stats — when adjusted for the regular season — would seem to show that, at the very least, Gardner can become a very good contact hitter who gets on base regularly, creates runs, and fills two important voids that have plagued the Yankees over the past seven years. Melky Cabrera on the other hand, has failed to produce at the plate this spring much like he has struggled with production offensively his entire career. While Melky has always seemed to possess the raw tools to be successful, the biggest conclusion that can be drawn when examining the spring training numbers of both players is that Brett Gardner has surpassed Cabrera in the race to claim baseball's most prestigious position. Whether Gardner — who wears number 11, the lowest Yankee number available — will add his name to the list of legendary Yankee centerfielders or simply dissolve into time as a footnote of Yankees history like so many pretenders to the throne remains to be seen. To Gardner, its likely neither outcome will matter unless he helps the Yankees win a World Series Championship.
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