Everyone loves to hate the New York Yankees. Everyone always assumes that having more money than anyone else by a significant margin makes it easy to be better than the other teams. To a certain degree, this is true. However, having more money than the other teams also comes with a significant set of disadvantages.
One disadvantage is you tend to have extremely expensive star players. This makes changing the direction of the team sort of like putting the pin back in the grenade – it would have been better not to have pulled the pin in the first place but now you had better throw that thing as far as you can. So, when GM Brian Cashman decides he want to have a stronger farm system, better pitching and a stronger defense it takes quite a bit of doing. Unlike the Tampa Bay Rays who can just dump their shortstop and trade for a rookie defensive specialist, the Yankees cannot just release Derek Jeter or send Bobby Abreu packing. Cashman has to wait out contracts and bide his time.
And take advantage of opportunities.
The 2009 season will provide the Yankees with an opportunity to do something that Brian Cashman has publically confessed he wants to do. Improve the defense (especially up the middle) and get younger. Installing Brett Gardner in center field accomplishes both of those goals. The Yankees outfield as described here is presently pretty crowded.
Here are the current Yankees outfielders and their defensive rating by UZR:
Johnny Damon LF (19.9 ) CF ( -3.0 )
Xavier Nady LF (-1.2) CF ( -41.0) RF (0.5)
Nick Swisher LF ( 6.3 ) CF ( -10.3 ) RF ( 14.2 )
Melky Cabrera CF (-11.3)
Brett Gardner LF (24.3) CF (40.2)
Hideki Matsui LF (-15.2 )
Since Matsui is likely the DH in any case, we will place him there and take him out of this part of the discussion. Johnny Damon is clearly the best candidate for left field when we combine his offense and defense and his likely role as the Yankees leadoff hitter. Melky Cabrera's track record of lousy offense should remove him from the conversation as well. His defense just is not good enough to justify an everyday role while contributing zero to the offense. Xavier Nady's defense in center is much worse than Gardner's and Swisher's so he is not a candidate to play center field. Brett Gardner's offensive potential and superior defense makes him clearly the best possible center fielder for the Yankees.
What is that offensive potential?
In the minor leagues, he averaged a 13.6 walk percentage (good), and a 20.36 strikeout percentage (also pretty good). This means he puts the ball in play about 80 percent of the time. Thanks to his very good speed on the bases, he is able to collect many infield hits. He has averaged a .360 minor league BABIP. Taken together, this indicates that Gardner should be able to hit for a solid average and maintain a strong on-base percentage. He has zero homerun power; any homeruns he hits should be considered flukes. His fantasy value will lay in his batting average and stolen bases. In 381 minor league games, he attempted 182 stolen bases at a success rate of 83 percent. I fully expect Gardner to be the Yankees' leadoff hitter in 2010 but in 2009 he is likely to bat ninth. Fortunately, in the Yankees lineup there isn't really a bad place to hit. He should still score plenty of runs. He will not drive in many runs but in fantasy baseball, you rarely get everything you need from one player. Gardner should be a slightly better version of Juan Pierre. Better because of his superior on-base skills, not because he will steal more bases.
Brett Gardner will never be a first round pick in a typical fantasy draft but he can be quite useful. He should be drafted in every AL-only league and in the deeper mixed leagues. Even shallower mixed leagues should have Gardner on their follow list.
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