The Yankees have a problem with Brett Gardner, but what can they do about it?
We are now more than a full month into the 2018 season, and despite some early struggles and injuries, the Yankees put together a solid first month that was capped with an exciting nine game winning streak. This Yankee team, headed by rookie manager Aaron Boone, has found their footing and gotten white hot as of late. The lineup has gotten a shot in the arm from the additions of energetic youngsters Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres but one place where they have not gotten that from is the leadoff spot and longtime leadoff man Brett Gardner. With some prospects and familiar names starting to get healthy and Gardy struggling mightily it's fair to wonder, is his playing time in jeopardy, if he doesn't pick it up?
With the slow starts of Giancarlo Stanton and others combined with the numerous injuries the team has suffered thus far, Gardner's slow start hasn't gotten much attention until recently. With the offense starting to wake up and a few of those injured players inching towards a comeback, it is now fair to consider if Gardner could be in jeopardy of losing time. While he has always been streaky and never been a high average guy, Gardner has combined a solid average with his ability to walk to turn himself into a quality a leadoff man. That has not been the case so far this year though.
So far for the season, Gardy is batting just .198 with a .320 OBP. In addition to that, he already has 33 strikeouts to go with his 20 walks. Last season Gardner struck out 122 times total and walked 72 times, so while the walk total is solid, he's already more than a quarter of the way to his strikeout total from last season. Gardner posted an even .300 BABIP, and while that number has decreased to .256 this season, it is not a perfect explanation for his overall struggles. While Gardy had a few big hits this past weekend to help complete the sweep of the Cleveland Indians, he has continued to struggle overall. Brett is usually known for putting on a tough at-bat, but he has looked lost at the plate a lot recently including night against Drew Pomeranz. Gardner's value is dependent on him getting on base and with the increase in strikeouts and his batting average going in the tank, it might make sense for the Yankees to start looking at alternatives to the veteran left fielder.
Now, a decrease in playing time would affect both the defensive alignment and the batting order in different ways. Decreasing his time or removing him from the field wouldn't require much shuffling since there are other players in or close to the majors that can play there. While Giancarlo Stanton has performed adequately in left field so far, the team’s best configuration is still with him at DH.
With Jacoby Ellsbury nowhere near a return and with the team currently not carrying a full-time bench outfielder, the Yankees have players returning from injury who could be a factor with the big club. The most notable of these players is Clint Frazier, who was just recently assigned to Triple-A Scranton, after finishing his rehab from a concussion. Frazier saw time with the team last season and batted .231 in 39 games with four homers and 17 RBI. Frazier is a good athlete with a strong arm and should be able to play good enough defense in left. With Gardner at 34 years of age and struggling in a contract year, it would make sense for the team to get an extended look at a top prospect like Frazier in the bigs if possible.
If not Frazier, there are still other options for the team to consider. Billy McKinney saw some time early this season before suffering a shoulder injury. McKinney is working his way back and may be available for a rehab assignment soon, which would put him in the discussion should Gardy not pick it up. In addition to McKinney, there are less conventional options like Ronald Torreyes, who got off to a hot hitting start and is versatile and sure handed in the field and even Brandon Drury. Drury has seen time in the outfield in his career and his absence earlier this season made way for the hot hitting Andujar at third. Andujar doesn't seem to want to return to Triple-A and his strong play has raised questions about Drury’s role moving forward. While it remains to be seen whether the Yankees will pursue any of these options, the key is that they have options in the field should Gardner’s hitting not improve.
Now, speaking of hitting, this is where reducing Gardner's playing time would have a more dramatic effect. Other than Gardner, the only other hitter we've seen at leadoff is Aaron Hicks a handful of times. Removing Gardner from that spot could make way for major changes to the lineup. Hicks would probably be the better candidate since Didi seems to have found a home between Aaron Judge and Stanton. The addition of a McKinney or Frazier to the lineup would add more youth and athleticism to the lineup but wouldn't do much to solve who they should put at leadoff. The addition of Greg Bird who appears to be nearing a return could further deepen the lineup but also further complicate the equation. The Yankees still have the versatile Neil Walker to factor in to the roster puzzle as well. With Gardner the only one on the roster with extensive leadoff experience the Yankees may be forced to head into uncharted territory should he not improve. Hicks would probably get the first crack at it, someone like Gleyber Torres might not even be a bad idea eventually or they could go in a different direction.
The Yankees experimented briefly this spring with batting Aaron Judge at leadoff. While it's not the ideal spot for a major run producer, it would get Judge more at-bats per game and it would it would use Judge's ability to get on base at a high rate to create opportunities for those behind him. While I believe that they would explore other avenues before they went this route, Judge is currently posting a .418 OBP for the season, so he would fit the bill for the leadoff role. Like I said, I think they'd probably try other things before that but it would also probably work if they elected to try it.
With so many players starting to get healthy and add themselves to equation the Yankees will have options to explore to improve their offensive and defensive alignments. Brett Gardner is currently the longest tenured Yankee and has been a steady contributor for many years. The Yankees will not give up on him easily, but time is undefeated and this Yankee team has had great expectations placed on their shoulders. If Gardner's struggles continue for an extended period they might not have a choice but to reduce his playing time.
Article by: Matt GrazianoFollow @mattgraz930