Looking back, here's our magazine feature on Brett Gardner from October of 2007.
[This article was originally written in October of 2007 by Chris Barrows]
In the 2005 draft, the New York Yankees drafted a 5-foot-10 outfielder out of the College of Charleston named Brett Gardner. Two years later that man has advanced to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and could be on the brink of making an impact in New York. "Could" is the operative word, as there are many critics who believe Gardner’s size and lack of power "could" hold him back from an everyday position in pinstripes.
He began his Yankee career in Staten Island shortly following the draft after he helped lead the Cougars to a school record 48-15 overall. He found success early on in Staten Island, batting .284 and stealing 19 bases in 22 opportunities.
With his early success and possessing the polish of an accomplished college hitter, the left-handed batter found himself in Tampa at the beginning of the 2006 season after skipping a minor league level. The pressure of being one of the Yankees' top three draft picks didn’t seem to get to Gardner.
“After the draft, I can’t say I really felt much pressure," he admitted. "Once you get going, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you’re fifth-round or 50th-round. I don’t even think about it anymore. My job is to come here and work everyday - to try and get better and make it to the major leagues. That’s what I’m here to do.”
After finding early success in the Florida State League, batting .321 and stealing 28 bases in 35 opportunities, he quickly found himself promoted to Double-A Trenton where there was a slight change of tides. While the centerfielder was still performing, he didn’t believe he performed to the same level as he did in Tampa.
Batting .272 in 272 at bats, alongside the lowest on-base percentage of his career at .352, wasn’t quite up to the standards Gardner placed on himself, and he looked to improve upon those numbers in the following season.
That’s exactly what he did, and, by midseason, he found himself in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Admittedly, he didn’t expect to be as high as Triple-A at this juncture of his career.
“I really didn’t know what to expect as to where I would be at and where I’d be at now, but I definitely would say I didn’t expect to be in Triple-A halfway through my second full season.”
After hitting an even .300 in Trenton earlier this season and then finishing the 2007 season with a .260 average in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, he sees one area of his game that needs major work - his ability to get comfortable quickly at the next level.
“You know what, that’s something that I need continue to get better at," Gardner began, "being more comfortable no matter where I’m playing. Last year seemed like I struggled at first, and once I got comfortable, I did well. Same with here, same with Scranton. When I first got up here, I struggled a little bit. Now I feel like I belong, that I deserve to be here. It’s always good to be comfortable and it’s something I need to continue to improve upon.”
With only one obstacle remaining between himself and the major leagues, Gardner knows what can get him there and it remains his greatest asset - speed.
“I wouldn’t be where I was at without my speed. I feel like that helps me defensively and offensively. It helps me get on base and make things happen."
His teammates and coaches would agree with the assessment.
“The guy has exceptional talent. Obviously speed is a big part of it,” said Scranton/Wilkes-Barre manager Dave Miley. “He’s held his own. You can look at the numbers, but this guy has stolen [21 out of 24] bases for us.”
“He’s our leadoff guy, he’s a speedster," said Scranton/Wilkes-Barre reliever Ben Kozlowski . "We want him on base because we want him to manufacture runs when he’s out there. Definitely, with his talents comes a lot of stuff that benefit any team. Gardner being at the top of the lineup has helped us out tremendously.”
Of course speed has its advantage in the field as well. Gardner’s excellent speed has given him the ability to track down many balls that would be out of reach for a majority of outfielders in the minors and majors. This ability is a plus for any team.
Fellow outfielder Bronson Sardinha couldn’t feel more comfortable in the outfield, knowing Gardner is at his side.
“It makes me real comfortable out there knowing the range he brings out there," said Sardinha. "You know if you can’t get a ball, there’s always a good chance, with his ability to pick up on the ball and run a good route, that he’s going to get there.”
“I’ll tell you what, it’s one thing to have his kind of range, but it’s the ability to track the ball down too and make the play," added Kozlowski. "That’s what it seems that he can do out there on a consistent basis. I can’t tell you how many times he’s bailed me out and other pitchers tracking the ball down there. It's one thing to have the speed, but it’s another thing to have the hand/eye coordination. He’s the complete package.”
While Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre infielder Andy Cannizaro can't help notice his speed either, he lists the 5-foot-10 outfielder’s arm as another reason for his success in the outfield.
“He’s got a good arm and he’s very accurate," said Cannizaro. "He’s got good instincts and gets really good jumps. He always throws the ball to the right base, which doesn’t sound big, but it really is.”
Gardner believes there is always room for improvement. He admits he can’t add much more arm strength and hopes to work harder to improve his ability to pick good routes on any balls hit to him. At the same time, he knows he brings strong defense to the table for any team.
"I feel like I have an average to above average arm," said Gardner. "A year ago I’d say it was average, but now it’s more above average. I make it a point to come in hard and close in on the ball. I get rid of the ball quickly.
"Accuracy is more important than arm strength. If you have arm strength, but you’re not accurate, it doesn’t matter. Definitely, accuracy is the most important thing, and I feel that’s one of my stronger points as a defensive player.”
Offensively, he has worked consistently over the two and a half years since becoming a professional baseball player. During that time, he has worked with a variety of hitting coaches to improve his approach at the plate. While no coach in particular stood out from the rest, he praised the Yankees' farm system for its outstanding managerial staffs.
“They’ve got good coaches and managers throughout the system," the 24-year old said. "I feel like every step along the way you play for different people. It’s better than learning from the same person because you get a different standpoint on things. I feel like I’ve learned to play the game and what my role is on the team.”
Thanks to these coaches, and a high level of confidence, Gardner believes his biggest improvement during his time in the system has been his hitting.
“I’ve come along with my bat. I think I have to work hard on a few other things, maybe work on my arm a little bit more and work on my bunting. I think my hitting has improved the most. It’s not where I want it to be at, but I’m continuing to work on it. I’ve got plenty of room for improvement. Hopefully I can continue to become better at that and get where I need to be - the major league level.”
One of the biggest assets Gardner can provide for any major league team is the ability to get on base and make things happen. In order to be truly successful at that, he and his coaches know he must perfect his ability to improve at bunting.
“Well, you know, he’s got the tools to be there and to get on base," said coach Alvaro Espinoza. "He needs to work more on getting on base. He needs to bunt more, get more walks. The main factor for him, to leadoff in the big leagues, not with the Yankees, but any team, he needs to learn how to do that to get on base. It’ll be huge for him in the future.”
“He can hit," said former Yankees catcher Will Nieves, who finished the season in Scranton. "He’s got the speed to bunt more. I talk to him all the time about the importance of bunting daily.”
Gardner, whose bunting game has not only come a bit naturally but has always been a very big offensive weapon, understands this more than anybody.
“I’m the first to admit, I don’t work on it as much as I should," Gardner said of his bunting for base hits. "It’s something I need to continue to work on."
Another key factor is Gardner’s ability to continue to have a good eye at the plate, with an added dose of aggression. He is known for having one of the better eyes in the Yankees farm system, but didn't perform up to snuff in Triple-A this season.
“I have to make sure I don’t swing at bad pitches," said Gardner. "You still have to be aggressive when you’re given a pitch to hit. You have to be aggressive, but it has to be a good pitch to hit.”
If Gardner can continue to improve on this aspect of his game, as he had the previous two years, he’ll be invaluable to have on base because of his ability to make things happen.
“Every time, during the course of the game, I’m always looking for things - to make thing happen," he said. "Sometimes the scoreboard dictates if and what I can do. It all depends on who’s up at the plate, and what’s the score, who’s pitching, and of course, who’s catching. A lot of things go into it. But I’m definitely always looking for things to happen.”
Gardner is comfortable in all situations at the plate, pointing to his mental approach during key hitting situations.
“I think it’s more of a mental thing, than a physical thing. You can take BP [batting practice] and try situational hitting but it’s more of a mental thing - locking in, staying focused, and focusing on what you need to do."
He intends to stay focused and continue to develop that ability. He looks to improve his .239 average with runners in scoring position in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre this season.
He has hit much better than that in his career, but it’s hard to avoid the fact that he’s gone through an adjustment period each half a year he has spent in a new league.
"That’s just how the game is," Gardner said. "Sometimes you go 7-for-10, and you’re on top of the world. Sometimes you’re 2-for-15, 2--for-20, and you can’t hit anything. You’re lost up there. That’s part of the game, there are up and downs, but right now, I feel comfortable, no matter what the situation is.”
There are so many positives to Gardner’s game, but some believe his lack of power could halt his career as an everyday player. He is hoping to develop more power, admitting he does have some power but just chooses not to use it as much and utilize his speed more.
“I have a little bit of power, but I don’t use it, it’s not part of my game," Gardner said. "I try to get the ball on the ground and run. My job isn’t to hit home runs. I’ve matured as a hitter, and as I continue, I'll try to add a little bit more power to my game.
"I'm not even worried about [hitting homers]. My job is to get on base, steal bases, use my speed, help the team score runs, and make things happen. If I develop a little bit of power over the next year or two, then that's great. If I don't, I'll just keep doing what I'm doing and do my best to get on base, steal bases, and score runs."
And what does he think of those critics who don’t see him as an everyday major league player due to that lack of power?
“That stuff doesn’t bother me. Most people who say that haven’t even played baseball. Juan Pierre is making nine-million dollars a year and what does he hit, one or two home runs a year? I play hard, and I bring a lot to the table, enough that I don’t have to hit 15-20 home runs a year.”
The Yankees' hierarchy realizes Gardner's game is a stray of sorts from the Bronx Bombers reputation they've built up over the last century but also acknowledges that his complete game could change the complexion of their lineup in a good way.
While Gardner' critics line up.and point to his six career home runs in over 1,100 career at-bats as clear-cut evidence his destiny is more of a reserve outfielder and defensive replacement in the outfield, the organization is excited as a whole about the small-ball skills he will bring to their lineup in the very near future.
"I think he's going to be a player," said Yankees senior vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman. "He's a Juan Pierre type of guy with plate discipline. We like him. We think he is a player."
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