TAMPA, Fla. — Brett Gardner is the kind of player who makes everyone in an organization happy. The New York Yankees, quite clearly, need many more like him.
Their hopes this season hinge on the fragile and the fading. Pitchers Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda could be dominant, or they could break down. The hitters in the middle of the order — Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann — have all been productive, but you’d like them a lot more in 2008, not 2015.
All of those players got their professional starts elsewhere. The Yankees celebrate imported stars, of course; Goose Gossage and Reggie Jackson are in spring training as guest instructors and represent the team in Cooperstown. But the satisfaction from success like Gardner’s is different.
“When guys are raised through your system, there’s kind of a sense of pride and investment — not monetary investment but the investment of your resources and personnel, from the amateur side to the player-development side,” said Billy Eppler, the Yankees’ assistant general manager. “It’s very fulfilling and very fruitful for a number of different departments within an organization. There’s no doubt those are the fun ones.”
The last two seasons finished without a playoff berth but with the nostalgic farewells for Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter. Now, Gardner is the only homegrown Yankee with a World Series ring. The Chicago White Sox, with David Robertson and Melky Cabrera, have more.
The start of this camp offered promise for the future in Greg Bird, Aaron Judge, Luis Severino and others. The farm system seems to be recovering. But its years of decline have forced the Yankees to go outside the organization to compete.
Gardner, 31, is not cheap anymore, either. The former College of Charleston star from Holly Hill, S.C., signed a four-year, $52 million contract extension in February 2014, with an option for 2019. But he did so without becoming a free agent, the forum in which the Yankees lost Andy Pettitte a decade ago and Robinson Cano more recently. Pettitte found his way back to the Bronx, but Cano has nine years left on his Seattle contract.
Gardner showed the Jeter ethos last summer, playing through a core-muscle injury. As Jeter often said, everybody’s hurt, but injured means you can’t play. Gardner was hurt, but he did not make excuses. When the pain became too great, in September, he sat. He had surgery to repair an abdominal muscle in mid-October.
His performance reflected his condition. In the first half, he hit .279 with a .353 on-base percentage. He felt the injury in Cleveland in early July, he said, and in the second half he batted .215 with a .286 on-base percentage.
“I wasn’t 100 percent, but I was trying to do the best I could,” Gardner said. “Looking back, maybe me being out there, as bad as my numbers were, maybe I shouldn’t have been playing. But that’s part of it.”
Gardner started slowly in spring training and is batting .157 with just eight hits and 15 strikeouts. He said he was concentrating more than ever on preparing his body for the full season after also having missed the end of the 2013 season with an oblique strain. The Yankees open the season Monday at home against the Toronto Blue Jays.
“I feel like I’m as strong as I’ve ever been,” said Gardner, who while rehabbing an elbow injury in 2012 played one game with the Charleston RiverDogs, the Yankees’ Class A affiliate in the South Atlantic League.
In high school, Gardner wore the same kind of spikes as Kenny Lofton, and he walked on at the College of Charleston. The Yankees took him in the third round in 2005, after two players who never made the majors, C.J. Henry and J.B. Cox. Gardner reached the Yankees in 2008 but showed little power that season.
In spring training 2009, general manager Brian Cashman said that if Gardner could hit, he would make a big impact. Players like Brett Butler, Juan Pierre and Otis Nixon, he said, would always have a place in the game.
Those three were speedsters who played forever but never hit for power. Gardner has increased his home run production every season, ripping 17 last year. But his strikeouts also rose, to 134. Gardner said he wanted to be more consistent and use all his skills.
“I definitely would like to cut down on my strikeouts,” he said.
“Get on base a little more often, run a little more, put pressure on the defense, try to put balls in play, be a consistent force at the top of the lineup and score a bunch of runs.”
If Gardner does all that, and still hits for power, few leadoff hitters will be more dynamic. The Yankees will watch with a special kind of pride, while hoping desperately that more like him will soon follow.