Brett Gardner doesn't grow on trees

      December 7, 2011 @ 10:57:23 PDT

Gardner getting greater

At MLB's Winter Meetings, the New York Yankees are busy trying to find someone to take a cement-shoed A.J. Burnett of their hands. (Tim Heaney, meanwhile, reckons that there's still reason for fantasy baseball gamers to avoid writing off the right-hander. Shazzam. Seriously, he's onto something.)

They're also receiving some inquiries about the availability of Brett Gardner. And maybe they're listening. But no rational being expects the storied franchise to part with the 28-year-old left fielder. He's one of the most valuable players in the sport, according to advanced metrics.

In rotisserie baseball, he hasn't reached that level of distinction. But he isn't far from it.

Gardner's seeds planted

This past season, Gardner batted a disappointing .259 in 588 plate appearances, more than half of them coming in the bottom third of the lineup. He swiped 49 bases in 62 attempts and scored 87 runs, his contributions in those two categories driving his mixed-league value as a top-25 outfielder.

From an individual standpoint, perhaps 2011 might've turned out better had he avoided his agonizingly slow first month. The left-handed swinger toiled through a tough final two months, but, in terms of plate discipline and consistency, his work at the dish was significantly sounder.

From April 26 through the end of the regular season, Gardner batted .275 with six round-trippers, 46 thefts (in 56 tries) and 81 runs scored in 523 plate appearances. Scrap most of April, and you in essence have Gardner c. 2010.

Gardner isn't a one-dimensional fantasy asset, but the results haven't made a strong statement otherwise. He has the untapped ability to hit for a higher batting average, however. Much of the foundation is in place.

He begins his blazing trail to first base from the left-handed batter's box. About 70 percent of his batted balls are either line drives or ground balls, the latter giving him an opportunity to score infield hits, which he's done at a rate of 12.1 percent in his career.

He's a career .243 hitter and slowly improving against southpaws. His approach against left-handers is statistically sounder than it is against righties. He makes contact on at least 90 percent of his swings. He routinely hit for high averages on balls in play in the minors. His lifetime big-league BABIP: .317.

This past season, pitchers exploited vulnerabilities in Gardner's swing. His infield fly-ball rate was a tragic 19.6 percent. Did he try to jerk a few? Was he often jammed? Out in front? Looks like. But he has the makings of a short, fluid swing, with some tweaks, like perhaps a quieter stance.

Thankfully, he's not satisfied. His focus in this winter's session with Kevin Long and teammates: improve his timing, become a more consistent hitter.

Gardner draws walks in more than 10 percent of his plate appearances. He's one of the fastest players in baseball. If the 5-foot-10, 185-pound outfielder's swing becomes just a bit steadier, he's a .290 hitter. That would make him a high-caliber leadoff hitter.

The 2012 season may very well be the one in which Joe Girardi finds it too difficult to defend his decision to stick with Derek Jeter at the top of the order most of the time. The Captain can't get away with beating nearly two-thirds of the balls he puts in play into the dirt forever.

Gardner is already a prime fantasy asset despite the fact that he's hit at the bottom of the Bronx Bombers' order for the majority of the past couple of seasons. There's only more upside in his future, and, coming off a season in which he batted .259, he may not have a more reasonable price tag than he will this coming spring.

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About Nicholas Minnix

Minnix is baseball editor and a fantasy football analyst at KFFL. He plays in LABR and Tout Wars and won the FSWA Baseball Industry Insiders League in 2010.

The University of Delaware alum is a regular guest on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio and Baltimore's WNST AM 1570.

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