LAKELAND, Fla. — Over his 13-year career, Brett Gardner has played a grand total of 1,548 games during the regular season in a Yankees uniform. Only one of those games featured an appearance in right field.
That's why it was a bit surprising to see Gardner's name penciled in as the starting right fielder on Friday. After all, it's been close to six years since Gardner's lone start in right (back on April 23, 2014).
It was enough of an anomaly that the Tigers' home television broadcast mistakenly placed 'LF' next to Gardner's name in their starting lineup graphic.
When the 37-year-old re-signed with New York this offseason, the understanding was that he would be returning in a role he's never had before in pinstripes. With Aaron Judge and Aaron Hicks both healthy, and Clint Frazier moving forward as the starting left fielder, Gardner is poised to be relegated to the bench.
Yankees manager Aaron Boone explained on Friday that giving Gardner an opportunity to work right field into his game was part of the plan entering camp. The longest-tenured player on this roster is now New York's "awesome fourth outfielder."
"It's something that I talked to him about really the first day he got here. Making sure that he was on board with something like that," Boone said in a Zoom call prior to New York's 4-2 win. "We know what a great outfielder he is and know how good he is in center or left field, certainly at Yankee Stadium, but there are scenarios where ... you want to maximize his range and his outfield ability."
The Tigers' spring training home in Lakeland—Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium—is a good indication of which ballparks we could see Gardner playing right field in this season.
Similar to Comerica Park in Detroit, right field is incredibly spacious with a massive right-center field gap. Even at Gardner's age, he's shown that he can still cover quite a bit of ground in the outfield.
Gardner proved that was the case once again in the fifth inning.
Tigers designated hitter Miguel Cabrera sent a line drive deep to right-center field. With a man on third, it was destined to be a run-scoring play for Detroit either way, but a quality jump off the crack of the bat and leaping grab by Gardner on the warning track took extra bases away.
It wasn't all smooth sailing in right on Friday. Gardner and Jay Bruce—who was playing first base—miscommunicated on a shallow pop fly in the third. With Gardner barreling toward the infield, Bruce appeared to call him off at the last second, unable to make the over-the-shoulder catch as the ball popped out of his glove.
Regardless of the results this spring, as these games are effectively meaningless for a player like Gardner who has an Opening Day roster spot locked up, this could be more of a frequent occurrence once the regular season begins. Boone envisions Gardner filling in at all three spots this year.
"Gardy's going to play a lot," Boone explained. "For him to be open to seeing what right field looks like in certain ballparks, certain situations, I think it makes some sense. It's not something I'll force out there. I mean, he still may end up just in left and center, but at least down here, while we have the time to work on this, I felt like it made some sense."
Gardner is getting it done at the plate this spring as well, another reason to find ways to get him in the lineup. He ripped an RBI single to extend New York's lead in the second inning, his fourth hit in five games this spring.
As for how this could impact Frazier, who is entering a season with a starting job for the first time in his career, Boone said the left fielder won't be limited to one spot either.
"I've had that conversation with Clint too," he said. "I'll probably have him work in right at some point, just to keep that in his toolbox. Right now, because actually Clint played a little more right last year than he did left, I really want him just dedicating to get all his reps and looks in left field."
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