‘Hart of the Order’
By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns
On virtually any other ballclub, Brett Gardner would be the obvious choice for their lead-off hitter. You would be hard-pressed finding someone more proficient in the role outside of Jose Reyes and Jacoby Ellsbury.
With Derek Jeter rehabbing in Tampa, this was the ideal time for the Yankees to dislodge their captain from the top of their order. Now that Joe Girardi has declared that Jeter will re-assume the lead-off role when he returns, it will more difficult than ever for the Yankees to deal with an issue that they’ll one day have to admit: Derek Jeter is not an adequate leadoff man.
It’s almost as if the Yankees are afraid to disrupt the face of their franchise, fearing the reaction it would provoke. Jeter isn’t a fearsome tiger in a cage but rather a very highly-compensated ballplayer who must accept whichever scenario his organization decides to use him. It isn’t like Jeter has a leg to stand on either, as he’s clearly regressed since the midway point of the 2010 season yet was awarded with an above-market extension during the off-season.
That fact that Jeter will be paid an escalating $15M, $16M and $17M through 2013 makes it even harder for the Yankees to swallow the embarrassment of batting one of their highest earners eighth in the order or possibly the number nine hole. It would be a financial and PR nightmare for Jeter to collect his 3,000th hit while batting in the lower portion of the Yankees’ lineup. As outstanding of an accomplishment reaching 3,000 is, the Yankees want to play it up with pomp and circumstance so their fans will celebrate it as something larger than it actually is which of course translates into big bucks for the franchise.
Business aside, it’s almost impossible to quantify a logical reason why Gardner should have to make way for Jeter. I’m certain that if the Yankees polled their fan base asking them which players are best suited to bat first and second, the overwhelming response would be: Gardner at lead-off and Curtis Granderson following him at number two. Why should fans feel otherwise while Gardner is hitting equally well against right-handed and left-handed pitchers (.294 vs. RHP/.286 vs. LHP) while logging an on-base percentage that is 47 points superior to Jeter at .371.
If somehow Girardi and the Yankees’ brass believe that Jeter is still at the top of his game nearing 37, they are either deluded by his past accomplishments or the organization cares more about marketing than the product on the field. Either way, it sends the wrong message to fans and betrays the credo their late owner George M. Steinbrenner III set forth in that winning goes beyond anything. It isn’t Jeter’s birthright to bat at the top of the order nor does the superbly-performing Gardner deserve to be relegated to the bottom of the lineup.
It’s shocking that Gardner isn’t more highly thought of by the Yankee ‘powers that be.’ Seeing him constantly benched against left-handers despite registering a lofty .390 OBP against lefties drew ire from fans and questions about Girardi’s managerial acumen. It’s hard to fathom a reason why Gardner would ever have to make way for a ballplayer as lousy as Andruw Jones.
All the moves the Yankees make seem almost an attempt to sabotage Gardner’s development as he was lifted from the lineup multiple times during their recent stretch of games. Even when coming off the bench, Gardner collected a 12th inning game-winning hit in the final game of their homestand against the Texas Rangers. He couldn’t have conceivably done more to deserve a sustained run as lead-off man.
The time has come to reward Gardner for the respect he’s earned among fans. If Girardi were to actually pass him the baton to permanently bat lead-off, Gardner will run with it both in a literal and figurative sense. Girardi must play the best hand dealt to him, otherwise it will be at a cost competitively.
Are the Yankees halting Gardner’s progress by restoring Jeter to lead-off when he returns from the DL? Sound off below and send your tweets to @HartyLFC.