(Not pictured: Brett Gardner and his elbow. Courtesy of the AP)
The start of the AB4AR 2012 Season Review officially kicked off yesterday with the review of what we learned about the 2012 infield. It continues today with that same review for the outfield. The starting outfield for the 2012 New York Yankees was an interesting mix. 3 guys with very different but equally important skill sets who combined to be one of the most productive and underappreciated units in baseball in 2011, and 3 guys whose futures with the club were all potentially up in the air in the near future. As with the infield, it was a big up-and-down year for this crew, so let's dive right in and see what 2012 taught us about them.
What We Thought We Knew- It Was Going to Be a Strong Defensive Unit
I don’t know where I got the idea, but looking back at the "Known/Unknown" preview for this group I see that I was still on board with the idea of Curtis Granderson being a good center fielder. I saw the speed, I remembered a few big catches he made, and I guess I ignored his defensive deficiencies. Nick Swisher, while never being award-worthy, was a capable right fielder with decent speed, good read/route skills, and familiarity with the dimensions of Yankee Stadium. He may not make every play out there, but there wasn’t reason to worry that he was going to cost the team runs. And Brett Gardner was Gold Glove-caliber in left field, probably more deserving of the center field job than C-Grand, and one of the best ground coverers in the game. Together this should have been a strong unit on paper, and one capable of helping out the contingent on flyball pitchers on the staff.
What We Learned- Outfield Defense Is Only as Good as Its Health
Granderson, for all his physical tools, is not a good center fielder. He never seems to get good reads on balls hit into the gaps and compounds that problem by never seeming to take good routes to those balls. Granderson made more bad plays in center than good this season, and his deficiencies were further exposed when Gardner went down early with his elbow injury. Gardner being out for almost the entire season not only made it impossible for him to transition to center, but also opened left field up for a revolving door of older bench players who weren’t expected to see as much of the outfield as they did. Swish also developed a frustrating habit of sliding or diving to cut balls off when he really didn’t need to, and with Granderson being what he is in center, it was a tough go for the Yankee outfield until they brought Ichiro in before the deadline.
What We Thought We Knew- Brett Gardner Was a Valuable Part of This Team
He doesn’t do anything eye-popping at the plate, but Brett Gardner had established himself as an underrated piece of the Yankee puzzle with the job he did from ’09-2011. He was one of the team's best count workers at the bottom of the order, he was the #1 base stealing threat, and he was the clear cut best defensive outfielder in the bunch. Brett Gardner brings a lot of things to the table that the rest of the Yankee lineup doesn't have, and his presence in that lineup had become the perfect compliment to the big-money mashers in the middle of the order, kind of like the last-minute sauce that ties a dish together on "Chopped."
What We Learned- Just How Valuable He Really Is
Gardner was already very valuable in my eyes prior to this season, hence my continued insistence that K-Long work with him to try to develop some more gap power in his swing, but once he went down and we were treated to regular doses of Raul Ibanez and Andruw Jones in the outfield every day, everybody got to see just how much Gardner means to this team. Without him, the Yankees become incredibly old, incredibly slow, and a much weaker defensive ballclub. A lot of the bouts of inconsistency, roster inflexibility, and station-to-station offensive baseball that the offense struggled with for most of this season can be directly tied back to the loss of Brett Gardner. It didn't become apparent just how important his speed was until it wasn't there anymore. I mean, why else would Joe have plugged him into the #1 lineup spot in the ALCS after Gardner had been out for so long?
What We Thought We Knew- Everybody Had Something to Play For
What made this trio so interesting to watch in 2012 was the fact that they each had something big to strive for. Gardner was still playing for mainstream acceptance as a real valuable Major League player, something that he rightfully should have gotten with a Gold Glove in 2011; Granderson was out to prove that his 2011 was no fluke and that he really had been transformed into an elite offensive player; Swish was trying to earn that last big contract, be it with the Yankees or someone else after the season. Of course baseball is the ultimate team sport and the goal is always to win that World Series ring, but each of these guys' individual goals were important subplots to helping achieve that ultimate goal.
What We Learned- They Didn't Accomplish Anything
Safe to say that the list of individual goals remained mainly unchecked at the end of the season. Gardner's was through no fault of his own (or was it?), as the elbow injury and continued setbacks prevented him from even being on the field enough to follow through on the strong start he had to the season. Granderson reverted back to levels of offensive inconsistency and rigidity on par with or worse than his early 2010 struggles. Swish had another solid all-around regular season but probably cost himself a lot of money on the open market, and surely cost himself any last chance of a real contract offer from the Yankees, with another horrid postseason. There were some good numbers here and there, but overall I think these 3 guys would say it was a disappointing season.