MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Gardner plans to be more of an igniter

Yankees' left fielder knows he has to get on base more in 2016

Gardner plans to be more of an igniter

TAMPA, Fla. -- We tend to have this image of the offseason as an elixir addressing the ails that six-plus months of baseball has wrought. Its curative properties are broadcast each report date with the claims of "best shape of my life," or words to that effect.

But then there are people like Brett Gardner, who paused for a long, long moment when asked at what point in his offseason he finally didn't feel sore.

"Never," Gardner answered honestly. "It was kind of a frustrating offseason."

Frustration gave way to relief Wednesday here at George M. Steinbrenner Field, where Yankees skipper Joe Girardi wrote out a lineup for the night game against the division-rival Blue Jays -- a game that resulted in a 2-1 Yanks win -- that looked like this:

1. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
2. Gardner, LF
3. Carlos Beltran, RF
4. Mark Teixeira, 1B
5. Alex Rodriguez, DH
6. Chase Headley, 3B
7. Starlin Castro, 2B
8. Didi Gregorius, SS
9. Gary Sanchez, C

Results don't matter down here, but vibes do. And with the exception of catcher Brian McCann getting an extra day to rest a minor knee bruise, this was the first time the Bronx Bombers' daily nine had an Opening Day vibe to it.

"It's pretty close," Girardi said.

So is the start of the season itself, and therefore Gardner's Grapefruit League debut -- delayed by continued issues with the deep bone bruise he suffered in last October's American League Wild Card Game loss to the Astros -- was a welcomed one, even if he went 0-for-2.

The mature mashers in the middle of the order will clearly dictate whether the Yankees' plan of routinely handing over leads to their bullies in the bullpen has continued merit in 2016. But as we learned down the stretch last season, this lineup, potent though it might appear on paper, is notably more languid without igniters atop the order.

Ellsbury missed more than a month of mid-2015 with a knee sprain and was never the same after his return. He went from a .399 pre-break on-base percentage to a .266 mark after the All-Star Game. Gardner, meanwhile, was a first-time All-Star, taking a .377 OBP and a .466 slugging percentage with 10 homers and 15 steals in 18 attempts into Cincinnati. But it's easy to assume repeated HBPs to both wrists -- including the right one that required surgery to remove damaged muscle tissue in 2010 -- that required multiple cortisone shots took a toll on his swing and his stats.

While the Yanks' production didn't totally plummet, it did go down nearly half a run per game, from 4.88 in the season's first four months to 4.43 in the last two. And the season came to a swift and decisive close when they got Dallas Keuchel'd in the AL Wild Card Game, a 3-0 defeat on their home turf in which Gardner went 0-for-4 with three K's atop the order and Ellsbury didn't even start.

Gardner downplayed the impact of his injuries all year, but he clearly wasn't the same player as the season evolved and he was anything but an igniter at the plate or on the basepaths in the second half. The funny thing about bases is that it's hard to steal them when you're not on them. Gardner went two full months between stolen-base attempts at one point and more than two months between successful attempts.

Naturally, there is curiosity over whether Gardner will attempt to be more aggressive on the basepaths this year and perhaps get closer to the 47 or 49 swipe tallies of 2010 and '11.

But we're talking about a 32-year-old who has undoubtedly had to make some concessions to Father Time, reluctant though he might be to admit it.

"I actually haven't run a timed 40 or 60 in a long time," Gardner said. "I'm sure I'm probably not quite as fast, but I still feel like I can run a little bit. I'm always looking for ways to change my mechanics and looking for ways to get more pure jumps and shorten up my time a little bit."

There are changes within the scope of the game that help us understand why Gardner hasn't been a 40-steal force since 2011. MLB-wide, the number of pure attempts per game has decreased nearly 21 percent since that season.

But on an individual basis, it all starts with OBP, anyway, and Gardner said he won't be satisfied if he doesn't get his OBP back above .350, even if it comes at the expense of a home run mark that has reached the teens each of the last two seasons.

"I'm not worried about home runs," Gardner said. "My job, whether I'm hitting 1-2 or 8-9 is to get on base. I need to work on being consistent at the plate and have a better idea of what guys are trying to do against me and being more consistent in my approach."

It's no secret the Yankees approached the offseason trying to get younger, and that including dangling Gardner's name in trade talks, with the freshly acquired Aaron Hicks serving as a possible successor. But even if Gardner wasn't totally toxic, his age combined with his rough second half to make him a difficult sell when the asking price was a young, controllable starting pitcher.

And so, with injury risks and innings concerns in their starting setup and the pitching arrangement very much bullpen-dependent, the Yanks really need Gardner and Ellsbury generating traffic early in games.

Gardner missed the early portion of the Grapefruit schedule, but that's understandable after an offseason that demanded caution and patience with the wrist.

"It was one of those things where we expected it to go away, expected it to get better," Gardner said. "As November got there, and we really just started to get closer to Thanksgiving, further removed from the season -- six, seven weeks -- I knew there was something there still aggravating me and keeping me from doing what I needed to do in the offseason."

Gardner will probably play again Friday. Then Sunday. And he'll ramp up the innings and intensity in the exhibition slate's last two weeks. The Yankees are "pretty close" to trotting out their regular lineup with, well, regularity, and we all know how dangerous that lineup can be when it's in fine running condition.

But last season showed us that when Gardner and Ellsbury just aren't right, the Yanks lose a substantial amount of swagger. So even if Wednesday's result wasn't important, Gardner's return to duty has meaning in the big picture.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.