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yankees countdown

Yankees Countdown: No. 17, Brett Gardner

The start of the baseball season is less than a month away. Every weekday until opening day, we'll be counting down, from No. 20 to No. 1, the most important Yankees players for the upcoming 2010 slate. Today, No. 17, outfielder Brett Gardner.

Competing for a starting job is nothing new for Brett Gardner. Last year, you'll recall, he won the center-field job from Melky Cabrera during the final week of spring training, having hit .385 with three home runs through 22 games. Needless to say, those numbers didn't last: By the end of April, he was hitting just .220, and he'd finish the year at .270 with three home runs in 108 games. He'd eventually lose the center-field job to Cabrera, ably taking on the role of pinch runner and occasional starter.

In a perfect Yankee world, Brett Gardner wouldn't be the left-fielder this year (and neither would Randy Winn), but the Johnny Damon saga (and the Melky Cabrera trade) left them to take one of two chances: That the youngster (Gardner) will progress even further in 2010 and transform into a bona-fide starter, or that the declining veteran (Winn) still has something left, despite what his 2009 numbers would indicate. It's possible that neither will happen, but if forced to choose, we'll go with the former.

The Yankees may have reputation as a team that requires an all-star at every position, but that's not really the case this year: Only one of their four potential starting outfielders has made an all-star team in the last seven years. (Granderson made it last year; Winn was selected back in 2002.) But when the rest of your lineup looks like it does, you can get away with Gardner batting ninth. After all, Gardner's not really all that much worse than Melky Cabrera, and they won a World Series with him in the lineup every day.

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Photo: Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images