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As Gardner emerges, Yankees will find out what they have

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Obviously some other things came up today, but I do think this morning’s Pinc Hitter post is worth discussing. After all, it is kind of amazing that after five years, we’re still not entirely sure what Brett Gardner can do.

The bulk of his big league experience has come in left field, not center, so we have yet to see his glove in its most natural and impactful environment. Despite marginal left-right splits — his career on-base percentage is actually higher against lefties — there’s always been a tendency to platoon him, so he’s only come close to 600 plate appearances in a season once. His career slash line (.266/.355/.368) is remarkably similar to Michael Bourn’s (.272/.339/.365), yet Bourn is a two-time All-Star while Gardner remains fairly anonymous.

Small tangent to prove just how annonymous Gardner is. — Last spring, Daily News beat writer Mark Feinsand and I went for a quick postgame dinner at Chipotle. The guy waiting on us had a Yankees tatoo on his arm and was telling people in line that one of the actual Yankees had just been in the restaurant to get a burrito. The guy behind the counter was extremely excited by this brush with fame, yet he couldn’t remember the player’s name. He said it was the fast little left fielder. Mark asked if it was Gardner. “Yeah, that’s his name!” the guy said.

Anyway, this morning, Pinch Hitter Emilio made the case that Gardner coming back from injury will be the Yankees “biggest improvement” since last season. A few days ago, Mike Axisa wrote something similar [2]about Gardner’s potential impact. If you’re waiting for me to disagree, well…

Mariano Rivera is also coming back from an injury, but Rivera-for-Soriano is a fairly even swap. Ichiro Suzuki will be with the Yankees for a full year this season, but at this point of his career, he’s probably not a better player than Nick Swisher. Kevin Youkilis is a new face, but he’s not necessarily an upgrade on Alex Rodriguez.

So, yes, I agree that Gardner is going to be the Yankees biggest upgrade. He won’t hit for Raul Ibanez’s power, but he’ll certainly play better defense and give the Yankees a different sort of threat. Getting Gardner off the disabled list could be the equivalent of signing Bourn, except without the large contract and lost draft pick.

Just two questions to add: Does the current roster mean the Yankees finally in a position to take full advantage of Gardner’s skill set? And after he turns 30 near the end of the season, will Gardner play a role in whatever comes next, or will he be dismissed as a part of the previous era?

Putting Gardner in center field would be a good start toward a positive answer to the first question. Part of Gardner’s value comes in his ability to play center, and he has the potential of being an impact defensive player at the position. Another step toward taking full advantage might be putting him at the very top of the order. He has a career .355 on-base percentage, and even in his down years he’s had an OBP of .345. If that’s a repeatable statistic and Gardner can reach base more often than Ichiro — who had a .340 OBP after coming to the Yankees last year — then Gardner belongs at the top of the order, with Jeter second and Robinson Cano third. If Gardner really can produce like Bourn, then the Yankees have to treat him like Bourn.

Beyond 2013, Gardner’s future might depend on cost and alternatives. He has one year of arbitration left, which means he’s under team control for 2014 and could hit the open market before the 2015 season. Slade Heathcott and Mason Williams are on their way, but can the Yankees count on them enough to let go of a potential value signing like Gardner?

This season offers a chance to really discover what Gardner can do. When the Yankees find out, they just might have a player worth keeping.

Associated Press photo