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It’s too early to think about benching Brett Gardner

I know Gardner isn’t hitting and Aaron Hicks is, but it’s still only April.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at New York Yankees
Awkward fist five!
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees have been the surprise of baseball in the first month of the season. The pitching has held up for the most part and the offense, behind the awe-inspiring power of Aaron Judge, has done their part. Austin Romine and Ronald Torreyes have filled in admirably for Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorius respectively, and if the season ended right now Chase Headley could be an MVP candidate. This is the world Yankees fans are living in, and it’s great.

Even Aaron Hicks has come out of the gate red-hot. Yes, that Aaron Hicks. One of the hate vessels of the 2016 Yankees is on a mission to show the world that he should not be cast in Hollywood’s inevitable remake of The Benchwarmers. While Hicks and a lot of the Yankees have played well, it hasn’t all been great in Yankeeland.

Greg Bird, Matt Holliday, and Brett Gardner have all struggled so far in 2017, but benching Bird or Holliday hasn’t been brought up too much. Granted, less playing time for either of them means more Chris Carter. The thought of Carter playing every day, and Bird’s obvious upside, has rightfully bought them extra time. Gardner, on the other hand, has not received the same benefit.

Thanks to Hicks’ hot start, Gardner has been heavily scrutinized in the early goings of the season. So far, Hicks has slashed .303/.455/.727 with four home runs, good for a 224 wRC+ and 0.7 fWAR. Gardner, meanwhile, has only slashed .182/.318/.236 with no home runs, good for a 69 (nice) wRC+ and 0.1 fWAR. As a result, people are calling for Gardner and Hicks to flip roles. Make Gardner the fourth outfielder and start Hicks. Seems simple and the way they’ve played it makes sense, right? Not so fast.

I get it, Gardner isn’t hitting and Hicks is, but it’s still way too early in the season. I’d understand if Gardner was playing everyday and Hicks was just sitting on the bench, but Joe Girardi is giving Hicks ample playing time. He’s had 44 plate appearances in 13 games which, granted, is less than Gardner’s 66 in 15 games but is still not bad. It’s not like Hicks is absent. Hicks is getting his chances, and making the most of them.

Gardner, in my opinion, deserves some benefit of the doubt. He has a proven track record of being a solid, if unspectacular, hitter. Hicks has a track record of being, well bad. Sure, he played well last season after Carlos Beltran was traded and he received regular playing time, but I’m still wary of relying too heavily on him.

Perhaps finding consistent playing time for him but not overexposing Hicks is what’s working for him, so why mess with that this early? Even dating back to last season, it’s still too small a sample size to say that Hicks has regained what made him a top prospect. I still trust Gardner to figure it out more than I trust Hicks to keep it going.

Gardner hasn’t been completely useless at the plate either. His .318 OBP indicates that he’s at least walking, so that part of his game isn’t gone. Plus, he’s actually using his legs again. Gardner already has five stolen bases this year, compared to the 16 total he had last season. Girardi gave him and Jacoby Ellsbury a challenge to score 100 runs this season, and it seems they’re both doing what they can to meet that goal. If he keeps walking and stealing bases, he’s still useful. The hits should come for Gardner.

Gardner’s trade value also has to be considered. Being 50% responsible for PSA’s daily news posts and simply just following this team, I’ve learned something: Brett Gardner trade rumors will be around forever. If the Yankees do indeed want to trade him, sitting him on the bench will do nothing for his already low value. Playing him and allowing him to turn things around to show that he can be useful is the only way it’ll increase.

If the argument was that Gardner should move down in the lineup, at least until he gets going, I can get behind that. Cleanup hitter Jacoby Ellsbury (which is pretty funny) could go back to leading off and Gardner could hit near the bottom—simply the reverse of what fans were calling for going into the season. It makes sense. Benching him though? Not yet. He should still be starting and getting regular playing time. If everything’s the same in June, then we can talk.

*Season statistics provided courtesy of FanGraphs