Inside Yanks’ accidental discovery of Brett Gardner, an anomaly and coup

After Jeter and before Judge, the Yankees do not have a pretty history drafting position players.

The Yankees took Jeter in 1992, and no position player they selected in 1993 or ’94 played even a single inning in the majors. They drafted Mike Lowell in 1995, and he probably represents the worst trade made by general manager Brian Cashman, who dealt him to the Marlins for three nondescript pitchers.

Lowell played eight games as a Yankee before he was moved, and if it is hard to find good position players from these Yankee drafts, just try finding good ones who actually performed for the Yankees. The second best in that period was Nick Johnson, the third is either Shelley Duncan or Andy Phillips or Greg Bird, if you feel he has done enough to warrant joining the conversation.

The best?

Brett Gardner is the oasis in the positional wasteland between Judge and Jeter, the next-to-last pick of the 2005 third round. He went into the weekend with 1,120 games, all as a Yankee. The rest of the position players drafted from 1993-2008 played a total of 1,021 combined games (and counting, since Austin Romine is in that group).

There are a lot of Mike Ventos and Bronson Sardinhas and even a Drew Henson in that group. The only other value the Yanks derived in that period from a position player was Austin Jackson, who was taken in the eighth round in the same draft as Gardner. Jackson never played as a Yankee, but he was a trade piece to help land Curtis Granderson.

In 2009, the Yanks took John Ryan Murphy, whom they dealt for Aaron Hicks. In 2010, they drafted Tyler Austin; in 2011 Bird; in 2012 Rob Refsnyder; and 2013 Judge plus current well-regarded prospects Dustin Fowler and Tyler Wade. So maybe the Yankees are getting better at this. But for nearly two decades, they essentially have Gardner as an unlikely success story.

“Amazing, I am still here,” Gardner said. “Since I get traded every year.”

Gardner and Doug Mientkiewicz in spring training in 2007AP

He was joking about the rumors that have swirled around him for years. But he has endured, survived, thrived. From a useful player on the star-studded 2009 champs to someone who keeps moving up on all-time Yankees lists. And these are the Yankees, not, say, the Colorado Rockies or Tampa Bay Rays. To get into the top 40 of categories for this team is something.

And there is Gardner sixth in steals, 35th in walks, 33rd in runs, 24th in triples, 24th in Wins Above Replacement (WAR), 38th in plate appearances and 34th in games played — and that is games played for an organization that long had the tolerance of a hungry viper when it came to its own prospects.

“Our standard homegrown guy is a Hall of Famer or he sucks [in our minds],” said Damon Oppenheimer, who drafted Gardner and will run the process again Monday and Tuesday for the Yanks. “He is in between. He created the what in-between stuff is for us and is really good and has had a really good career.”

And the Yanks essentially lucked into him. Oppenheimer went to see a well-regarded College of Charleston (S.C.) pitcher named Brett Harker (now the coach at Furman) and was not impressed. But he couldn’t take his eyes off Harker’s center fielder. The speed, aggressiveness, batting eye — the stuff that would define Gardner in The Bronx.

So he instructed one of his most trusted scouts, Brian Barber, to go to the Southern Conference Tournament in 2005 and act like he was there to see a touted pitcher for the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Chris Mason, but to covertly watch Gardner. Oppenheimer told Barber not to even go down the line at Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park — where the Yanks’ Low-A Charleston team now plays — to get different views on Gardner, to avoid tipping the Yankees’ intent.

Gardner with Scranton in 2008Jason Farmer/Scranton Time-Tribune

Barber filed the same glowing report. Gardner hit .447 as a senior with a .506 on-base percentage, and his agent, Joe Bick, informed him that he likely would be taken in the fourth round on June 7, 2005. Gardner was moving out of his college apartment when the Yanks called to ask if he would sign in the $200,000-plus range if taken in the third round. Because he was a senior and had no leverage, Gardner said yes, was picked and signed quickly for $210,000.

“He had the profile of a center fielder, not an impact guy, more like Juan Pierre,” Oppenheimer said. “We never thought he would hit more than three-to-five homers a year.”

But Gardner has worked his way to a level of impact. The modern game, through stats like WAR, better reveal nuances Gardner excels at, such as on-base percentage, defense and baserunning — not just steals. Gardner is recognized as elite at going first to third on singles and first to home on doubles, for example.

The only players from the 2005 draft with a better WAR than Gardner’s 32.9 are Ryan Braun (44.4), Troy Tulowitzki (43.9), Andrew McCutchen (37) and Ryan Zimmerman (36.3). Behind Gardner is a group that includes Alex Gordon (32.5), Jacoby Ellsbury (30), Justin Upton (28.9), Chase Headley (25.1), Jackson (22.2), Jay Bruce (17) and Chris Carter (2.8).

And Gardner even developed some power. His 13 homers this year gave him 76 for his career, tying him with Gary Sheffield for 50th all time in Yankees history. Soon Judge should be zooming up that list, maybe other draft picks, too, like Bird.

For now, though, Gardner is the rare position player drafted by the Yanks who made it to the majors, made it as a Yankee and survived to the point that he is the senior player with the locker of honor at the end of the home clubhouse.

“I think about it sometimes,” said Gardner of going from the 109th overall pick to being a meaningful piece of Yankees history. “In life certain things happen, and no one can really explain it. How am I in this locker? I have already told Judge this will be his locker soon, because once you reach this locker there is nowhere else to go. The next place is out of the locker room.”