TAMPA, FLA. >> Brett Gardner hopes to solve the New York Yankees' need for speed.
He swiped 47 bases in 2010 and a league-leading 49 the following year. While he was a first-time All-Star last year, he stole just 20.
Relying on power, the Yankees ranked just 25th in the major leagues in steals. A September free fall cost them a division title and was followed by elimination against Houston in the AL wild-card game.
"Obviously a little less aggressive," Gardner said Wednesday night before going 0 for 2 in his delayed spring training debut. "Can't steal 40-something bases if you don't try and steal 40-something bases."
Now 32, Gardner is instantly recognizable for his bald head and quick smile. He is a veteran — his eight consecutive seasons with the Yankees are the most among current players, and he is entering the third season of a $52 million, four-year contract.
Gardner was counted on to spark the top of the Yankees' batting order with Jacoby Ellsbury for the past two seasons. But Ellsbury was sidelined last May 19 to July 8 because of a sprained right knee and finished with 21 steals.
And while Gardner was hitting .302 with a .377 on-base percentage at the All-Star break, he slumped to .206 and .300 in the second half. His right wrist was hit by a pitch from Baltimore's Wei-Yin Chen on April 13, and new Yankees hitting coach Alan Cockrell said in November the hand bothered Gardner for much of the season.
Gardner bruised his other wrist running into the wall during the wild-card game on Oct. 6.
"We expected it go away, expected it to get better," he said.
But by late November, it had not improved, and he went for an additional scan of the bone bruise.
"I knew something was still there and still aggravating me and keeping me from doing what I wanted to normally do with my offseason," he said.
Back on the field against Toronto, Gardner grounded to the right side in his first at-bat, when he saw five sliders, and was out at first on a neat glove flip by second baseman Darwin Barney. He took a called third strike his next time up and was on deck when Ellsbury flied out ending the fifth. Manager Joe Girardi already had told Gardner he wasn't taking the field for the sixth.
After he left the game, Gardner iced the left wrist.
"Just trying to stay on top of it," he said.
Gardner also was hurt for much of 2014, when he played with an abdominal injury that required surgery after the season.
"If he stays as healthy as he can be, I think he'll have a good second half," Girardi said.
Slumping at the plate caused Gardner to run less.
"For a while there, I wasn't getting on base very often, so I think that plays a part in it." he said. "It's just like asking a guy that's pinch hitting three times a week if he feels good when he comes to the plate every time."
When he's reaching and stealing with regularity, the Yankees' offense is more potent.
"He's burned us so many times," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "On the base he creates havoc."
But with power hitters behind him such as Alex Rodriguez, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixeira, Gardner has become more reticent.
"When those guys are swinging the bats the way that they were, especially when Tex was in the lineup and healthy last year, we were clicking on all cylinders, two, three, four-run homers all the time, all week long it seemed like," Gardner said. "You're hitting second in the lineup, as soon as you get on base, you've got big guys at the plate, they can lose one at any time and put a crooked number on the board — you want to be smarter."