Gardner a steal for Yankees

NEW YORK -- There was plenty of head-scratching when the New York Yankees signed Brett Gardner to a four-year, $52 million contract extension back in February, just a couple months after they had signed Jacoby Ellsbury for the next seven years at $153 million.

Among the heads being scratched was my own, I must admit. What did the Yankees need Gardner for, I reasoned, when they already had Ellsbury, who was the same type of player, though, according to the numbers, a little bit better?

Five months later, I am scratching my head again, though I am asking the question the other way around: What did the Yankees need to sign Jacoby Ellsbury for, when they already had Brett Gardner?

Statistically, the two players are remarkably similar this year. Ellsbury is batting .291, Gardner .278. Ellsbury's on-base percentage is .354, Gardner's .359. Ellsbury, hitting mostly third, has 47 RBIs. Gardner, leading off, is right behind him with 41. Ellsbury has drawn 37 walks, Gardner 42. Ellsbury's OPS is .775, Gardner's .786. In perhaps the most important category of all, runs scored, Gardner has a clear edge, 60 to 47. His WAR, if you value such things, is 3.1; Ellsbury's is 2.3.

In fact, the only significant areas in which the two players differ is stolen bases -- Ellsbury has 27, Gardner 17 -- and strikeouts, a category in which Gardner leads the team with 89. Way too many, but in large part because he is also the most selective hitter the Yankees have, and often seems to prefer to go down looking rather than swing at a pitch he doesn't love.

The other significant difference between the two comes on payday. Ellsbury's contract calls for him to be paid slightly more than $21 million a year between now and 2020, with a $21 million club option -- or $5 million buyout -- for 2021, when he will be 38 years old.

Gardner will be paid $5.6 million this season under his previously existing contract, and an average of $12 million a year for the next four seasons.

Now, which one of the two players do you think is a better value?

It's unfortunate that we have to keep score this way, but that's the way it is.

And after seeing Gardner whack the solo homer off Yu Darvish that gave the Yankees a 2-1 win in Wednesday night's rain-shortened game against the Texas Rangers, the thought occurred once again, as it has many times this season, that Gardner may have sold himself way too short. And that the Yankees, notorious for being profligate spenders for players who truly make you scratch your head, certainly got away with highway robbery here.

In fact, if you think they stole a game from the Rangers on Wednesday night -- it was halted after 4 1/3 innings when both managers, but mostly, I suspect, the Yankees' Joe Girardi, beefed to the umpires that the Yankee Stadium field was unplayable after a brief but violent rainstorm -- that was nothing compared to the grand larceny they committed in locking up Gardner until 2018, with an option.

Gardner's home run off Darvish -- his second off the Rangers ace in just seven career at-bats -- gave him 10 for the season, which is not only his career high but the same number hit so far by Brian McCann (five years, $85 million, or an average of $17 million per) and Carlos Beltran (three years, $45 million), both of whom are considered sluggers.

And it is two more than Ellsbury, five more than Brian Roberts and eight more than Derek Jeter. In fact, if there was no Mark Teixeira, who has 17, Brett Gardner would be in a three-way tie for the team lead in home runs.

Hitting home runs is not what he is being paid to do, of course, but it is a nice little bonus to go with what he is already doing, which is everything the Yankees expected of him, and more. Have I mentioned that he plays a mean left field, besides?

This is not to say that Gardner is a better player than Ellsbury, who is an excellent player who over the course of his contract may someday be considered worth every penny the Yankees paid for him.

But there's no "someday" involved with Gardner. He, too, is an excellent player who already has shown he is worth more than the Yankees have been paying him, and is likely to remain so for the life of his contract.

Mother Nature smiles upon Girardi: In the viewpoint of the Yankees manager, the proverbial controller of the weather sometimes giveth and sometimes taketh away. On July 13 in Baltimore, the Yankees believe the volatile lady took one away from them when their game with the Orioles was halted in the fifth inning after a two-hour rain delay with the home team leading 3-1.

And Wednesday night, she gave them one back, when their game with the Texas Rangers was halted after the visitors had batted five times but still trailed 2-1. The rainstorm that cut the game short was brief but violent, and caused the Yankee Stadium grounds crew to struggle with the tarp for 13 minutes before they could get it down. What was left underneath was a soupy mess of an infield, and even after the rain stopped and the crew put a solid 45 minutes into trying to dry the skin with water-absorbing agents, both Girardi and Ron Washington told the umpires they felt the field was unsafe to play on.

"Ron Washington said he thought a hamstring would be blown and I said, ‘I question if this is safe for our players. Is there anything you could do to firm it up?'" Girardi said. "There were spots in the infield that you could see this much dirt would come up very easily."

Girardi said the umpires "called New York," as if he had forgotten which city the Yankees play in, to get a ruling, but before a decision could be made, the rain resumed and the game was called after a 1-hour, 49-minute delay.

"Both managers had concerns about injuries, hamstrings, that kind of stuff," crew chief Dale Scott said. "It would be really bad if we started playing and somebody blew out a knee or a hamstring or whatever because of that."

Girardi admitted that a call like this was a lot easier to make when your team is ahead. (For a guy willing to give up the game, it was strange that Washington had Darvish warming up to go back in when it resumed.)

“Always if it’s a win," Girardi said. "Neither one of us can really afford anyone else to go on the DL because of conditions that players shouldn’t be on.”

A first for Phelps: David Phelps has pitched well in his role as an emergency starter this season, but he accomplished something on Wednesday he never had before: a complete game.

OK, so it was only a five-inning complete game, but officially, Phelps started the game, Phelps finished the game, Phelps won the game. So there.

“Complete game. That’s what we needed tonight," Phelps joked, but there was an element of truth to it since the Yankees had used eight pitchers -- their entire bullpen -- in Tuesday night's 14-inning 2-1 win.

The highlight of Phelps' performance came against the last batter he faced, Rougned Odor, with two outs and a runner on third after Leonys Martin's one-out triple. Phelps got Odor to chase a breaking ball out of the zone to end the inning, and as it turned out, the game.

“It’s nice being on every five days," said Phelps, who improved to 5-4 and lowered his ERA to 3.77. "I’ve been able to get on a routine and just getting comfortable with going out there every fifth day. It’s what I’ve done my whole career being a starter, and it’s nice being able to get back into that role.”