NEW YORK -- As news trickled in that the New York Yankees had signed center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year, $153 million deal in December, it caught incumbent Yankees center fielder Brett Gardner off guard.
"I was surprised at first. I didn't really see that coming," Gardner said Tuesday. "He's a great player. You put him on our team or any other team across baseball and he makes them better. I look forward to playing beside him and learning from him and got a feeling he knows a thing or two about some pitchers -- especially in our division -- and pushing each other and getting the best out of each other."
With Ellsbury now in the fold as the likely starting center fielder, it leaves Gardner's role up in the air as he prepares for the start of spring training. Gardner could start in left field while Alfonso Soriano is the designated hitter, or the Yankees could use Gardner as their fourth outfielder. The six-year veteran said he has not been told yet what position he will play this upcoming season.
"It's not really anything I control. Go in, play hard, and I've played left field before and I've played center field, and I'm sure if they needed me to I could slide over and play right field, too," Gardner said before being honored at the 34th annual Thurman Munson Awards Dinner in Manhattan. "Whatever it takes to help the team win and I'm sure they're going to put our best team on the field."
Gardner started in center field last season and played well, but the Yankees signed Ellsbury to a megadeal, and also brought in veteran Carlos Beltran to play right. Ellsbury plays center field, and with the money the Yankees are paying him, it doesn't appear they would bring him in to shift his position.
With Beltran slated to start in right, and Soriano -- who carried the Yankees during the second half of 2013 -- returning, the additions have left Gardner's role unsettled for now. Gardner said manager Joe Girardi called him around the holidays to let him know the Yankees still have big plans for him.
After the signings, Gardner's name surfaced in trade rumors as the Yankees suddenly had an excess of outfielders. While general manager Brian Cashman said he was not shopping Gardner, he became one of the hot names in rumored deals. Gardner called it bittersweet to hear his name in rumors. He wants to stay with the Yankees but understands it's a business.
"I try to block it out as much as I can. I try not to drive myself crazy thinking about what might happen or what might not happen," Gardner said. "All offseason I've expected to stay with the Yankees, go down to Tampa for spring training until I hear otherwise, and so far, so good. Still headed to Tampa so I'm excited about it."
As Gardner preps to leave for spring training, he could be joined by suspended third baseman Alex Rodriguez, whose spokespeople said he plans to attend despite being suspended for the entire upcoming season. Gardner said he wishes the whole situation was handled differently, and that it hadn't happened.
"I don't know what to expect with that. I haven't even thought about that," Gardner said of Rodriguez attending spring training. "I guess we'll cross that bridge when we get there."
Cone's advice: Former Yankee and Met David Cone said he would not advise Rodriguez to attend spring training.
"If I had a say in the matters. I think that's probably the best thing to do at this point," said Cone, who was also honored at the dinner. "Judging from his last comments that he's looking forward to a year off, maybe he does too, but it remains to be seen."
Cone said it was sad to watch the Rodriguez saga unfold.
"I certainly have always been an advocate of the players association and I'm an advocate of Alex's right to defend himself and I'm certainly curious as to how this would play out," Cone said. "At the same time the scorched earth policy that he and his legal team have taken has really been hard to watch. It's really been sad."