PORT ST. LUCIE — He arrived with the perception of being a fourth outfielder — maybe 3.5 — but something short of a starter.
But through tenacity, enthusiasm and building upon his speed and on-base excellence, he worked his way into regular play, then from the bottom to the top of the batting order. Never early on would you have envisioned a player with that profile sticking his whole career in New York and winding up all over the top 25 for his franchise in a variety of categories.
Is this Brett Gardner? Brandon Nimmo? Or both?
“It is a great comparison,” Mets center fielder Nimmo said of being likened to Gardner, the longtime Yankee. “Because there’s a lot of things about Gardner’s game that I love. The peskiness and fight is a huge part of that. I love a bulldog. I love being gritty. I love doing whatever it takes in order to be a tough out and have a productive at-bat. That’s all things Gardner did well. And like him, when I came up, I was supposed to be the fourth or fifth outfielder. And I surprised a lot of people by just being willing to work on my weaknesses.”
Mets general manager Billy Eppler worked for the Yankees when Gardner was a third-round draft pick in 2005 and he was actually a champion of Gardner’s on the way up the organization. Still, no one exactly anticipated that Gardner would be arguably the Yankees’ second-best positional draft pick (after Aaron Judge) of this century.
Heck, I remember comparing him early on to third-down running back Darren Sproles — the kind of player who changes the pace of play when he is in, but doesn’t have the physicality or skill for regular play. I kind of felt similarly at first about Nimmo, the 13th-overall pick in 2011, whose lack of acumen from having so few reps playing baseball growing up in Wyoming seemed as if it would always serve as a deterrent to full-time excellence.
But, like Gardner, Nimmo combined an elite hitting eye and willingness to battle as a core skill and just kept refining and upgrading other elements of his game.
“Like Gardy, he’s pretty relentless,” Eppler said. “He enjoys the fight. … He’s not afraid to hit with two strikes, not afraid to spend more time up there within an at-bat, in fact, the more time he spends in the batter’s box, the more comfortable he gets.”
Through their age-29 seasons, Nimmo (608 games, .269 average) and Gardner (620 games, .268 average) share many similarities. But there are differences: Gardner had 23 homers through 2013, while Nimmo had 63 through last year. And Nimmo only has 23 steals, while Gardner had 161. Gardner actually, with age and knowledge of how to create backspin with a short path to the ball, especially at Yankee Stadium, hit for more power in his thirties. In the final eight years of his career, through 2021, Gardner hit 116 homers.
Eppler and Nimmo agreed in the offseason to an eight-year contract (for $162 million) that will take the outfielder through most of his thirties. But they also agreed Nimmo will not be looking to dramatically increase his base stealing. Nimmo shares something with another Yankees outfielder, Bernie Williams, who was fast, but could never develop the techniques to steal at a high level, and so he limited, then reduced his efforts. He finished with a 62.8 success rate. Nimmo also has not refined his technique and has a 62.2 career mark.
Nimmo stole just three bases last year (in five tries) and none before Sept. 11. Both he and Eppler said they were comfortable with the output. That’s also a reflection that Nimmo has battled injuries and Eppler wants to keep him healthy, knowing how difficult it is to find legit center fielders and leadoff hitters, and especially both in one player.
That was central to why the Mets made retaining Nimmo in free agency a priority. Also that he has made such positive strides with his defense (aided by playing deeper) and that he played a career-high 151 games last year, delivering 53 extra-base hits (the same as Xander Bogaerts), 64 RBIs (the fifth-most from the leadoff spot) and 102 runs (fifth in the majors overall). Plus, he adds something unquantifiable with hustle, relentlessness and an unflagging doggedness on every pitch he sees.
“We use the analogy ‘glue guys’ when you are talking about people in the clubhouse and how they drive your culture,” Eppler said. “[Nimmo] drives the culture of our lineup.”
It sounded exactly like something Eppler used to say about Gardner.