David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
TAMPA, Fla. - Jacoby Ellsbury never made it to the field Tuesday against his former team, but Red Sox manager John Farrell knows how dangerous a player like that can be in the wrong hands.
With Ellsbury in the leadoff spot, and Shane Victorino at No. 2, Farrell watched the go-go Sox sprint circles around everyone in winning the franchise's third World Series in 10 seasons. Boston blew away the rest of the American League by scoring 843 runs -- 57 more than the next-best Tigers -- and it was the Ellsbury/Victorino tandem serving as the trigger mechanism.
So when the Yankees moved with surprising urgency to secure Ellsbury this winter, Farrell had reason to worry. The Red Sox's chief rival could now use that same '13 blueprint against the defending champs by batting Ellsbury leadoff with Brett Gardner in Victorino's role to give the Yankees a more versatile attack.
Or so Farrell thought. As much as that sounds like a perfect storm atop the order, the Yankees have not committed to such a lineup, and the biggest obstacle preventing that would appear to be Derek Jeter, who is going to be tough to pry from the No. 2 spot.
Through 20 Grapefruit League games, the Yankees have used the Ellsbury-Gardner duo just once, on March 11, when Jeter was not in the lineup. Otherwise, it's been Ellsbury and Gardner alternating at leadoff, with Jeter behind them.
Joe Girardi insisted again Tuesday that his Opening Day lineup is far from finalized, but with just under two weeks left in Tampa, the clock is ticking. Could Girardi really drop Jeter in the order? It's a sticky dilemma that's bound to tug at the manager as he attempts to balance his respect for the Yankees' captain with filling out the best lineup card possible.
It's clear which scenario Farrell fears the most. He saw the damage the Ellsbury/Victorino weapon did last season, and when asked about the pinstriped '14 version featuring Gardner, Farrell winced as he considered the retooled lineup.
"They can manufacture runs," Farrell said. "They can hit the long ball. You've got speed to contend with. What it shows quickly on paper is that it's a diverse offense and they can do a lot of different things.
"In some ways it's similar to the Victorino and Ellsbury combination of a year ago. And I know from our end, that was a comforting feeling. And it just forces you to contend with another element."
What we've seen since then has only reinforced that Gardner is a suitable pest to pair with Ellsbury. On Tuesday, with Ellsbury still out with a tight calf, Gardner batted leadoff and went 3-for-4, including a bunt single. He's hitting .313 (10-for-32) with a pair of walks. As for Jeter, he went 1-for-4 and grounded into a double play for the fourth time.
Yes, it's spring training stats, but the numbers are the numbers, and the Yankees have decisions to make. Jeter is coming off a season in which he was limited to 17 games because of a suspect ankle and turns 40 in June. Gardner is 10 years younger -- and playing like it. He's been a 5-10 mongoose in stirrups.
Of all the spring training battles, the tug-of-war going on inside Girardi over the No. 2 spot is one of the more intriguing to watch. With Ellsbury expected back Friday, it won't be long before Girardi will have to start experimenting with the lineup he intends to use for the opening series in Houston. And as soon as that happens, we'll see if Girardi chooses to go with the Sox model from last year -- and this time give Farrell the headache.