New York Yankees' Brett Gardner hits a triple during the...

New York Yankees' Brett Gardner hits a triple during the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays. (Sept. 3, 2010) Credit: AP

Now that we're closing in on the end of the regular season, it's easy to see who the winner was in the Yankees' much-debated game of musical chairs from last offseason.

After the Yankees let Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui leave as free agents, traded Melky Cabrera and acquired Curtis Granderson and Nick Johnson, the guy who has emerged victorious is . . . Brett Gardner.

In the wake of all those moves, a full-time spot was created for Gardner, and he has taken full advantage by turning himself into not only a serviceable major-leaguer but a rather valuable one.

Maybe the Yankees still will pursue impending free agent Carl Crawford this offseason, as he's a player they've long coveted. But it's not such a certainty anymore, not with Gardner putting together a season that is all-around comparable with - and in some facets even better than - the Tampa Bay leftfielder's year.

After going 1-for-3 with a triple, two walks and three runs scored in the Yankees' 7-3 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday, Gardner is hitting .284 with a .390 on-base percentage. Most impressively, he started the day with an average of 4.57 pitches per plate appearance, which leads the majors by a wide margin.

Gardner said he doesn't pay attention to that particular leader board, saying, "I don't think there's an award for that." But the Yankees might as well give out an award internally, considering how much they value displaying a patient approach at the plate. In that sense, Gardner - who also has an uncanny ability to foul off tough pitches - fits their lineup perfectly.

"Gardy can do a lot of things," Mark Teixeira said. "Obviously, his defense and speed are huge, but at the same time, he can work walks because he works the pitchers. And when he's at the top of the lineup, he really makes that pitcher work."

Derek Jeter was given the day off Friday, so Gardner filled in at the top of the order and did everything expected of a leadoff hitter. He was on base three times and saw a total of 26 pitches in his five plate appearances, which was second only to Teixeira's 29 pitches seen.

But don't get any ideas. Manager Joe Girardi has made it clear in recent days that he won't be moving Jeter down in the order, even though the shortstop is experiencing his worst offensive season.

"It doesn't matter to me," Gardner said of his spot in the batting order. "Whether it's one or two or eight or nine, I just enjoy being in the lineup."

A year ago, Gardner was mostly a pinch runner during the Yankees' postseason run. He had missed all of August because of a broken thumb, and when he returned, he mostly watched from the bench as Cabrera played centerfield.

The Yankees still thought highly of Gardner entering the offseason, but any young player who has made it through this system to the majors is trained to accept that playing time is not guaranteed from year to year. So when the Yankees acquired Granderson and still had Cabrera on the roster, Gardner knew anything was possible.

"You kind of saw the writing on the wall," he said, "and figured something would happen."

Soon Cabrera was gone, traded to the Braves in the deal for Javier Vazquez, and Gardner entered spring training knowing he was penciled in as one of the three starting outfielders.

"I'm just glad I was able to get off to a good start," he said.

And he's kept it going all year, for the most part. He said he'd still like to bunt more and be more aggressive on the bases. He also needs to cut down his strikeouts (83 in 405 at-bats), but he's certainly done better overall than anyone had projected.

Not to mention better than Damon, Matsui, Cabrera, Granderson and Johnson.