While Gardner and Cabrera are fairly similar in terms of offensive production, Gardner is clearly the better fielder. His UZR/150 games is 16.5, an excellent figure. Cabrera has not been a slouch in center, but his UZR/150 is 3.3, almost a full win and a half below Gardner. Gardner also has a better arm than Cabrera, saving 3.3 runs more than average and almost seven runs more than Melky. These numbers aren’t one year flukes either. We have limited data on Gardner, but Cabrera’s 3.3 runs above average is a three run improvement over his total last season, and well above anything before 2008.
This is not to take anything away from Melky Cabrera. He’s a very good fourth outfielder and is playing the best baseball of his career this season. He is more than capable of starting in the major leagues; he’s just going to be held to a higher standard while playing for the Yankees. It would hardly be unrealistic to see a scenario where Melky becomes a deadly weapon off the bench, particularly in a potential World Series match-up where his power from both sides of the plate could come in handy. In order to get to that scenario, however, the Bombers would be best suited to start Gardner.