The Yankees made their first notable move of the offseason three days after the World Series ended. They declined Brett Gardner’s $12.5M club option for 2019 and re-signed him to a one-year deal worth $7.5M. Add in the $2M buyout of the option and Gardner gets $9.5M in real dollars. His luxury tax hit is $7.5M because the buyout was taxed as part of his previous contract.
In the weeks since it has become clear Gardner made out very well relative to his peers. Nick Markakis was an All-Star last season and he had to settle for one year and $6M. Yesterday Curtis Granderson took a minor league deal with a $1.75M MLB salary. Other veteran outfielders like Adam Jones and Carlos Gonzalez remain unsigned and they’ll be lucky to get Markakis money at this point, nevermind Gardner money. It’s hard out there for a free agent in his mid-30s.
Financially, the Yankees probably want a do-over on Gardner’s contract. It seems like they could’ve re-signed him at a lower rate had they waited out the market. That said, the Yankees are already over the $206M luxury tax threshold, so saving $2M or $3M isn’t a big deal. It is real money, but the Yankees have plenty of real money, and they don’t seem to be adhering to a strict payroll mandate like last year. Are they spending as much as they could? No. Is Gardner preventing them from spending more? Nah.
Even on an overpriced contract, Gardner was the best fit for the Yankees among this offseason’s group of declining-ish veteran free agent outfielders. None of them project to be impact players in 2019 …
- Gardner: +1.2 WAR in 407 plate appearances per Steamer
- Jones: +1.0 WAR in 513 plate appearances
- Gonzalez: +1.0 WAR in 410 plate appearances
- Markakis: +0.9 WAR in 580 plate appearances
- Granderson: +0.3 WAR in 186 plate appearances
… but Gardner is far and away the best defender of the group, which is not a small thing in Yankee Stadium’s spacious left field, and he’s also best able to play center field. Jones was arguably the worst defensive center fielder in baseball before the Orioles moved him to a corner late last year. CarGo, Granderson, and Markakis haven’t played center in years. Gardner’s defense slipped a bit last year but was still comfortably above-average (+10 DRS).
There is also some hope Gardner’s offense will rebound a bit this coming season. His exit velocity (87.3 mph) last year was his best since Statcast launched in 2015 and his hard-hit rate (32.9%) was second best. The key differences between 2018 Gardner and 2015-17 Gardner was more pop-ups (Under %) and fewer bloop and seeing-eye singles (Flare/Burner %), crushing his average on balls in play (career low by far .272 BABIP). Here’s the batted ball data:
We’ve done the “Gardner is done!” thing before. He had a 96 wRC+ in 2016, we all wondered whether this was the beginning of the end, then he responded with 21 homers and a 108 wRC+ in 2017. Gardner is older now, and he was especially bad in the second half last year, but the contact quality was still typical Gardner. Perhaps a little tweak can turn those pop-ups back into singles. No one is expecting 20+ homers again. But a .250 AVG and a .340 OBP? Doable.
The thing is, even if Gardner is now a below-average hitter, the Yankees are in position to trade offense for defense — for what it’s worth, Steamer projects Markakis (102 wRC+) as the best hitter in that veteran group and Gardner (97 wRC+) the worst, so the spread is small — and defensively, Gardner was the second best one-year contract option available behind Billy Hamilton, who can’t hit a lick. Gardner had a 90 wRC+ last year and was bad. Hamilton has a career 70 wRC+. There is a minimum acceptable standard for offense, even for No. 9 hitters, and Hamilton doesn’t meet it.
There’s also this: Gardner’s clubhouse skills and leadership have value. How much value, exactly? It’s impossible to say. But when everyone from Aaron Judge to CC Sabathia praises Gardner for being a leader and a mentor, it’s hard to ignore. Granderson and Jones have also long been lauded as great teammates and clubhouse guys. They’d also be coming into a new situation — Granderson doesn’t know this group of Yankees — whereas the Yankees know Gardner fits right in. Intangibles may not be measurable, but they do have some value to a team.
There is also something to be said for taking care of your own. The Yankees needed some sort of one-year stopgap outfielder this winter. Someone to at least back up Aaron Hicks in center. They could’ve either re-signed Gardner, who’s been an important member of the team for nearly a decade now, or saved some cash and signed some other club’s castoff who projects to give similar production. Players notice these things and appreciate it.
Had the Yankees not re-signed Gardner as quickly as they did, they would’ve instead waited out the market and … probably re-signed Gardner anyway. Likely at a lower rate, saving a few million bucks, but the roster would’ve been right where it is today. Gardner is not stopping the Yankees from signing Bryce Harper (no one actually believes this, right?) and the one-year outfield alternatives all kinda stink. Jones, Granderson, Markakis? Meh. Can’t count on them to be average on either side of the ball at this point. Gardner will at least save runs in the field.
In a perfect world the Yankees would sign Harper and bump Gardner to the bench, which is where he found himself late last year once Judge returned and Andrew McCutchen took over left field. That seems very unlikely to happen. The next best thing is a lower cost left fielder who can play center field when necessary, and not stand in Clint Frazier’s way should Frazier prove to be ready for a full-time gig. Gardner meets the criteria. Pretty much no other free agent outfielder did (or does). Add in the clubhouse skills and the fit is even more obvious.
Given the current market, there’s no doubt the Yankees paid more to retain Gardner than necessary. I couldn’t possibly care less about the Steinbrenners saving money though, especially now that the Yankees are over the luxury tax threshold. Gardner at $3M vs. Gardner at $7.5M makes no difference to me. He’s not preventing a Harper signing and the Yankees would need a Gardner type even if they sign Harper. Given their roster needs, Gardner was the best low-cost outfield fit, and overpaying a bit on a one-year contract won’t make or break the 2019 Yankees.