The Yankees had a busy offseason, maybe the busiest in baseball, and it all started with a new contract for Brett Gardner. Three days after the World Series the Yankees declined Gardner’s $12M club option, instead paying him a $2M buyout and giving him a new one-year contract worth $7.5M. Gardner gets $9.5M total and the Yankees get a $7.5M luxury tax hit in 2019 (the buyout was taxed during the first four years of his contract).
“I wasn’t sure what to expect at the end of the season, but being able to come back and rejoin this special group of guys we have in place, continue my career in a Yankees uniform — and hopefully finish it in a Yankees uniform — it means a great deal to me,” Gardner said to Bryan Hoch after signing his new contract. “We have some unfinished business. It was tough to sit back and watch the rest of the postseason this year. It was a great learning experience for us. We have a young team and had a great season, but we came up short of our goal.”
Gardner, now 35, is the longest tenured Yankee and the longest tenured player in the organization, minor leagues included. He is the only active Yankee to have played a home game in the old Yankee Stadium and one of only nine active players to play a home game in the old Yankee Stadium. The other eight: Melky Cabrera, Robinson Cano, Francisco Cervelli, Tyler Clippard, Ian Kennedy, Dioner Navarro, David Robertson, and Chris Stewart. (Stewart played one game with the 2008 Yankees and Navarro recently signed a minor league deal with the Indians.)
Last season was Gardner’s worst as a full-time big leaguer. He hit .236/.322/.368 (90 wRC+) overall and was moved to the bottom of the lineup at midseason, and then out of the lineup entirely following the Andrew McCutchen trade and Aaron Judge’s return from his wrist injury. There’s a chance he would’ve been out of the lineup completely in the postseason had Aaron Hicks not tweaked his hamstring in Game One of the ALDS and needed a few days to heal up.
Clearly, the Yankees overpaid to bring Gardner back. Similar-ish veteran outfielders like Nick Markakis ($6M) and Jon Jay ($4M) received less money, Curtis Granderson had to take a minor league contract, and others like Adam Jones and Denard Span remain unsigned. Had they waited out the market, the Yankees probably could’ve brought Gardner back for $3M or $4M less than they gave him.
That said, I couldn’t possibly care less about the Yankees saving a few million bucks, and it’s not like re-signing Gardner prevented the Yankees from making other moves (i.e. signing Manny Machado or Bryce Harper). The Yankees valued Gardner at some dollar amount, they gave him that dollar amount, and now he’s back for year 12 in pinstripes. Let’s preview his season.
Does he have anything left in the tank?
A fair question following a dreadful second half. It’s easy to forget Gardner went into the All-Star break hitting .254/.345/.403 (106 wRC+) last year, nearly identical to his .264/.347/.393 (104 wRC+) career line going into 2018. It was the same ol’ Brett Gardner into mid-July. The second half was terrible though. Gardner hit .209/.288/.316 (68 wRC+) after the All-Star break and the plunge was drastic:
Gardner’s defense slipped as well, though we’re talking about a well-above-average defender becoming a merely above-average defender. He went +12 DRS in 2016 to +20 DRS in 2017 to +10 DRS in 2018. The baserunning numbers were good as well. Gardner was +8.9 runs on the bases per FanGraphs and +4.1 per Baseball Prospectus last year. It was +6.0 and +1.8 in 2017, respectively, and +7.1 and +5.2 in 2016, again respectively. Gardner’s sprint speed, per StatCast:
- 2016: 28.7 feet per second (69th in MLB)
- 2017: 28.8 feet per second (71st in MLB)
- 2018: 29.2 feet per second (37th in MLB)
Gardner’s game has always revolved around his legs and defense, and, by and large, those two skills remained intact last year. He played the field well and he ran the bases well. As well as he had in the past? Not quite when it comes to his fielding, but he was still very good. Good enough to play Yankee Stadium’s spacious left field every day and also play some center field on occasion. (Gardner’s 34 games in center last year were his most since 2015.)
At his age, another slip in the field should be expected this coming season, though Gardner’s starting at such a high baseline that it’s not unreasonable to expect him to continue to be an asset in left field. Sure, he could go from way above-average to Raul Ibanez overnight, but I’d bet against it. I am pretty confident Gardner will continue to play a strong left field and run the bases well this season. What will he do at the plate? That’s another question.
We know two things about Gardner’s offense. One, he was typical Brett Gardner in the first half last year before collapsing in the second half. And two, his quality of contact was in line with the last few years. There wasn’t a big and sudden drop in hard-hit rate or anything like that. Some numbers:
Gardner’s hard-hit rate, exit velocity, barrel rate, and all that was right in line with previous years. His expected wOBA, or xwOBA, was not. StatCast’s batted ball data says Gardner lost some bloop and seeing-eye singles and replaced them with pop-ups, which are close to automatic outs. That’s why he went from consistently running a .300+ BABIP throughout his career to .272 last year.
Two questions going forward: One, can Gardner reduce his pop-up rate, and two, can he continue to maintain his usual hard-hit rates? He is 35 now and will turn 36 in August, and once age-related decline sets in, it is basically impossible to reverse. The best case scenario is usually slowing that decline down. Gardner has done the good first half/terrible second half thing that left everyone wondering if he’s done before (137 wRC+/67 wRC+ in 2015). He is older now though, and further decline in performance can’t be ruled out, if not expected.
How much will he play?
Two weeks ago Aaron Boone didn’t even mention Gardner’s name when asked about his leadoff hitter. He mentioned Hicks and Gleyber Torres, and even Aaron Judge as a possibility against lefties. Not Gardner. “We will kind of evolve over Spring Training. My expectation is that we will see a lot of different orders depending on right and left as Spring Training unfolds and the start of the season unfolds,” Boone said.
Boone and the Yankees have not said anything about Gardner’s playing time this year. They mentioned reducing his workload last year and it never really happened, at least not until after the McCutchen trade and Judge’s return from the disabled list. At the very least, Gardner should sit against lefties this year. He hit .239/.309/.319 (74 wRC+) against southpaws last year and .233/.308/.315 (70 wRC+) the last three years. That can not continue.
Replacing Gardner in the lineup will be a piece of cake, in theory. Giancarlo Stanton slides into left field, Miguel Andujar moves to DH, and DJ LeMahieu plays third. Nice and easy. Should Clint Frazier make the Opening Day roster — I still think that’s unlikely after missing so much time last year, but we’ll see — it would give the Yankees another option to replace Gardner in left. Getting him out of the lineup is the easy part. How much should he be in the lineup is another question.
And that’s not a question we can answer now. Gardner should sit against lefties. We know that much. His playing time against righties will depend on his performance, first and foremost, and also the roster around him. Stanton in left with Andujar at DH and LeMahieu at third sounds great until someone’s hamstring starts barking or goes through a slump that renders them a bigger offensive liability than Gardner. It’ll happen. You watch.
Gardner has started at least 130 games every year since 2013 and he often comes off the bench for defense in the late innings when he doesn’t start. At this point of his career, he is probably most useful as an 80-90 start player who basically never starts against lefties. A true righty platoon bat who hits eighth or ninth and contributes more value with his defense and baserunning than his bat. That’s how Gardner best helps the Yankees on the field in 2019.
Give the Yankees a truth serum and I think they’d tell you they want Frazier to platoon with Gardner by midseason and replace him in left field come 2020. Frazier’s development this year will be a factor in Gardner’s playing time. Gardner is a highly respected veteran, but I also think that if Frazier forces the issue, the Yankees will reduce Gardner’s playing time the same way they reduced Brian McCann’s playing time when Gary Sanchez arrived. Unless he mashes and the Yankees can’t keep him out of the lineup, Gardner’s days as an everyday player figure to be over.
“I wouldn’t want him to think any other way,” said Gardner to Brendan Kuty last week when asked about Frazier possibly taking his job. “If he comes into camp complacent with being a fourth outfielder, complacent with going to Triple-A, that’s not good for anybody. You want guys who want to push other people. You want to be pushed. The more we push each other, the better we’ll get in the long run.”
What happens after 2019?
Don’t worry about it. At least not right now. Gardner recently said he wants to play beyond this season — “They are still enjoying the run,” he said to George King last week, referring to his family — but lots of guys want to keep playing and don’t get the opportunity, especially in this free agent market. Gardner’s future is not worth worrying about right now. There is an entire season that has to play out between now and then.
I will say this though: The Yankees clearly value Gardner for more than what he provides on the field. He’s a leader in the clubhouse who mentors young players, and that’s not something the Yankees want to lose, especially not with CC Sabathia set to retire. If I had to bet right now, on February 25th, I’d bet on the Yankees re-signing Gardner to another low-cost one-year contract to be their fourth outfielder in 2020. Someone has to do the job, even if Frazier takes over as the regular left fielder.
* * *
Gardner has been a rock atop the lineup for the Yankees for the better part of a decade now, but those days are over, and he’s now a complementary player on a team loaded with young stars. His playing time should be reduced this year, especially against lefties. Gardner has been no worse than a +2.5 WAR player the last six years (including last year) because of his defense and baserunning, which have considerable value. I wouldn’t expect him to do that again with reduced playing time, but even with a below-average bat, Gardner still does enough things to help the Yankees win. At age 35, less is more. Less playing time equals less wear and tear and, hopefully, more offensive production.