Yanks Re-Sign Gardner

On Friday, the Yankees and Brett Gardner came to a one-year, $4 million agreement. The deal includes a player option for 2022 and a team option if Gardner declines it. The contract solidifies the outfielder’s plan to spend his entire career in New York. Nominally, his return had been up in the air: The Yankees declined to exercise his $10 million option last fall and announced that Clint Frazier would be the club’s starting left fielder in 2021. But Gardner wanted to stay in New York, and he was willing to sign on for part-time duty in lieu of other options.

Had Gardner wanted a starting gig, he probably could have found it, as he seems to have plenty left in the tank. Prior to 2020, he had accrued 2.5 WAR or better every year since 2012. Last season, he posted a 110 wRC+ and 0.6 WAR in 49 games, numbers that probably undersell his ability. He got off to a dreadful start, batting just .165/.293/.299 through his first 36 games. In most years, that’s a bad April, but in 2020 that was his batting line when he woke up on September 10. He hit nearly .400 the rest of the way though, and then mashed in October to alleviate concerns that age had eaten into his offensive ability.

On the contrary, Gardner has aged spectacularly well. Just about the only thing that seems to have changed in his 13 years in the majors is the size of his neck, and even that’s been pretty subtle. Last year, Gardner posted a career-best walk rate, and also his highest average exit velocity since Statcast started tracking that metric. He did strike out and whiff more often than normal, but also raised his launch angle; sometimes there’s a bit of a tradeoff there. Perhaps most encouragingly, the Yankees still saw fit to use him in center field several times, and while his wheels may not spin quite as fast these days, he’s still a plus runner. ZiPS projects 1.8 WAR for him in 118 games, which would make him a 2-3 win player in an everyday role. For Aaron Boone, that’s a hell of an option to have on the bench.

Of course, Gardner’s reserve role says less about him than it does about Frazier. After a few false starts, the bat speed extraordinaire finally broke out in 2020, posting a 149 wRC+ while bashing eight homers and walking in more than 15% of his plate appearances. There are reasons to be concerned about his ascension to full-time duty: He strikes out a lot, chases flies like he’s trying to catch them with a glue stick, and he’ll have even more ground to cover in left than he did in right. Still, he’s young, and his bat could carry him to an All-Star Game as soon as this season. He’s earned a shot in the everyday lineup. There also shouldn’t be too much of a concern about Gardner breathing down the younger player’s neck: The two reportedly have a good relationship and Frazier seems genuinely excited to have Gardner back in the fold.

And even with Frazier, the Yankees should be thrilled that Gardner is returning. ZiPS has them as the best team in the American League by eight games, which is about as comfortable of a buffer as you can have at the outset of the season. Adding Gardner doesn’t change the equation much, but the depth he affords should solidify their position, and he’s a great insurance policy for New York’s brittle outfielders.

The Yankees projected starters around the outfield are Frazier, Aaron Hicks, and Aaron Judge, with Giancarlo Stanton again set to DH. Stanton’s checkered injury history is well-documented, and he’s only played 53 games since 2018. Judge missed 50 games in each of the past two full seasons and was on the shelf for half of 2020. Hicks just about played a full season in 2020, but sat out 100 games in 2019 and at 31 has battled injuries throughout his career.

Gardner’s presence allows the club to manage their health risks both proactively and reactively. While some of the injuries Stanton and Judge have suffered have been of the variety you can’t plan around, they’ve also battled plenty of recurring strains. A bit of load management up front could pay dividends in the long run. A day off per week for Judge and Stanton probably isn’t a bad idea, and you can imagine a scenario where Hicks and Frazier also get more scheduled days off than your typical everyday regular. Much of that extra playing time can go to Gardner: He may not start on Opening Day, and might have weeks here and there where he’s out of the lineup more often than he’s in. But barring an injury himself, Gardner’s going to play a lot.

This is also an appropriate moment to briefly reflect on Gardner’s place in Yankees history. There will be plenty more time for this when he hangs his spikes, but even now his numbers compare well to some of the luminaries with retired numbers and plaques in Monument Park. The most fun way to contextualize his performance is to head over to the Yankees franchise encyclopedia page at Baseball Reference. You know how Baseball Reference lists a franchise’s WAR leaders, with their headshots at the top of the page? Yeah, Gardner is on New York’s now.

He’s probably going to be there for a while, too. After passing Jorge Posada last year, he’s less than two WAR away from leaping over the next five players ahead of him. Meanwhile, Judge is the closest active Yankee in his rearview mirror and he’s less than halfway to Gardner’s WAR total. Gardner has also earned more WAR than Phil Rizzuto, Elston Howard, and Don Mattingly. If he stays healthy, ages gracefully, and has two or three years left in New York, Thurman Munson and Ron Guidry are within sight as well. All five of those players, and Posada, have had their numbers retired.

Of course, the difference here is that the aforementioned players won MVPs, have multiple rings, or both. Gardner, by comparison, was a part-timer on the 2009 championship team and his tenure has come alongside a relatively uneventful spell in Yankees history. So while he’s not quite a Yankees legend, and he still probably needs a resonant moment or two to get his No. 11 retired, there’s a good chance he winds up with a plaque in Monument Park. If Tino Martinez can have one, why not Gardner?

In any case, Gardner is now firmly entrenched as the club’s eldest statesman. He’s the only player left from the 2009 World Series team and the longest tenured Yankee by nearly eight years. It’s always nice to see a star spend his whole career with one team, and it looks like that’ll be the case for Gardner. That’s good: There are still bats to slam and dugout roofs to poke and it would be weird to see him do those things in any other jersey.





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tz
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I’d hate to live in an apartment above Brett Gardner 🙂