Brett Gardner signed a four-year contract extension on Sunday afternoon that will pay him $52 million from 2015-18. After the Yankees pay him the agreed-upon arbitration raise of $5.6 million for the 2014, the extension kicks in for his age-31 season in 2015. Joel Sherman reported that Gardner will receive $12.5 million every year of the contract, and there is a $12.5 million club option for his age-36 season in 2019. The Yankees could also choose to buy out that option for $2 million. If they trade him at some point, Gardner receives an extra $1 million.
Gardner's extension bumps the 2015 payroll to $161.2 million already (divided between just 10 players), so in case there were any worries about the Yankees going for Plan 189 again next year, this deal should eliminate them. Through ~$11 million in player benefits, arbitration raises for six players, and pre-arbitration deals, it will be damn near impossible for the AAV to come in under $189 million for 2015. For subsequent years, the 2016 payroll jumps to $157.7 million in commitments for eight players (might as well nix Plan 189 concerns for that season, too), the 2017 payroll goes to $98.6 million in commitments for six players, and the 2018 payroll sits at $72.6 million in commitments for four players (Gardner, Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Brian McCann).
Four years and $52 million for Gardner is virtually identical to the contracts the Yankees gave out a few years ago to Gardner's 2009 championship teammates, Hideki Matsui (extension) and Johnny Damon (free agency). While that might seem a little shocking at first since at the plate, Matsui and Damon were both better hitters than Gardner, keep in mind that the market has only gone through more inflation since the 2005-06 off-season when those deals were signed, and that Gardner brings immensely higher value on defense than either of them. Each of them brought their own unique strengths to the Yankees' roster, and they were all rewarded with similar contracts.
A few outfielders in similar age and overall skillset to Gardner just signed free agent contracts or extensions of their own. Gardner's now-former teammate, Curtis Granderson, just signed a four-year, $60 million deal with the Mets during the 2013-14 off-season. Gardner has been worth 17.8 fWAR since his 2008 debut, and over that same amount of time, Granderson has been a little bit better with 20.5 fWAR. However, Granderson is two and a half years older than Gardner with declining defense and baserunning abilities. Granderson is the better hitter, but given that he will be 38 by the end of his deal, Gardner has more than a decent chance to be the more valuable player over the course of the contract.
Another former teammate, Nick Swisher, received four years and $56 million on the open market last year before his age-33 season. Like Granderson, Swisher offers more potential at the plate than Gardner, but he was priced at roughly the same amount since Gardner is a little younger and is a much more useful player on defense. The Indians are basically Swisher that money to be their first baseman instead of their rightfielder anyway, so Swisher's a bit of a wild card in comparisons anyway.
The Royals made a good move to lock up outfielder Alex Gordon after his long-awaited breakout 2011 campaign, and they got him for four years and $37.5 million. Gordon's healthier and at his best, he's a better player than Gardner. However, Gordon's contract was signed with two years of arbitration left and only bought out two years of free agency. He has a player option of $12.5 million in 2016, but if he keeps up the pace, he could reasonably ask for another extension or decline the option and hit the free agent market as a 31-year-old. There was more incentive for Gordon to take the lower-value contract at that point in time.
The contracts that makes the Gardner deal look very good are the seven-year, $142 million deal the Red Sox gave to Carl Crawford in December 2010 and the seven-year, $153 million contract the Yankees just gave Jacoby Ellsbury. Both Crawford and Ellsbury were almost unquestionably better players at the time of their signing, especially at the plate. Gardner is not quite as good a hitter or baserunner as them, though he is certainly closer to them on defense. The Yankees are getting a somewhat-lesser version of Crawford and Ellsbury for roughly one third of the price.
Gardner wouldn't have received anywhere near that big of a contract in free agency, but SI.com's Jay Jaffe projected that if Gardner had another solid season like 2013 under his belt entering the 2014-15 off-season, he could very well have received $15 million per year on his next contract. The man would have gotten paid pretty well, and Jaffe, the same baseball mind who developed the acclaimed JAWS system, thinks the Yankees received a "bargain" for Gardner. It's a valid point--people in baseball front offices do value defense more than the common fan likely thinks.
The counter to Gardner possibly receiving $15 million per year comes in the form of arguably Gardner's most similar recent comparison on the free agent market, Indians center fielder Michael Bourn, who was a free agent l. Like Gardner, the 30-year-old Bourn wasn't as flashy a hitter as some of the other big outfielders to hit the free agent market lately, and like Gardner, a great deal of his value was tied into his speed and defense. Yet it took Bourn until the middle of February to find a good free agent contract, and that deal was four years and $48 million. Might Gardner have similarly struggled and ended up with a lower contract than this extension? It's certainly possible.
Some fans might complain that having both Ellsbury and Gardner is redundant. That argument just does not make much sense. There is certainly no mandate that a successful team needs two big power hitters in the outfield. Gardner and Ellsbury are both overall far more complete players than the vast majority of outfielders anyway. They have exceptional defense and baserunning that is more than makes up for any power deficiencies they might have at the plate, and that's assuming Ellsbury's power game does not receive a boost from Yankee Stadium (hint: it should get one).
As each player has come into his own as a MLB outfielder during the 2010s, they both rank among the top 20 outfielders in the game by fWAR since 2010. Despite missing nigh-full seasons due to injury, Ellsbury and Gardner rank 11th and 16th, respectively, right in the same vicinity or above more mainstream outfielders like Gordon, Shin-Soo Choo, Austin Jackson, Jay Bruce, Hunter Pence, and Justin Upton. Shouldn't the fact that they are both providing such high overall value thanks to their respective excellence in overlooked areas like defense and baserunning be a good thing? Sure, teams often get power from their left fielders and Gardner probably won't do that, but not many teams get power from behind the plate--that's a unique strength that Brian McCann offers. The duo of Ellsbury and Gardner should not be dismissed because their skill-sets come from less obvious sources. Just look at the last two teams to win the World Series.
In 2013, Ellsbury and regular left fielder Jonny Gomes combined for just 22 homers. In 2012, center fielder Angel Pagan and primary left fielders Melky Cabrera and Gregor Blanco all combined for 24 homers. The Yankees will get their power from the likes of McCann and Carlos Beltran. It does not necessarily need to come from more than one starting outfielder. Instead, the Yankees will receive considerably high value in other sources from their left and center fielders, and they both have a strong chance to be among the top 20 outfielders in the game in terms of fWAR by the end of 2014 anyway. Sure, they are similar players--they are similar in that they both provide respectable overall value. How is that a bad thing?
With all these factors taken into consideration, the four-year extension is quite fair from both sides. Gardner received job security and a better contract than what was ultimately offered to Bourn, a comparable player to him. The Yankees locked up a useful commodity through the 2018 season, an already-popular homegrown talent whose greatest skills are very well-catered to Yankee Stadium. The extension made too much sense for both sides for it to be considered much of an overpay at all.
It's a well-constructed marriage, and with the market only escalating in recent years due to inflation, estimates of the Yankees probably saving a good $10-20 million in total contract value given Gardner's talent seem accurate. Not many left fields are as vast as the one at Yankee Stadium, but Gardner has the necessary defensive expertise to cover the wide span of ground and maximize his potential. That kind of acumen is certainly worth $12.5 million per year price tag.