When I first heard that the Cincinnati Reds had offered a trade--Brandon Phillips for Brett Gardner--I gasped. The Yankees had just shored up their outfield with the addition of Jacoby Ellsbury, and there were still holes at this time in December. The Seattle Mariners had just agreed to sign Robinson Cano and there was a black hole at second base. A deal for Brandon Phillips would fill that need for the foreseeable future, and the Yankees could still sign one of the remaining free agents--Carlos Beltran or Shin-Soo Choo--to a contract to replace Gardner. But when they rejected that trade it was clear that the Yankees organization had a very good understanding of the value he possesses. We as Yankee fans see Brett Gardner play every day, so it's very easy to lose sight of overarching value on a day-to-day basis. But how valuable has Gardner really been since he became part of the roster?
Brett Gardner has been one of the most valuable outfielders, and especially center fielders, in baseball since his rookie year in 2009. Among center fielders since 2009, Gardner is ranked eighth in fWAR (16.7), 24th in wRC+, 14th in FanGraphs' Offensive Runs Above Average, and third in FanGraphs' Defensive Runs Above Average. Among all outfielders since 2009, Gardner ranks 18th, 77th, 39th, and fourth in those same categories, respectively. Good comparisons in terms of value over this span of time are players like former Yankees Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson, actually. Swisher has recorded 16.8 fWAR in that span and Granderson has recorded 16.4 fWAR. Both have signed contracts valued at four years, $56 million and four years, $60 million, respectively. The Yankees have done a great service to themselves--they've avoided arbitration and prevented Gardner from entering free agency, stopping a possible bidding war in a world where free agent prices have only been inflating.
And what if the extension had not been inked? Then here's what his possible payout from 2014 to 2018 may have looked like: $4 million in projected arbitration for 2014 plus approximately 9.2 fWAR (via Oliver projections) from 2015 to 2018 valued at approximately $6.2 million (by Dave Cameron's calculation) would be equal to $61.04 million. That's a pretty conservative number, too, because who knows what the market will value a win in one year. The Yankees have followed in the footsteps of teams like the Atlanta Braves and the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have locked up their homegrown stars in order to maintain arbitration pay and avoid the inflation of free agent costs.
Brett Gardner is a key piece of the face of the Yankees in what will soon be a post-Derek Jeter world. Slowly, we've seen the age of homegrown talent disappear; first it was the aging and (soon-to-be) retirement of every Core Four member, the loss of Cano, and the (relative) failure of what should have been a new core: Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain, and Phil Hughes. The Yankees know full well that the years ahead will be difficult in defining an image for themselves. It's still weird for those that have cheered on the Core Four that faces like Ellsbury and eltran will adorn banners and posters across Yankee Stadium. As fans, we all like to see our homegrown heroes succeed and stay along for the ride.
We all are well aware that "baseball is a business" and all that rhetoric, but sometimes it is just nice to pretend that homegrown players want to stick around. We as fans of a homegrown player possess this narrative about their journey: we all remember and can reminisce about Gardner's growth from unknown prospect to pinch runner and defensive replacement to elite defender and World Champion. Much of our joy in this extension is still being able to reminisce about such things because of our connection with the past; it's much harder to nostalgically reminisce about these players when they play for a different team. But it's not just about that--it's also because we're very excited to extend these memories of a past joy into the future.