During their five-year tenures with the Yankees, reliever David Robertson and outfielder Brett Gardner have grown from underrated prospects to crucial cogs on playoff teams. Contributions as sophomore players in 2009 netted both players World Series rings; despite minor roles on that championship team, they remain two of the last members still with the Yankees. Since they both broke into the majors in 2008 and have gone through pre-arbitration and arbitration years normally, they are tentatively scheduled to hit the free agent market after the 2014 season. If the Yankees operate as they have in years past, that is exactly what will happen.
For years now, the Yankees have maintained a "no extension" officially policy broken only once--in February 2008, when they essentially bought out then-24-year-old second baseman Robinson Cano's first two years of free agency on a four-year, $30 million deal with a $14 million option in 2012 and a $15 million option in 2013. Since then, they have refused to offer extensions, aside from some brief discussions in Spring Training last year about extending Russell Martin for three years and $20 million (Martin allegedly refused).
The idea of refusing to give contract extensions made some sense a few years ago, when the Yankees could clearly outbid everyone for players on the free agent market. By letting their own players reach free agency, the Yankees ensured that they were still playing at a high level by the time they reached free agency. They could avoid the risk that extensions naturally carry--just ask the Cleveland Indians about the extensions they gave Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore. The Yankees still had to pay more these players by the time they reached free agency, but they could afford to do so without worrying about being outbid.
As Jason mentioned on the most recent podcast, the Yankees can no longer operate this way. The Los Angeles Dodgers now also have a dumptruck full of money that they're willing to invest in even the Brandon Leagues of the world. Even if the Yankees are no longer adopting the $189 million payroll plan for next year, it appears there is still likely a desire to not abuse the payroll. The Yankees are presently weighed down by lofty contracts offered to guys like Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira, who were bound to finish their prime long before the contract expired. If possible, they would like to keep such anchors to a minimum.
One effective of doing so is ending the policy of never offering extensions. Young players surely like the idea of free agency and selling their services to the highest possible bidder, but many these days seem to enjoy job security even more. The free agent market has been mostly uninspiring for a few years now since numerous All-Stars are under contract extensions signed during arbitration years or the latter seasons of prior extension. Since February alone, All-Stars Felix Hernandez, Chris Sale, Adam Wainwright, Buster Posey, Justin Verlander, and Elvis Andrus have signed long-term extensions. Barring a shocking trade, they are not going to be Yankees.
It's not even just the All-Stars who are signing contract extensions. The Colorado Rockies gained an extra year of team control on 27-year-old center fielder Dexter Fowler just by extending him for two years and $11.6 million. Fowler is on pace for his best season yet, and the Rockies control him through 2015. After a tremendous season in the bullpen, the Baltimore Orioles extended righthanded reliever Darren O'Day for two years and $5.8 million with a $4.25 million club option for 2015, the first season after O'Day would have hit the open market. The San Francisco Giants took it a step further and extended setup man Santiago Casilla for three years and $15 million, rewarding a crucial member of the 2010 and 2012 World Series champions' bullpen and buying out Casilla's first two free agent seasons. Arguably the best extension of all from the off-season came when the Milwaukee Brewers extended super center fielder Carlos Gomez for four years and $28.3 million. Gomez was set to hit the open market after the 2013 season, but the Brewers realized that Gomez brings significant value on defense alone, so they bought out his first three free agent years. This year, Gomez is complementing his amazing defense with a .312/.353/.559 triple slash and a 142 OPS+. He does not turn 30 until the 2015-16 off-season.
The Yankees have three third-year arbitration players hitting free agency after this year in Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and Boone Logan. Hughes and Chamberlain's inconsistencies have justified the Yankees' hesitance to offer extensions to them in particular. Logan has been an asset to the bullpen (130 ERA+ since joining the team in 2010), but his more-than-occasional struggles against lefties--the very hitters he's supposed to handle as the LOOGY--make the idea of offering him an extension questionable as well. All three of these players could depart at the end of the season, and it is unlikely that the Yankees would struggle to replace them.
The two second-year arbitration players due to hit free agency after 2014 are another story. Despite being younger than the aforementioned Hughes, Chamberlain, and Logan, Robertson and Gardner have been more valuable to the Yankees over the past few years. Among all Yankees pitchers since '07, only Mariano Rivera and CC Sabathia have a higher WPA than Robertson (+8.93). Robertson has also produced a higher Baseball-Reference WAR than all three pitchers, and while his FanGraphs WAR is slightly behind Chamberlain and Hughes, keep in mind that he has produced such value in only 299 innings, while Chamberlain has 423 and Hughes has 726.
Robertson is the heir apparent to Rivera as closer, and at only 28 years old, he has the potential to help the Yankees out for years to come. Granting extensions to relievers can be a risky game, but Robertson's remarkable consistency since his breakout 2011 should assure the Yankees of any reservations they have about extending their setup man. If the Giants could extend Casilla for three years and $15 million to buy out a couple years of free agency, the Yankees could certainly do the same for Robertson, who is making $3.1 million this year.
Gardner is Carlos Gomez without the power potential. Readers of this site likely already know the immense value the defensive whiz provides in the outfield. The fact that neither he nor Gomez has a Gold Glove yet is an indictment on the system. The only problems with offering him an extension is that speed typically doesn't age well and that he has missed time due to injury both in '09 and of course nearly all of 2012. However, the Yankees do not really have any outfield prospects close to hitting the majors quite yet. Top prospects Tyler Austin, Slade Heathcott, and Mason Williams could all be ready by 2015, but it's definitely difficult to say for sure at this point. Re-signing Gardner to a lower-price version of Gomez's contract would insure top-notch defense and assist the pitching staff for a few years more while these prospects develop and refine their game. He is a more than adequate stopgap, and since he's only turning 30 in August, it is unlikely that he will turn sloth-like overnight. Ichiro Suzuki still has decent speed left, and he's 10 years older.
There are not many cheap players on the Yankees contracted past next year. The Yankees can shake off two possibly concerning positions through some worthy extensions to two homegrown players that really deserve them. Even if it only helps the team in 2015, the Yankees will likely thank themselves later when they don't have to overpay for their own players' services. They have the opportunity to exclusively negotiate with these important assets. To ignore it could hurt their franchise's future.
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