The Yankees are going through a youth movement the franchise hasn’t seen over much of their substantial history. In order to make room for prospects, they have been sending out veterans in trades and even released Alex Rodriguez. If the front office continues their plan to make the team younger, no player represents the old guard more than Brett Gardner, but does he have a place on the team anymore?
In the big league picture since 2008, Gardner is now the longest tenured Yankee. Who ever saw that coming? By next year, he and CC Sabathia will be the only remaining members of the 2009 club on the team. That’s a hell of a turnover, especially for this franchise. Over the last decade, fans have become starved for the young, talented players that other franchises seemed to pull out from every direction and for a brief moment Brett Gardner filled that role for us.
Amid the failures of the Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and Ian Kennedy era were success stories like Robinson Cano, David Robertson, and Gardner. While Cano and Robertson have gone on to become some of the best players in the game for other teams, Gardner has always been the guy who needed to fight to stay in the picture. He was good–not great–but he was the type of player the team needed at the time.
Fast forward to right now, and Hal Steinbrenner is still pretending like the Yankees didn’t give up on the season, and possibly next year as well. He told the AP “there’s no white flag here for me. There was no surrender. If you had seen me get rid of (Michael) Pineda and (Nathan) Eovaldi and (Brett) Gardner, then you could probably make a case.” The trouble I’m seeing now, though, is whether or not Gardner is the type of guy you can say that about anymore.
Again, he’s always been good, but he’s rarely been great. Couldn’t the Yankees be just fine if they moved on from Gardner at this point? There was a time period where he was the youth of the team, where he had to fight for playing time, and he was the spark plug who could change the offense. He stole 47 bases in 2010 and topped that in 2011 with 49 bases to lead the league. This was the dawn of something new and exciting, but things didn’t really end up like we all planned.
Gardner broke his thumb stealing second, he hurt his elbow diving for a ball, and little by little the excitement wore down. No team showed interest in the 32-year-old left-fielder as scouts seemed to feel like he was “playing scared,” as in he was being too careful to really take advantage of his abilities. They might not be wrong, as evidenced by his sharp decline in activity on the base paths, becoming the anchor he has been over the last few years.
He has always been a player who redefines himself from year-to-year, going from the speedy, light-hitting archetype, to an on-base machine, to a more aggressive power-hitter. This change in tactics led to nearly 100 stolen bases in two season and then a power surge that added an additional 10 home runs a year. He’s never only been just one thing, making it difficult to evaluate him, but impossible to give him up. However, despite the consistent ingenuity, it hasn’t done much to save his value in his decline years.
In his mid-20s he was an under-the-radar 5.0-6.0 WAR player, thanks in large part to his glove, but as he has hit his 30’s, things have started to slow down and his fielding has been down for several years now, leaving him as a 3.4-WAR player in 2013 and 2014, a 2.6 WAR in 2015, and 1.8 so far this season. These numbers are obviously acceptable, and it’s not like he’s hurting the team, but it’s clear that he’s in the early stages of decline. Despite the influx of power, it hasn’t revolutionized his offensive value, and pretty soon things will begin to fall apart.
He’s signed to a fairly reasonable deal that keeps him under contract through 2018 below market value, not to mention an additional option for 2019. If this was the team’s only option, it would be a fine way to ride out the remainder of Gardner’s career, but at this point he’s no longer the only option. They don’t have to keep him around if there’s someone better. He’s really not the guy who will decide whether or not the team can compete this year or next, so if they have an alternative, there’s no reason not to use him.
There is so much outfield depth in this organization that it’s almost laughable. Not that most of them can hope to have as good of a career as Gardner has had, but there are a few in the bunch who at least track to have a similar profile and could help out at the major league level. Of course, there is also Clint Frazier, the organization’s shiny new prospect who shouldn’t be in Triple-A for very long. With Aaron Judge ready to move into right field, Frazier makes a lot of sense in left, and that makes Gardner expendable.
Jacoby Ellsbury is obviously not going anywhere thanks to the amount of money he is making, but Gardner’s deal, like it was always meant to be, makes him movable. There will certainly be a team willing to “put up” with his “decline” years. This team could use rotation help badly, so why not use their surplus talent to get what they really need?
As much as many Yankees fans will appreciate the role Gardner played for this team for the last few years, baseball always moves on. Maybe it’s time to move on without Brett Gardner.