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The Yankees are running out of time to trade Brett Gardner

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The Yankees don’t have to trade their left fielder, but they must do so soon if they want to extract value.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

Earlier this week, Yankees GM Brian Cashman indicated that the team was likely done maneuvering this offseason. That might leave this winter feeling like a bit of an unsatisfying half-measure: the team didn’t commit to rebuilding, only once dealing a veteran for future value, but neither did they put the team in prime position for 2017, signing just two major league free agents who only pushed the team to the sixth-best projected record in the American League.

Instead of further investing in the future or the present, the Yankees seem to content roll with what they have for now. That means holding on to a number of veterans whose names have swirled in trade rumors for weeks, such as Brett Gardner. Cashman explicitly stated that players like Gardner and Chase Headley would in all likelihood appear on the Opening Day roster.

That isn’t necessarily a mistake. However, if Cashman chooses to hold on to Gardner, his opportunities to deal the left fielder will be dwindling. The combination of Gardner’s gentle decline as well his affordable but not insignificant salary means that it could be now-or-never to trade him.

Gardner’s contract terms have been enviable the past few seasons. Prior to the 2014 campaign, he signed a four-year, $52 million extension that kept him locked down through 2018. He has provided value more than commensurate with what he has been paid on this extension, as Gardner has totaled 5 fWAR across 2015 and 2016, as well as nearly 7 rWAR.

Yet with two years and $26 million remaining, time is running out on Gardner’s status as a trade asset. That is because Gardner has been on a subtle yet still perceptible decline. Straightforward WAR totals suffice to paint the picture of Gardner’s slow descent from his peak: his rWAR figures since 2013 read as 4.4, 4.0, 3.3 and 3.0, while his fWAR totals over the same span are 3.4, 3.5, 2.6 and 2.5.

It’s not much fun to simply eyeball the drop in a player’s WAR as he ages, so let’s dig a little deeper. Gardner, an outfielder who in his prime back in 2010/2011 relied heavily on his speed and defense to generate value, has seemingly had his legs slowly erode underneath him. In 2010 and 2011, Gardner averaged nearly 30 runs above average per season as an outfielder according to Defensive Runs Saved. Over the past four seasons, Gardner has averaged just four runs above average per season by the same metric.

Across 2010 and 2011, Gardner averaged 48 stolen bases with an 81% success rate, and provided 13 runs above average on the bases according to Baseball-Reference. Since 2013, he has averaged just 20 stolen bases with a 78% success rate, and has averaged four runs above average on the bases. If we take ability on the bases and in the outfield as reasonable proxies for speed and athleticism, it appears that Gardner has gradually declined in those departments.

Gardner would seem likely to further decline in the final years of his contract. Consequently, Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections forecast Gardner for a middling .254/.336/.386 line and 2.0 WAR, which would be his lowest total in a full season since his rookie year. At 33 years old, that is to be expected, and the expectation in 2018 would for Gardner to drop off even a bit more.

So, essentially, with each passing day, Gardner’s trade value falls. He is a player gradually succumbing to time just like all of us, and thus he is a far more interesting asset now than he will be in a year. In 2018, at age-34, Gardner’s surplus value may be expired. He will likely project as a one-to-two WAR player, and will be paid a salary (he is guaranteed at least $13.5 million beyond this year) very close to what that is worth. If Cashman wants to extract value from Gardner in a trade, he must do it now, or sometime before this season’s trade deadline.

Still, discussing Gardner solely as a trade asset to be cashed in misses that Gardner is a fine player, one who has carved out an underrated career as a quietly productive Yankee. Surely, the Yankees would be happy flip him for a prospect-haul, but such a return has evidently not been there.

Plus, the Yankees, while middling, still do have at least some potential in 2017. They don’t look great, but are instead probably a handful of positive bounces from making a Wild Card run (think along the lines of the 2015 Yankees). For a team like that, holding on to solid players like Gardner is a completely defensible decision. There might not ever be a better time to deal Gardner. Even so, if he simply continues to provide stable production as a Yankee, who are we to complain?