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What will the Yankees do with Brett Gardner next season?

The veteran outfielder has an option year on his contract, but is he worth picking it up?

MLB: Game Two-New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees, like all other sports teams, have a set of rituals and traditions. Some have been around for decades, like the Bleacher Creatures, and some are quite new, like Didi Gregorius’s postgame victory tweets. For the better part of a decade, though, Yankee fans have been unified by one consistent tradition: passionate debate around the value of Brett Gardner.

Gardy’s the longest-tenured Yankee on the roster, and on Friday night played his 1300th career game, all in the Bronx. He’s never been the best player on the team, but especially since moving from primarily center to left field in 2014, he’s been remarkably solid:

In all but one season since 2013, he’s been an above average hitter, and has always been above average with the glove. Since moving over to left, he’s become an elite-level fielder, and Yankee Stadium’s left field is one of the toughest to play in the majors. Gardner’s put up 18 fWAR in that stretch, making him as valuable as Ben Zobrist, Dustin Pedroia and JD Martinez, all players better known than him.

The other bit that has really helped Gardner’s value over the past decade or so has been his contract status. He signed a four-year, $52 million extension after the 2014 season, keeping him in pinstripes for an AAV of $13mm. That’s very palatable for even the stingiest fan or ownership group, and with about 40% of the season still to go, Gardner’s produced about $40mm in surplus value for the Yankees already.

The contract also includes a club option at $12.5mm for next season, and the Yankees are going to be forced to make a decision about Gardy’s future soon. The team’s outfield is probably its biggest strength, with the three best hitters in 2018 being natural outfielders. Aaron Hicks has locked down the center field spot, Aaron Judge has proven to be better than anyone could have thought in right, and Giancarlo Stanton is more than capable of patrolling the outfield as well. Gardner’s still a better fielder in left, but his spot on the roster is not nearly as set in stone as he’d probably like.

There’s also the issue of the market price for solid, over-30 MLB regulars. Take for instance Neil Walker, he of the one-year, $4 million contract and who has been a colossal disappointment in 2018. At the start of the season, many people - myself included - thought this deal was grand larceny for the Yankees, especially when compared to Gardner’s deal. Since 2012 through the end of last season, the two players had been separated by just half a win of total value, and remained remarkably similar to one another over the past half-decade:

Walker’s been a better hitter over this timeframe, with Gardner’s defense and slightly more consistent play keeping his value afloat. The real notable thing here, though, is how Walker has completely fallen off a cliff in 2018, both in offensive value and overall. Now remember that Gardner is two years older than Walker, and you have to wonder when and if Gardy will ever crater like that too.

So there’s an awful lot of risk in picking up Gardner’s 2019 option at $12.5mm, not the least of which is it would represent a raise over this season’s $11mm salary. It’s pretty uncommon for a player like Gardner to actually get a raise after their age-34 season. He’s probably worth bringing back, but you have to set up some kind of a hedge against a complete collapse, which is possible with any player at 35 years old.

The best possible solution is to entice Gardner to re-sign with something that guarantees him more money than the option year, but spreads the risk out over more than one season. A two-year extension worth $14-16mm makes a lot of sense given this criteria. It’s enough money that it’ll be among the best offers Gardy would get on the open market, but at $7mm or so of AAV, it’s a soft enough impact that you can guard against a Walker-like dropoff in production. If Gardner completely falls apart mid-2020, his outstanding salary wouldn’t be an obstacle in the Yankees making a decision about his roster spot.

This pay grade would also give the Yankees the flexibility to move Gardner into more of a fourth outfielder spot, which I think Yankee fans have been predicting for three or four years. Clint Frazier and Giancarlo Stanton will both be looking for more outfield time as next season approaches, and there’s the looming shadow of Bryce Harper’s free agency as well.

Finally, Gardner’s always been more valuable to the Yankees than to other teams, and giving him a total value of $14-16mm shows that appreciation and commitment. I don’t imagine many other teams would give Gardner that kind of term at this point in his career, and he has earned the right to finish his career in the Bronx if he chooses to.

The debates over Gardner’s value will go back and forth among Yankee fans for as long as he’s in baseball, and probably for a while after that. In November, for the first time, the Yankees themselves will have to have that same debate over his value.