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Brett Gardner is caught in the middle of the Yankees’ outfield situation

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Gardner is overqualified to be a fifth outfielder, but he’s not playing well enough to crack the lineup regularly.

New York Yankees v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

It is very rare for athletes to finish their careers with storybook endings. Just ask Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Joe Torre or Joe Girardi. Typically, athletes and coaches are forced out and replaced by someone younger and cheaper.

For Brett Gardner, this could be the beginning of the end. The Yankees’ veteran leader has been demoted into a part-time role for the first time since his rookie year, and it’s pretty justifiable. The Yankees have four younger, superior options in Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks and Andrew McCutchen.

Gardner really hasn’t helped his case much either. He’s slashed .193/.264/.303 over his last 30 games, and has just a .589 OPS since the All-Star Break. Players slump all the time, but with Gardner in the last year of his contract and at age 35, it’s certainly plausible that this is more of an age-related decline than a simple slide at the plate.

Gardner’s approach remains solid; his strikeout and walk rates are the same as always, and he still grinds at-bats, works pitchers and hustles out every groundball. He is still hitting to all fields, and he still makes hard contact a serviceable 27.5 percent of the time. However, his soft contact and ground ball rates have risen, while his line drive rate and slugging percentage have dropped. His BABIP is also a career low, which could either point to bad luck or that Gardner has lost his hitter’s touch.

That being said, Gardner still has value on the 2018 Yankees. By WAR, Gardner has been the Yankees’ eighth-most valuable player, mostly thanks to his baserunning and defensive prowess. His BsR, which quantifies a player’s skill on the basepaths, is by far the Yankees’ top figure at 7.5 runs, and also marks Gardner’s highest total since 2011, when he co-led the American League in steals. Gardner has also successfully swiped a remarkable 88 percent of his stolen base attempts this year. Even if he isn’t quite as quick as he was in his heyday, Gardner remains a well above average baserunner.

Gardner also still can contribute on defense. He leads the Yankees in defensive runs saved and has the 16th-highest total in all of MLB with 11 DRS. He has thrown out fewer runners this year, but Gardner still patrols Yankee Stadium’s left field like a center fielder, a position he can also man capably.

Yet even though Gardner remains one of the Yankees’ top defensive and baserunning players, his offensive decline means he just isn’t a starter on this team. It’s always awkward to sit a respected veteran, especially one who is making a significant amount of money, but Aaron Boone has handled this difficult situation pretty well. He’s still playing Gardner three to four times a week in some role, and he will certainly make the postseason roster, albeit as a reserve.

Gardner isn’t chopped liver yet; he has helped the Yankees win some ballgames and he’s a valued clubhouse leader. That can be true, while also listing Gardner at fifth on the outfield depth chart. Gardner will still be used in certain matchups in the playoffs, or as a late-game pinch hitter, pinch runner or defensive replacement, even if that role isn’t typically befitting someone making Gardner’s $13 million salary.

Getting McCutchen wasn’t only great as temporary Judge insurance; it also gave the Yankees a significant upgrade over a struggling Gardner. McCutchen will not likely return to the Yankees, so there is a way in which Gardner retains a spot next year with the only club he’s ever known. Such a deal would have to come at a lower salary and for only one year. Gardner can probably start for a good chunk of teams in the league, but he’s beginning to get phased out as a Yankee. The future of left field is something that the Yankees will have to address this offseason, whether Gardner is back or not.

Brett Gardner is the ultimate team player. He never quits and always gives all that he’s got. He has stayed composed during this demotion, and I would not be surprised to see him in the center of a big moment or two during the Yankees’ 2018 playoff run. He is too good to be a bench player, but he’s also no better than the fifth outfielder on this loaded Yankees team. Gardner is stuck right now, but the best way to move forward is to become indispensable by continuously contributing.