Legacy can be a hard conversation. CC Sabathia spent 2019 on a farewell tour, and while we’re all confident in his Hall of Fame case, he sure didn’t have a good year. That’s often secondary to a player’s career accomplishments; we all largely forgave Derek Jeter’s 75 wRC+ 2014 season, even if he shouldn’t have been hitting so damn high in the lineup all the time.
While 2019 saw the end of one player’s career, and the resulting discussion about his place in Yankees and baseball history, another was having a career season and climbing the all-time club leaderboards. This player proved himself worthy of some kind of club recognition when he finally does retire, and Monument Park would do nicely.
Brett Gardner, after a 115 wRC+/3.6 fWAR/4.0 bWAR season, is right on the cusp of the 20 best Yankees of all time. I’m not making that up! Averaging career fWAR and bWAR puts him at 40 WAR, right alongside Gil McDougald, Robinson Cano and Phil Rizzuto. Steamer projects him for 1.6 WAR this season, which would move him past Don Mattingly and Jorge Posada, and within striking distance of Thurman Munson.
Gardner, like Sabathia, occupies a pretty strange period in Yankee history. Both won almost immediately, the 2009 championship coming in CC’s first year and Gardner’s first full campaign. The successive seasons featured good teams too: ALCS appearances in 2010 and 2012 stalled out, before age and ability caught up with the core of the team. Gardner stayed productive in the down years, putting up 12 fWAR between 2013 and 2016, and being by far the most valuable position player on the club.
The three years since, as the Yankees have re-emerged as one of the best organizations in baseball, were supposed to be the twilight years for Gardner; he could gradually reduce playing time while still being moderately effective in the games in which he did appear. Instead, he’s averaged 144 games a year over the last year, a combination of injury relief and a change in offensive approach proving more valuable than we could have thought.
One of the crucial qualities of being a veteran in MLB is being able to recognize the changes in the way the game is played, and adapt. Gardner’s done that in a big way, realizing the advantage to be had in the era of funky baseballs and getting the ball in the air more and more. Sure enough, the power numbers have come along with that, with his two biggest home-run seasons coming in 2019 and 2017.
All reports we have are that the Yankees are interested in bringing Gardner back for the 2020 season. His speed and defense are as good as ever, and needed when the team will have to wait on Aaron Hicks’ return from Tommy John surgery. Unlike a lot of 36 year olds in today’s game, Gardner can actually be counted on to at least hold is own, and potentially make some more movement up the all-time Yankee leaderboards.
I’m not campaigning for Gardner’s number to be retired, mostly because the team is running out of numbers as it is. Red Ruffing’s son called Monument Park “the second-greatest honor you can have in baseball” after the Hall of Fame, and it’s becoming clear that Brett Gardner deserves to have his name in the Park, whenever his surprising, underrated career is over.