Benjamin Franklin has been often quoted with his famous line, “Nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Little do people know, however, that this line is actually misquoted; he actually said, “Nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes, and Brett Gardner returning to the New York Yankees in 2020.”
I kid, I kid, of course, but the truth is, everybody knew that Gardner was going to remain in pinstripes. The media knew, the players knew, even Scott Lang knew - and his character revolves around being clueless! Even so, the inevitable actually occurring does have an effect on the Yankees and the rest of the league.
The captain Bangs On
Brett Gardner put together a phenomenal season in 2019, posting a career-high 115 wRC+, hitting a career-high 28 home runs, and playing above-average defense splitting time in both left and center field. In the process, he accumulated 4.0 bWAR and 3.6 fWAR, among the tops on the team.
His on-field performance, however, is not the primary reason the Yankees brought him back. With the retirement of CC Sabathia and the departure of Didi Gregorius, the Yankees clearly wanted to keep some sense of veteran leadership within the locker room. Going into 2020, Brett Gardner will be the Yankees captain...unofficially, with a lowercase “c.” But you don’t need the title to be a major clubhouse presence.
The Starting Lineup is Set...Mostly
As of now, the Yankees have at least eleven starter-caliber players to fill nine spots in the batting order. Gary Sanchez, Luke Voit, DJ LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres, Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton expect to fill six of those spots on a regular basis in 2020, while Gardner joins Mike Tauchman, Gio Urshela, Miguel Andujar, and Clint Frazier fighting for as many at-bats as possible.
While it’s still possible that the Yankees add another veteran to deepen the roster, it’ll more likely than not be a bench piece. As far as the starting lineup goes, it’s about as clear as can be three and a half months before Opening Day.
Often overlooked in most analyses of Gardner’s contract is the 2021 club option for $10M. While it can be argued that the option was required to keep him in the Bronx, as there were some rumors that other teams had multi-year deals on the table, it does show that the Yankees do have a little bit of apprehension about the future of their outfield. Can Mike Tauchman repeat his 2019 breakout? How will Aaron Hicks recover from Tommy John surgery? Since these are the only other true centerfielders on the roster (while Tyler Wade can fake it, it’s not a good idea for more than a game or two at a time), that’s a lot of production relying on two unknowns.
The Role of Mike Tauchman and Clint Frazier
When the week started, Tauchman was pencilled in as the starting center field, with Clint Frazier in a DH/fourth outfielder type of role. With Gardner expected to man center at least for the first few months of the season, Tauchman will likely slide into the fourth outfielder spot as the only backup center field option, which leaves Frazier’s spot in flux.
He might end up on the outside looking in, but with the 26th roster spot, he might be able to force his way into the lineup as a designated hitter/fifth outfield option. Of course, this all depends on what Aaron Boone and the Yankees want to do with that fourth bench spot, but Frazier does have the opportunity to force the question.
Can He Repeat 2019?
Realistically...unfortunately, probably not, especially if MLB de-juices the ball. Truth is, Gardner had a lot go his way in 2019. His HR/FB ratio of 19.3% was more than double his 2018 value of 8.5% and 5.8% higher than his second-best season, 2017. Meanwhile, he only made hard contact 34% of the time, and both his exit velocity and barrel % were below league-average. He got the ball up in the air more (career-high 38% flyball ratio), which may help somewhat, but if MLB alters the balls again, he might see his numbers take a sharp downturn.
Fortunately, the Yankees do not need him to be as good as he was. The lineup has more than enough mashers to cover any significant downturn, and in truth, it would not be bad if Mike Tauchman and Clint Frazier pressed the issue enough to force him into a part-time bench role. Even if all parties involved perform poorly at the plate, however, Gardner still remains a solid defensive outfielder, and the value of that cannot be understated.