Imagine a list of the best Yankees outfielders. If I could look into your minds, Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle would surely occupy your first two spots, respectively. Following them would be Joe DiMaggio, as surefire a pick as the preceding two.
After that, you can start to get a little more creative. Yankee historians might save the next spots for late greats like Charlie Keller, Earle Combs, and Tommy Heinrich. Those fond of the early George Steinbrenner days might have a soft spot for Roy White. And fans of a more recent generation will surely cry out Bernie Williams’ name, perhaps to the tune of a certain disco hit by the Trammps.
What I have described here is a list of the best Yankees outfielders of all time by fWAR. Yet there’s one name that I haven’t mentioned yet, who sits just below the aforementioned luminaries on this all-time leaderboard. That name belongs to Brett Gardner, ninth-best Yankee outfielder of all time by cumulative value. Not Paul O’Neill, nor Bob Meusel, nor Dave Winfield, but Gritty Gutty Brett Gardner.
Gardner may not seem like he should rank that high up on the list, especially in his current diminished state, but the breadth of his work demonstrates clearly that he belongs. Last year may have been Gardner’s final season as a full-time regular, but hopefully this post will serve as a reminder of his underrated greatness.
Gardner is now the longest-tenured player on the Yankees, but it was far from a given that his career would last this long. As a prospect, Gardner never made Baseball America’s Top-100 list — in fact, the highest ranking he ever achieved within the Yankees’ system was 12th. His 2008 MLB debut was hardly anything to write home about either, as he managed only a .229/.283/.299 line (54 wRC+) in 42 games.
Even so, Gardner did flash the excellent defensive skills that would make him a lineup mainstay for years to come (12 DRS in one-quarter of a season!). Gardner’s bat came along in 2009, when he raised his wRC+ to a much more palatable 91. Not exactly an eye-popping mark, but coupled with his glove, it made Gardner a solidly above-average regular (2.3 WAR in 108 games) and a key part of the Bombers’ World Series-winning squad.
Over the next two years, Gardner found his peak, putting up a six-win season in 2010 and a 5-win season in 2011. Somehow, Gardner did not make the All-Star team in either year, perhaps due to his less-than-sexy offensive numbers. Neither was he the most valuable player on the team in those two years; that distinction was claimed by Robinson Cano in 2010 and Curtis Granderson in 2011, which might have contributed to him flying under the radar. Still, though, what a performance. In that 2010-2011 span, the only outfielders in MLB who were more valuable than Gardner were peak Jose Bautista (14.5 WAR) and peak Josh Hamilton (12.3 WAR). Not too shabby for a guy who could never crack the team’s top-ten prospects list.
While Gardner never reached such heights again, he has consistently turned in solid seasons since then (save for 2012, when he missed most of the year due to elbow surgery). From 2013 to 2018, Gardner’s season WAR never dropped below 2.5. No other Yankee has demonstrated such consistency over that time period. Sure, there were highs - like the first half of 2015, when his .302/.377/.484 propelled him to his first and only All-Star game - and lows, like the second half of that same season, when he slumped to a .206/.300/.292 line and saw his team get blanked in the Wild Card game by Dallas Keuchel. But at the end of the day, Gardner was unfailingly solid, day in and day out.
Over the course of Gardner’s career, the Yankees have gone from World Series champions, to World Series contenders, to an expensive Wild Card team, and finally to their current young, resurgent form. Through it all, Gardner was always there as an above average outfielder that you could plug in to the lineup every day. He may not be a regular this year, but fans should appreciate the fact that he gave the Yankees a decade of stability in the outfield, a decade that no one saw coming. Only a handful of outfielders have had better Yankee careers than Brett Gardner. Isn’t that worthy of the term “great”?