Spring training has brought a fine start for two Yankees that are hoping to keep Father Time away in 2019. Brett Gardner, who the Yankees signed to a one-year, $7.5 million deal this offseason, smacked a pair of home runs on Sunday. He is looking to bounce back in his age-36 season after experiencing career-low 90 wRC+ last season. The other player is Troy Tulowitzki, who has played just 66 games since 2017. He has a pair of homers of his own, and has even made some promising plays in the infield.
The Yankees have to be encouraged by these first impressions of two players who could be seen as question marks heading into meaningful baseball. However, the team should also be cautious in that optimism. This spring training production could be a product of aging bodies feeling fresh after a winter off. If the Yanks want to maximize this duo’s value, they will give them a healthy amount of rest through the regular season, even if they’re both putting up numbers that make them tough to take out of the lineup.
The Yankees made it clear on Tuesday that Gardner would be the regular left fielder come Opening Day, but “with more days off.” It should be a lot more, as Gardner played in 140 games last year and hit a wall in the second half, a trend that becomes more and more likely when a player heads into his upper 30s. Gardner posted a 66 wRC+ in the second half of last season, compared to 106 in the first half. Part of that slide could be the fact that Gardner played in 81 games the first half of the season, and wore down in the dog days of summer.
It’s true that part of his regular playing time was necessary due to injuries to Aaron Judge and Aaron Hicks. Even Giancarlo Stanton battled a bum hamstring. Still, it’s not outlandish to say that the Yankees ran Gardner into the ground in 2018, at least until Andrew McCutchen came along. If they want to avoid a repeat performance in 2019, his playing time will have to be much more limited. A healthy Stanton could play more left field this season, and a healthy Clint Frazier could provide some relief if he makes the Opening Day roster. Regardless of who it is, the production will likely be better than what Gardner provides when he begins to wear down.
Tulowitzki hasn’t played more than 135 games since 2011, and at 34 years old, he falls into the same category as Gardner. As Matt pointed out last weekend, it’s perfectly feasible to see a situation where Tulo thrives in April thanks to a pair of fresh legs. Those legs that aren’t used to a full season might wear down quickly, as the Yanks continue to trot him out to shortstop, hoping for the April version to return. Aaron Boone can avoid this scenario altogether by giving Tulowitzki regular time off, even if he is thriving in April and May. DJ LeMahieu can man second base while Gleyber Torres shifts to shortstop, which gives the Yankees some flexibility to monitor Tulowitzki’s playing time until Didi Gregorius returns.
Fortunately for the Yankees, there are ways to work around potential drop-offs for Tulowitzki and Gardner. Past history suggests that they will wear down if they log too many miles by the All-Star break, so it would behoove the Bombers to get ahead of that now, and plan to rest the two on a consistent basis.