Brett Gardner officially re-signed with the Yankees earlier this week, which had become a foregone conclusion since his deal was first reported over a month ago. It was a natural fit for a few reasons – the Yankees were short a center fielder since Aaron Hicks’ injury, and Gardner had filled the role quite capably during 2019, to say nothing of his 11 prior years of service to the Bombers.
However, if you dig deeper, there are a few other reasons that bringing Gardner back was the smart move to make. The Yankees’ roster largely looks the same up and down – a lot of big, right-handed power hitters who are offense-first, defense-second kinds of guys. Gardner is the exact opposite of that — while still being a good hitter in his own right — which makes his skill set valuable to this team.
For one, Gardner is left-handed. There has been a lot of discussion this offseason about whether the Yankees, who tend to benefit from left-handed hitters due to their short right field porch, have enough lefties in the lineup. As things stand now, Gardner is the only left-handed hitter in the projected starting lineup, with two or three more expected to contribute as bench bats.
Now, handedness isn’t everything when it comes to constructing a lineup. Gardner shouldn’t bat any higher in the lineup than he normally would just because he’s a lefty, but he will bring a different look to the plate than the entire rest of the lineup will on certain days, which benefits the Yankees in the matchup game. Just as having too many lefties would present problems against specialists, having too many righties isn’t ideal either, and now the Yankees won’t go into Opening Day with an exclusively right-handed lineup.
Although Gardner’s offense was a pleasant surprise, it’d be a big ask to expect the same production in his age-36 season. His main value for 2020 will probably come from defense and baserunning, and wouldn’t you know, those are two areas the Yankees could use a lot of help in.
Even last year, when Gardner was 35 years old, he excelled in the young man’s game. Only Gardner, Aaron Judge, Mike Tauchman and DJ LeMahieu graded out as positive FanGraphs defenders among Yankees regulars last year — although Hicks would have joined them if he stayed healthy.
Those were also the only players to account for at least five defensive runs saved, and the metrics on other sites (such as Statcast’s new Outs Above Average metric) all agree that you could count the amount of positive Yankees fielders on one hand. With Gardner being a huge part of that, it would have been devastating to lose his steady production in the field, especially with Hicks injured and Tauchman yet to play a full MLB season.
Finally, although Gardner doesn’t run the bases as aggressively as he once did, his awareness on the basepaths is still the best on the team. Gardner had the highest BsR (FanGraphs’ baserunning value metric) on the team for the fifth straight season. He was also one of a very small number of Yankees to rate positive in the metric – Gardner, Judge, Tyler Wade and Tauchman are the only positive baserunners left on the current roster.
Sure, Gardner doesn’t steal 40 bases anymore — or even half of that — but he also doesn’t make outs on the bases, and knows when to take chances. The Yankees aren’t really a great baserunning team as constructed; they’re not particularly fast while also young enough to make careless mistakes. Having Gardner around cleans things up a bit.
Again, it’s unlikely the team can expect Gardner to pop 28 home runs or post an .829 OPS in 2020, but they can expect him to help make the roster more versatile. He’s a lefty bat with speed that can play top-notch defense, which are three things the Yankees should have had on their offseason checklist. Sometimes, the best solutions are the most familiar ones after all.