Brett Gardner has been one of the most reliable Yankees for a generation of fans, and he mostly met expectations again in 2020. At age 36, he finally lost a step in both the outfield and on the basepaths, and he was also streaky at the plate. However, his end-of-season numbers were mostly within the range expected of him, and a late-season hot streak continued into the playoffs, where he was one of the Yankees’ best overall players.
A free agent for the third straight winter, Gardner’s future with the Yankees is uncertain, but if that abbreviated playoff run is the last memory we have of him as a Yankee, he sure went out on a good note.
2020 Statistics: 49 games, 158 plate appearances, .223/.354/.392, 5 HR, 15 RBI, 108 OPS+, 0.5 bWAR, 0.6 fWAR
2021 Contract Status: Free Agent
For most of the season, Gardner had to yet again play a larger role than the team anticipated. It finally caught up to him a bit in his 13th year in pinstripes. Gardner’s average was below .200 until the last two weeks of the season, and was even was low as .165 on September 9th. Asked to play further up in the order due to a rash of injuries — sometimes batting as high as third — Gardner flopped. It looked like the end of his Yankees career was near, especially with the emergence of Clint Frazier.
But then, the tables turned. Gardner finished the season with an absurd .385/.500/.538 triple slash in his final nine games, including seven runs scored. Over that same span, Frazier hit just .237 and struck out 13 times, which led to Aaron Boone somewhat controversially riding the hot hand and going with Gardner as the playoff starter in left field.
Gardner’s success carried into October, where he slashed .368/.500/.579, popped a home run, and robbed another. An impending free agent with an uncertain future, it reminded fans of Jorge Posada’s triumphant 2011 postseason, when he salvaged a shaky regular season with a .429 performance in his final ALDS.
Here’s the all-important question though: should Gardner be brought back on another one-year deal? Although he looked to be toast early in the season, he was inherently valuable to the team down the stretch, and his metrics actually show some encouraging signs. Gardner’s exit velocity was the highest of his career in 2020, and above MLB average. He also earned a career-best (and MLB elite) 16.5 percent walk rate, and his OPS+ and wRC+ graded out with Gardner as an above-average MLB hitter when all is said and done.
Gardner’s sprint speed was still in the 83rd percentile among big leaguers, so even if his stolen base production has gone down, he still has wheels. His fielding metrics show a slight decline, but only from above-average to average. He is not a net negative in the field yet, and probably never will be with his solid reaction time and savvy understanding of the Yankee Stadium outfield.
Gardner has seen many different Yankees teams over his 13 years in the Bronx. He’s been a bench player on a dominant World Series champion, one of few bright spots during the lean years, and a productive veteran presence on a rejuvenated contender that just couldn’t finish the job. If he’s going to come back for a 14th season, Gardner will need to take another pay cut, and will probably (finally) be relegated to true fourth outfielder status. It’s a role that he could handle adequately, so long as he’s not asked to anchor the middle of the order anymore.
For $5 million or less, it seems like a good bet that Gardner will be back with the Yankees in 2020.