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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Brett Gardner

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How much is Gardy’s veteran leadership worth?

Division Series - Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees - Game Three Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Earlier this month, the Yankees declined to pick up Brett Gardner’s $10 million option, opting instead to pay him a $2.5 million buyout. As the team often does with aging franchise players, the Yankees are expected to re-sign Gardner to a one-year contract, but at a cheaper price.

After having a career year in 2019, Gardner’s 2020 season was serviceable, albeit nothing to write home about. The 37-year-old outfielder played in 49 out of 60 games and eventually broke out of his slump at the end of the regular season. His hot streak balanced out his slump, so in the end, Gardner actually had an above-league-average season at the plate in 2020, hitting .223/.354/.392 in 158 plate appearances.

More than anything, Gardner demonstrated the value of his veteran experience by getting hot in the postseason. In October, he put up impressive numbers, batting .368/.500/.579 with a game-winning home run and a 201 wRC+ in six playoff games. He also reminded everyone that he can still climb the outfield wall and rob home runs when it matters most.

How does Gardner add value to an MLB team roster in 2021? And for the Yankees, is the veteran outfielder worth the price?

To be sure, Gardner didn’t attract much interest on the 2019 free agent market. He’s unlikely to draw more offers this year, now that he’s a year older and coming off a middling season at the plate. This year’s free agent market for outfielders is also crowded. Teams looking to sign a center or left fielder have a number of solid options at their avail. With players like Michael Brantley and Jackie Bradley, Jr. on the market, it’s even less likely that another team would want to sign a 37-year-old corner outfielder who offers little upside at the plate.

With Gardner, the Yankees undoubtedly have the upper-hand at the negotiation table. That said, we don’t know what resources Brian Cashman has at his avail, or if payroll restrictions will force him to play musical chairs with the Yankees’ 40-man roster. Will the Yankees need to sacrifice another player if they do bring back Gardy? It’s tough to predict where the team might look to trim payroll.

Notably, Gardner’s biggest strengths have not blunted with age. His plate discipline and eye for the strike zone are just as sharp as they’ve always been. Gardner’s walk rate (BB%) has hovered around ten percent since 2015, but shot up to 16.5 percent in 2020. The league average in 2020 was 9.2 percent, so Gardner’s numbers in this area place him in the top five percent among MLB players.

His overall plate discipline is just as good as it’s always been, too. Gardner excels at holding back and taking borderline pitches that many other batters are inclined to chase after. His chase rate, a metric representing how often he swings at pitches in the so-called “chase zone,” hasn’t changed much in the last five years, as the table below shows.

Brett Gardner’s plate discipline stats

Season Zone % Zone Swing % Zone Contact % Chase % Swing % Whiff %
Season Zone % Zone Swing % Zone Contact % Chase % Swing % Whiff %
2015 47.5 54.4 86.6 21.5 37.2 21.5
2016 47 53.3 89.4 22.3 36.9 15.3
2017 47.4 51.9 90.2 21.5 35.9 15.6
2018 48.2 52.8 91.5 20.5 36 13.7
2019 48.8 55.3 88.7 22 38.3 19.7
2020 49.5 57.9 83.4 16.7 37.1 24.4
Data courtesy of Baseball Savant

Unlike many MLB players, Gardy’s speed has largely remained unaffected by age. His reaction time in the outfield has slowed slightly, though, which means he doesn’t cover as much ground as he once did (this is less of an issue, now that Gardner primarily plays in left field, rather than center).

Like many MLB players who’ve grown older before him, Gardner’s age shows the most in areas of the game where a player’s performance is dependent on his reaction time and reflexes. He makes contact less often when swinging at balls in the strike zone, relative to the contact rate percentages he posted when he was younger. Gardner’s whiff rate, a metric that measures how often a batter fails to make contact when he swings, has also increased over the years.

In 2021, Gardy won’t shock anyone if he goes through hot and cold streaks at the plate. He might begin to strike out more when facing elite pitching. But his eye for the strike zone is sharper than ever. The Yankees could really use Gardner in the lineup, not only as a left-handed bat, but as someone who helps control the strike zone when the opposing pitcher is going through the lineup for the first time. If a pinch-runner or extra outfielder is needed, he’s also a great option to have on the bench.

Do the Yankees absolutely need to sign Gardner? Not really. The Yankees have a full starting outfield (Clint Frazier, Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge) and a fourth outfielder in Mike Tauchman already. It’s not even clear that Gardner would seriously entertain offers from teams other than the Yankees.

Gardner’s salary was $10 million in 2020 (not prorated) and his market value (AAV) is estimated to be roughly $6.8 million, according to Spotrac. It would make sense for the Yankees to offer Gardner a one-year contract in the range of $6 or 7 million. Gardner has indicated he wants to play another season and that he wants his family to be able to watch him play live if 2021 is his final season.

At the end of the day, Gardner’s experience and pinstriped DNA carry the most value in the Bronx. The Yankees need a clubhouse leader and a grinder for younger players to emulate. The team has also arrived at a juncture; the Baby Bombers aren’t babies anymore and the Yankees’ championship window won’t remain open for much longer. Gardner serves as the only connection between the current team and the Yankees’ last taste of glory. The question is, how much are those intangibles worth to the Yankees?