Major League Baseball and the Players’ Association came to the agreement last week that no matter what happens with this season (including a complete cancelation), the year will count as a year of service time for players. This means that players who were set to be free agents after the season will still hit the open market after the league year ends. This doesn’t present much harm for guys like Mookie Betts, Masahiro Tanaka and DJ LeMahieu, who are young, valuable commodities who will have teams vying for their services on the open market.
What does this mean, though, for the veterans near the end of the line with their big league careers? Specifically from a Yankees standpoint, what does this mean for Brett Gardner? The Yankees’ ever-steady outfielder has been a rock for the team for more than ten years, and enjoyed a late-career rebirth with the launch-angle revolution that saw Gardner become more of a power threat than ever before. He struck out a little more and ran a little less, but Gardner has continued to provide offensive value for the Yankees into his age 36-season. That’s to say nothing of his defensive acumen, his baserunning savvy or his presence in the clubhouse.
However, the current state of the 2020 MLB season has made Gardner’s future with the Yankees a little murkier. Two things could happen with this season: either we play ball on a shortened schedule starting (hopefully) in June, or the season is canceled entirely. Either way, Gardner will be a man without a contract at the end of the season, stuck in limbo at age 37 and possibly having not played meaningful baseball since October 2019.
Gardner is essentially getting the Andy Pettitte/CC Sabathia treatment from the Yankees—he will continue to play on one-year deals with the team for as long as he is either willing or able to. Gardner has already seen this aspect of the business. His salary went down from $12.5 million to $11.5 million from 2018-19 and was further slashed to $7.5 million for this season, despite one of his most productive seasons.
The team has hoarded young outfielders, and is locked up long-term with at least three of them. Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge aren’t going anywhere, and Aaron Hicks is the team’s center fielder when healthy. Don’t forget the presence of Mike Tauchman, Clint Frazier, and the possibility that Miguel Andujar could have a future in left field. There’s a numbers game going on here, and it doesn’t benefit the soon-to-be 37-year-old veteran.
Although Gardner was projected for a large role in 2020 due to other injuries in the outfield combined with his own valuable skill set, no one knows what the team’s plan for him in 2021 and beyond might have been. The fact that the 2020 season might be severely shortened or canceled entirely only muddies the waters, as the sole reason Gardner was retained (his services in 2020) might become a moot point.
Essentially, it’s possible that Gardner might not get a chance to go out on top. If the season is canceled, the Yankees might not want to bring back Gardner at age 37 for 2021; perhaps they never planned to anyway. Gardner came back in 2020 at least in small part for the chance to go out on top, the chance for one last ride with the Yankees after having endured the tough years and having come so close since then. Not getting the chance to play would be a real bummer for Gardner, who, like Sabathia before him, deserves a better end in pinstripes than a forced exit.
Some of this could just be a doom-and-gloom scenario. What if there is still baseball this year, what if Gardner plays well, and what if the Yankees still make that championship push they were projected to make? It would certainly be a much happier discussion about his future with the team.
There are many unknowns around baseball and the Yankees right now, and Brett Gardner’s future is definitely one of them. We didn’t know to begin with if we were witnessing a potential swan song for the longest-tenured Yankee in 2020, but the possibility was certainly on the table. The uncertainty about the schedule has only led to further questions about Gardner’s future with the organization.
Regardless of what happens, Gardner is an all-time favorite Yankee of mine and so many more fans. Hopefully he gets the chance at that elusive second World Series ring and a farewell to Yankees fans. The man who has played more games in pinstripes than all but 17 others and has stolen more bases than all but two has earned it.