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Yankees mailbag: Bernie Williams vs. Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury’s contract, Mike Tauchman as a starter

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Get the answers to this week’s mailbag while they’re hot.

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

Good afternoon everyone, hope you’ve made it through the week alright. We have three answers in this week’s mailbag. Remember to send in your questions for our weekly call by e-mail to pinstripealleyblog [at] gmail [dot] com. Enjoy!

SJComic asks: Who would you take, Bernie Williams or Brett Gardner? Both are career Yankees who came up through their farm, both played in the outfield. Bernie posted a career 49.6 WAR in 16 years, Gardner 42.3 in 12 years. Bernie’s slashline is .275/.371/.480, Gardner .260/.342/.401, both were standouts defensively. I would choose Bernie but it’s a lot closer than I thought it would be.

My gut reaction was Bernie by a mile, but I like this question because it forces us to reckon with just how underrated Brett Gardner’s career has probably been and probably will be. This isn’t news to Yankee fans, of course, but Gardner has quietly put together quality season after quality season, and if he keeps it up for another year or two, he could pass quite a few impressive names on career WAR leaderboards.

For now, I stick with Williams, because he was a tremendous hitter and a vital cog in the lineups that laid waste to MLB and won four titles in five years. From 1996 to 2002, Williams hit .323/.408/.538, good for a 144 OPS+, averaging 25 homers and over 100 runs driven in per season. He has a 125 OPS+ for his career, compared to 101 for Gardner.

The argument for Gardner stems from defense, though I find parts of that argument troubling. Despite a reputation as a strong defender during his playing career, defensive metrics actually detest Williams’ play on the grass, while they obviously adore Gardner’s. While I was too young to evaluate Williams’ defense when he was playing, I have a hard time putting full stock in advanced statistics that rank Williams 139 runs worse than the average outfielder for his career, and a startling 96 runs worse than average in the final five seasons of his career.

If we regress Williams’ awful defensive numbers just a little towards the mean (and perhaps do the same with Gardner’s standout numbers), the argument shifts clearly toward Williams. Even so, Gardner (hopefully) will get a chance to improve his career record and tilt the debate in his direction. That he’s already put himself within shouting distance of the best Yankees outfielder of the past half-century is a remarkable achievement.

Whitey asks: Is there any resolution in sight between the Yankees and Jacoby Ellsbury? Care to make a guess on what the resolution actually is?

Here’s a fun reminder that Jacoby Ellsbury was technically on the Yankees as recently as a few months ago. In case the situation regarding Ellsbury understandably slipped your mind in the face of a global health crisis, here’s a refresher: the Yankees voided the final $26 million owed to Ellsbury on his seven-year contract, as they claimed Ellsbury violated the terms of his contract by receiving unauthorized medical treatment. Ellsbury claims the treatment did not violate the terms of the deal, as it was related to a non-baseball injury. The MLBPA filed a grievance to try to recover Ellsbury’s lost millions from the Yankees.

That’s the last we heard about Ellsbury, and as far as I can tell, Ellsbury and the club will be in a holding pattern for the foreseeable future. It’s obviously impossible to know when the situation will be resolved, given there are so many more important things to attend to during the pandemic than figuring out what to do with this grievance. I also can’t exactly speak to the likely outcome here, though at this point, I’m loath to bet against teams in their efforts to pay players less.

Byron Fear asks: I’ve always liked Mike Tauchman living here in Colorado. He’s always been a class act, and I would like to see him as an everyday OF, or least get more playing time… What are your thoughts on him being a starter?

I think players like Tauchman are arguably the best representation of the Yankees’ organizational depth. One could argue the team’s cavalcade of hard-throwing young right-handers on the farm is more representative, but Tauchman symbolizes a different strength: players that would be legitimate, strong starters on the majority of big league clubs, consigned to the Yankees’ bench.

While I don’t think, barring injury, he’ll ever profile as an everyday, full-season starter in the Yankees’ outfield, the evidence does suggest that Tauchman would be worthy of such a role if it was bestowed upon him. That said, the evidence isn’t exactly abundant or overwhelming.

In fact, Tauchman’s track record is pretty scant. He’ll turn 30 this December, but has just 319 major-league at-bats to his name. He didn’t lose his rookie eligibility until last season with the Yankees. Typically, it’s a challenge to posit that 28-year-old rookies with short track records and a lack of prospect pedigree are plus starters in the bigs.

Yet Tauchman’s performance in recent years is enough to convince me, and, notably, the projections. Tauchman ran an excellent .865 OPS in his first real run at the majors last year, and compiled an .891 OPS with the Yankees’ Triple-A club. In 2018, he put together a .978 OPS in a high-offense environment with the Rockies’ Triple-A team, to go along with a .941 OPS in 2017. That level of play was enough for ZiPS to project Tauchman for a solid .263/.335/.437 line and a 103 wRC+ for 2020.

That would be a step down from his 2019, but an above-average batting line combined with fine defense at multiple outfield positions is more than enough to make Tauchman a solid starter. It’s unlikely he’ll ever put together a 600-at-bat season with the Yankees, not with Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Aaron Hicks on the roster, but Tauchman is not out of place starting in a good big-league lineup.