The offseason is here, which means speculation season is upon us. I know, I know; many are here for free agent and trade rumors, and don’t worry, we’ll have plenty of that coming soon. But in the meantime, there are still some housekeeping matters to which we must attend.
The Yankees have a host of in-house decisions to make before even beginning to think about outside additions. Yesterday, I previewed New York’s loaded arbitration class and speculated on the most likely non-tender candidates. Today, I’d like to focus on the three Yankees who had contract options for 2022 and review the pros and cons of retaining said player vs. letting them walk.
Earlier today, OF Brett Gardner declined his player option, and the Yankees declined his club option. He is now a free agent.— New York Yankees (@Yankees) November 5, 2021
Additionally, RHP Darren O’Day declined his player option, and the Yankees declined his club option. He is now a free agent.
As it turns out, last night the Yankees announced that Brett Gardner and Darren O’Day had declined their player options for 2022. The Yankees then declined their end of the club options on either player, sending both to free agency. So what are the next steps for player and club?
The longest-tenured current Yankee and sole vestige of the 2009 World Series-winning team, Brett Gardner was brought back prior to the 2021 season in a backup outfielder role, but as has been the case over the previous few seasons, handled close to a starter’s share of innings. Although his overall season numbers were below average, a vintage Gardner late season surge resulted in a 111 second-half wRC+, all while playing net-neutral defense in the outfield.
Gardner originally signed what amounted to a two-year, $5.15 million contract, though the details are a little more complicated than that. He earned a base salary of $1.85 million with a $1 million signing bonus in 2021, and a $2.3 million player option for 2022. Upon declining said player option, The Yankees held a $7.15 million club option with a $1.15 million buyout for 2022. In essence, if Gardner felt confident he could earn more than $1.15 million in 2022, he would opt out. And that’s exactly what he did, with the Yankees now owing him his $1.15 million buyout after declining the club option.
So is this finally the end of Gardner’s tenure in pinstripes? I doubt it. At this point, it feels like Gardner has a lifetime contract with the Yankees for as long as he wants to continue playing. If this player option/buyout situation feels familiar, it’s because it follows almost exactly the same course as Gardner’s previous contract. The Yankees declined their 2021 club option on Gardner, opting to pay him a $2.5 million buyout, before eventually signing him to his most recent deal. All of that is to say, both sides declining their options by no means guarantees that Gardner won’t be back.
Both parties can now negotiate a potential reunion (at least, as long as the current CBA is still active). Gardner has given zero indication of wanting to retire, yet still recognizes the cache of being a lifetime Yankee. Similarly, the club may want to give him one last shot at winning a ring. Given his veteran status in the clubhouse (though how constructive he is in that regard has recently been thrown into doubt), I fully expect to see Gardner in pinstripes come spring training.
Darren O’Day was in a similar contract situation as Gardner. He signed essentially a two-year, $3.15 million deal last winter with similar player/club options. He was paid $1.75 million in 2021 and held a $1.4 million player option for 2022. Declining that option converted it into a $3.15 million club option for 2022 with a $700,000 buyout.
O’Day was brought in as a veteran sidewinding specialist on the heels of a resurgent 1.10 ERA campaign with Atlanta in 2020. Unfortunately, he pitched only 10.2 innings of 3.38 ERA relief for the Yankees before missing most of the season with rotator cuff and hamstring injuries. That said, even entering his age-39 season, the career-2.53 ERA reliever is sure to hold some interest to teams.
Unlike Gardner, O’Day has hinted at a potential retirement, and reportedly mulled over the decision shortly after suffering the season-ending hamstring injury. Therefore, it is not as clear whether him declining the player option represents optimism of a larger payday as a free agent or signals the end of his major league career.
Included in the blockbuster that sent Joey Gallo to the Yankees, Joely Rodríguez was a decent deadline addition to New York’s bullpen. He gave the Yankees 19 innings of 2.84 ERA with 50-percent groundball rate relief. Between Texas and New York, he logged a career-high 46.1 innings across 52 relief appearances. His contract option is thankfully nowhere near as convoluted as Gardner or O’Day. The Yankees have a simple $3 million club option for 2022 on Rodríguez, with a $500,000 buyout should they decline it.
Rodríguez presents quite an interesting case for the Yankees, and there are merits to both sides of picking up the option vs. declining it. On one hand, he does well limiting hard contact, sitting in the 89th percentile in barrel rate, 80th percentile in average exit velocity, and 71st percentile in hard hit rate. He also has wickedly deceptive stuff. Rodríguez sits in the top-25 or better in changeup and sinker vertical movement and sinker and four-seamer horizontal movement. With stuff that moves that much, it’s no surprise to see him land in 97th percentile in chase rate and 81st percentile in whiff rate.
On the other hand, despite that top-of-the-line raw stuff, Rodríguez does not leverage it to maximum effect, as evidenced by his below-league-average strikeout and walk rates. Additionally, $3 million is a not-insignificant chunk of change to be paying your sixth-best reliever. I could see the Yankees going either way on this decision, but given their recent success in developing cost-controlled high-leverage relievers, I lean towards them letting him walk.