MLB might be mired in a lockout right now, but sometime in the future, that lockout will lift, and the Yankees will be able to sign free agents. Maybe, with a new CBA in place and more certainty about future luxury tax thresholds, the Yankees will go out and sign big names, like Carlos Correa or Freddie Freeman.
Or perhaps they’ll sign Brett Gardner. Given how quiet the Yankees have been even as the rest of the league went on a spending spree, lower-end moves certainly feel more likely than a big splash. And, as frustrating as it may sound, there is at least some merit to bringing back the Yankees’ elder statesman to fill out the fringes of the roster.
As of right now, the Yankees, per FanGraphs, have nine players projected to produce above league average batting lines, plus Gio Urshela and backup catcher Kyle Higashioka. That means that the roster, as currently constructed, has clear openings for 12th and 13th men. If he were signed explicitly to fill that role, Gardner looks like a passable fit as he enters his 15th year.
That’s in large part because the longtime veteran still possesses the skillset of a reasonable role player. His foot speed remains intact, ranking in the 83rd percentile per Statcast in 2021. Most importantly, he can play any outfield position if needed. Gardner’s defensive prowess has eroded a bit, with his advanced metrics figures all hovering around average in recent years, in contrast to his sky-high defensive peak. To the naked eye, Gardner’s reactions and routes do appear less crisp, less decisive, even if his speed is plus.
Even so, versatile, average defense across the outfield grass is an important asset for a backup. In theory, Joey Gallo, Aaron Hicks, and Aaron Judge pencil in left-to-right in the Yankee outfield. If/when injury concerns arise, Gardner can ably fill in at any position, even if he’s not the gamebreaking defender he was eight or nine years ago.
Gardner’s profile with the bat mirrors his defensive portfolio. He remains in possession of enough skills at the plate to put together a mediocre batting line, though age has diminished other areas of his game.
Most obviously, Gardner’s quality plate discipline has survived the ravages of time. In 2021, his chase rate ranked in the 97th percentile, and his whiff rate in the 86th, allowing him to run a top-tier walk rate. That combo just barely keeps Gardner’s bat afloat. Last year, Gardner put forth a meager .269 BABIP and .140 ISO, speaking to his inability to hit the ball with authority. But his on-base proficiency meant that his .222/.327/.369 line equated to a 93 wRC+, within shouting distance of average.
As of now, Steamer projects almost identical production from Gardner in 2022: a .228/.322/.372 line and a 92 wRC+. That, paired with respectable defense, makes for a fourth outfielder. The problem with finding an optimal backup outfielder stems from the fact that a team can’t just sign a top outfielder and label him the fourth; Michael Conforto and Nick Castellanos aren’t going to sign and simply bide their time for Gallo or Judge to need a break. You have to find a player who’s not good enough to demand a starting slot from day-one, but not bad enough to kill you when opportunities to play inevitably arise. Gardner has that profile down pretty much to a T.
Of course, the argument for keeping Gardner around largely hinges on whether the Yankees can actually keep him in the reserve role that he’s suited for. When myriad injuries pushed his name into the lineup every day near the outset of last year, Gardner looked over-stretched in a starting role, with only a late-season surge saving his overall line.
Should Gardner be pressed into starting duty, his presence in the everyday lineup will grow grating, particularly if Aaron Boone pencils his non-threatening bat outside the bottom-third of the order, something Boone did 49 times in 2021. Given his current toolset, Gardner fits as someone who can kick in about a win above replacement in 300ish at-bats off the bench. If Gardner re-signs and appears in 140 games, as he did this past season, something will have gone wrong.
It’s hard to think of a less sexy signing than the Yankees bringing back Gardner with what now feels like an annual late-winter reunion. It’s also hard to think of a specific move that seems more likely at this point, especially since Gardner wants to play. It remains to be seen if Hal Steinbrenner has the stomach to make expensive moves for players that will truly upgrade the roster. If he doesn’t, the smart money is on minor moves on the margins. One last time, that could mean Gardner coming in to fill out the Yankee bench.