After months of “will they, won’t they” suspense, the Yankees have decided to bring back their longest-tenured active player by re-signing Brett Gardner. The deal, reportedly for just one year and $4 million but with an option that could bring it up to $11 million, accomplishes the two goals that the team had in negotiating with Gardner — stay under the luxury tax threshold, and keep a core member of the clubhouse.
This is the second offseason in a row where there was the possibility of the Yankees and Gardner splitting, and though they ended with the same result, the process couldn’t have been more different. Last year, despite the team’s intense focus on winning the Gerrit Cole sweepstakes, Brett Gardner was a priority as well and was signed just days after the ace pitcher. This year, Gardner was left on the sidelines until Yankees camp had already begun in Tampa.
A significant reason for that change is the fact that Gardner simply isn’t a starter anymore. It quickly became apparent in 2020 that Gardner’s role on the team was shifting away from that of an everyday player, and Clint Frazier ascended to the starting lineup full-time for the first time in his career. Gardner still got his playing time thanks to a host of injuries in the outfield — and even wound up starting in the playoffs despite a strong case that he shouldn’t have — and that figures to be a key reason as to why he’s returning.
Aaron Judge and Aaron Hicks will find themselves with plenty of built-in days off even if they stay healthy throughout the year. While Gardner’s skills are on the decline entering his age-37 season, he’s a safe bet to pick up on a significantly lower-value contract than the one he earned last season. The option year is an interesting wrinkle, one I’m not quite sure how it plays out with a player and a team option. Without the details, I’m going to assume it works similar to how Zack Britton’s option worked, and was designed this way for luxury tax purposes.
Gardner now supplants Mike Tauchman, who was the leading candidate for the backup outfielder, on the roster. This doesn’t bode well for Tauchman’s immediate future ability to get at-bats, as it’s unlikely the team would carry five outfielders on the roster, but the injury bug can always bring him back into the fold. Some of the other outfielders brought on via minor-league deals, like Jay Bruce and Derek Dietrich, now also face a tougher path back to the majors. It may come down to a spring competition just to see which outfielder from that bunch the Yankees hold onto, with none of their futures guaranteed.
The biggest benefit that Gardner brings to this team, even without stepping onto the field, is the leadership mentality he has. Gardner is beloved by the Yankees clubhouse, and is the sole remaining link to the last Yankees championship. He’ll help keep the team together, and hopefully bash a bat or two onto the dugout roof when the umpires aren’t looking.