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Finding playing time for Brett Gardner

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The longest-tenured Yankee is back in the fold for at least one more year.

MLB: ALDS-Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

So, Brett Gardner is back.

The Yankees and their longtime outfielder came to an agreement on a one year plus option deal Friday night, almost certainly the final transaction in what’s been a busy winter. Gardner will spend his 14th season in pinstripes, and while he’s remained an effective bench option for the Yankees, there are reasonable questions around how he will be used.

For me, I’m all in on Clint Frazier. I’ll have a deeper dive on him next week, but he made exactly the kind of changes in 2020 that are sustainable and projectable, and he should be starting 150 games for the Yankees in left field. Unfortunately for him, Gardner also primarily plays left, and his left-handed batting has kept him in the lineup for a New York team that values lineup “balance”. Gardner famously received the lion’s share of playing time in last year’s ALDS over Frazier, starting the final three games of the season in left and overall receiving 23 PAs vs. Frazier’s 7 in the postseason, despite Frazier outhitting Gardner by 158 (!!) points of OPS.

You would then be forgiven for being concerned that the Yankees will continue to shoehorn Gardner into the lineup in 2021, despite Frazier being a much better candidate for the job. When we go looking for possible playing time for Gardner though, there are other options. It starts with the health of Aaron Judge.

When Judge is on the field, he’s one of the five or so best players in baseball. Of course, he doesn’t spend much time on the field of late, appearing in only 242 of a possible 384 team games since the start of 2018, or 63 percent. He’s projected by Depth Charts to start 134 games in 2021 — you might think that’s generous, but even if we assume he hits that number exactly, we start to see the first opening for Gardner. This would mean Frazier likely shifts over to right field. Brett Gardner’s arm sucks, but his range is probably at worst comparable to Frazier.

Aaron Hicks is the other potential area, since Gardner can at least ostensibly still man center field. Hicks has only appeared in more than 130 games once in his career, although 2020 was his healthiest by percentage of possible games played, as he made it into 54 outings. He’s projected for 141 games by Depth Charts, opening up another 20 or so possible slots for Gardner. We’re up to about 50 games now, plus the odd spell for Frazier when he legitimately needs a day off.

Of course there’s also Mike Tauchman, who is younger than Gardner and plays all three outfield positions. They’re each projected by Depth Charts to be about equal offensively, with Gardner slightly edging MT in wRC+ 98 to 92. Breaking them down by Statcast also injects doubt into either guy’s ability to produce. Gardner overplayed his 2020 xwOBA and xSLG by 9 and 26 points respectively, a major hint that he benefits from whatever odd baseball the league likes to use.

Tauchman, meanwhile, had a dreadful 2020 with an xwOBA below .300 and his hard hit rate back down to what it was when he was a Quad-A outfielder with the Rockies. The bloom is off the rose with Tauchman, and while you might think that a “tie” in playing time goes to the younger guy, Gardner hits the ball harder, walks more, and strikes out less. Tauchman will be the team’s fifth option.

The health of Judge and Hicks should determine how much time Gardner sees on the field in 2021. He’s been reliable, never flashy, but accrued 10.8 fWAR since 2017, second on the team behind Judge in that span. Prorating that value over 650 PAs, he’s been worth about 3.5 wins a year, right around where Giancarlo Stanton ranks since joining the Yankees. He can still handle the majors, at least for one more year.

But the concern for me is less what should drive Gardner’s playing time, and what will. Clint Frazier is better at all the most important facets of the game than him, and I can’t shake this fear that Aaron Boone will still pencil Gardner into the lineup over Frazier. We saw it in the most important games of 2020, the Yankees can’t be trusted not to do it again in 2021.