At long last, a busy Yankees offseason has seemingly come to a close. The team cut $50 million in player payroll, but even in doing so, managed to make this a hectic session, returning a star, spinning trades, and bringing in veterans on one-year deals. They capped it all off with what long appeared to be one of the more obvious moves they could make, re-signing Brett Gardner on a one-year deal in a transaction that became official today.
The response to the Gardner deal has been mixed, however, if reaction on this site is any indication. In our community poll on the move, only 30-percent of respondents indicated they were happy to re-ignite the Gardy Party, compared to 33-percent who staunchly opposed the maneuver.
The polarized returns on Gardner’s re-signing strike an odd chord on a couple of levels. For one, Gardner remains a productive player; signing effective veterans on easy one-year deals is generally great news from the team perspective! Moreover, for a club that gets huffier than just about any other franchise about its own storied history, retaining excellent, lifelong contributors who can still play just seems like it should be the standard. Folks, it is time to put some damn respect on Brett Gardner’s name.
First, the simple stuff. It’s fair to say Gardner is something of a bland player at this point in his career, but he can still provide strong production. He ran a 110 wRC+ in 2020, and his 114 mark since the beginning of 2019 ranks ahead of a number of sluggers, such as Edwin Encarnación, JT Realmuto, and even Francisco Lindor. And while he’s a tad slower now than at his peak, he has still posted above-average defense and baserunning figures every year of his career, at least per UZR, DRS, and BsR.
It’s true that most of Gardner’s value comes on the edges, and that he’s not an eye-popping player to watch. His at-bats can become a grind as he takes pitch after pitch. He doesn’t hit for much power, and when he does get ahold of a pitch he likes, he’s not likely to hit it particularly hard.
But there’s still joy to be found on those edges, if one is patient enough to look. It’s there when Gardner’s jamming his bat into the dugout roof, without question, but it’s also there when he works an opposing hurler, spitting on a borderline pitch that his seasoned eye recognizes as a ball. It’s there when he cuts a ball off in the gap and gets it in on a rope, turning a double into a single, or when he does the exact opposite on the basepaths. And it’s for sure there when he’s grinding a pitcher into dust in the pivotal at-bat of a playoff game:
The traits that made Gardner a very good and deeply underrated player in his prime have weathered aging just enough to make him the perfect fourth outfielder for the 2021 Yankees. With injury questions across the outfield, this roster demands a backup that profiles as starting-caliber, and, well, wouldn’t you know it, ZiPS calls on Gardner to run a 104 wRC+ and produce nearly 2 WAR across about 400 at-bats. That kind of value shouldn’t be kicked to the curb, especially considering how much he’s still revered in the Yankees’ clubhouse.
Yet letting Gardner go would miss the mark not just because he neatly fits the Yankees’ plans. It’s also because when you hit the Baseball-Reference franchise page for the freaking New York Yankees, Brett Gardner’s face shows up. Every franchise encyclopedia on B-Ref lists up front a team’s top-24 players ever by WAR, and there, nestled between the likes of Andy Pettitte, Thurman Munson, and Don Mattingly, is Gardner.
It’s my personal opinion that if your face shows up on that page, you get a pass to don the pinstripes for as long as you’re a reasonably good baseball player and human. It’s a pass that was afforded to Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, obviously, given how good that pair was at the end. It was a pass afforded to Derek Jeter in spite of how terrible he was, because he was, of course, Derek Jeter. Hell, it was even afforded in a way to the most slighted member of the Core Five in Bernie Williams, who was well below replacement level in 2005, the final year of a seven-year deal with the team, but was still brought back for one final run.
In terms of career WAR as a Yankee, Gardner is almost in the same ballpark as Bernie, Pettitte, Jorge Posada, and Ron Guidry. In fact, Bernie is the only outfielder from the past 50 years of Yankees baseball to post a higher career WAR than Gardner. Another quality season or two would nearly vault him into the top-10 all-time for Yankees position players. Again, this is the Yankees! Their aforementioned huffiness is in many ways warranted, because sheesh, look at all the insanely great players that have donned that uniform! And we want one of the 25 most valuable of them pushed out while he’s still pretty decent?
This isn’t to say the Yankees should simply pay Gardner forever regardless of whether or not he’s good, or even start him in the playoffs over Clint Frazier (side note: Gardner and Frazier have the same exact wOBA against right-handed pitchers over the past two seasons). It’s just that when you’re a club as obsessed with its own history as the Bombers, part of that history probably involves paying up to keep day-one pinstripers around as long as they’re good ballplayers.
That was afforded of Mo and Jeter and Pettitte, it should’ve been afforded to Robinson Canó seven years ago, and even if he’s obviously not quite on the level of those greats, it’s what Gardner deserves now. Part of what’s actually great about Yankees history is how that litany of all-time players sews the fabric of different eras together; Munson bleeds into Guidry, who bleeds into Mattingly, who bleeds into Jeter, who bleeds into Gardner, who bleeds into Judge. For at least one more year, the 37-year-old outfielder will connect us to that last title run, to the era of Joe Girardi, Alex Rodriguez, and Mark Teixeira, while still playing an important role. To me, that’s something worth celebrating.
Thanks to Ben Lindbergh of Effectively Wild for inspiration for this post and for research assistance.