As January turned into February, Gardner’s future as Yankee seemed to hang in the balance. There was the question of whether there would be space for Gardner on the roster, considering the presence of Mike Tauchman, followed by the acquisition of outfielder Greg Allen. With spring training quickly approaching and still no word on the matter from general manager Brian Cashman, it was unclear whether the team planned to re-sign Gardy. The suspense ended in late February with the news that the Yanks had signed the fan-favorite veteran outfielder to a one-year, $4 million deal.
Now that spring training is in full swing, Brett Gardner will soon return to The Bronx for a 14th season in pinstripes. He is undoubtedly the veteran leader of the Yankees clubhouse, the elder statesman of the team and the last remaining player from the 2009 World Series-winning squad.
2020 Stats: 158 PA, .223/.354/.392, 5 HR, 15 RBI, 22.2 K%, 16.5 BB%, 110 wRC+, 0.6 WAR
2021 FanGraphs Depth Chart Projections: 280 PA, .239/.330/.419, 9 HR, 15 RBI, 22.1 K%, 11.2 BB%, 99 wRC+, 0.8 WAR
Considering his speed, base-running skills, and command of the strike zone, Gardner has always added value to the team as an effective bench option. That said, his role will look a little different this year, as manager Aaron Boone said he expects Clint Frazier to be the team’s starting left fielder in 2021. In 2020, Gardner’s role on the team started to evolve away from that of an everyday player, as Frazier earned more playing time and a spot in the Yankees starting lineup.
It’s not 100 percent clear how the Yankees plan to use Gardner this season, but there are a few likely scenarios. Because Gardner has a higher walk rate and strikes out less frequently than Tauchman, the other outfield option on the bench, it’s probable that Gardner will serve as the team’s fourth outfielder. However, the amount of playing time that Gardner gets in 2021 is also largely dependent on whether Aaron Judge and Aaron Hicks can stay healthy. While some of the injuries that Giancarlo Stanton and Judge endured in recent seasons have been unpredictable, the two big guys are susceptible to soft-tissue injuries and recurring strains. Gardner can contribute a lot in this regard by helping the Yankees proactively manage the workloads of the starting outfielders.
At 37, Gardner’s skills have diminished a bit, but he is still an above-average baserunner and can cover enough ground to chase down fly balls in Yankee Stadium’s centerfield. He’s slower than he used to be, but in 2021 we can still expect him to provide solid defense in the outfield and count on him to post decent base-running figures.
At the plate last season, Gardner posted a 110 wRC+ and 0.6 WAR in 49 games, and those numbers err toward the low side, considering he got stuck in a horrific slump the first half of the season — Gardy hit just .165/.293/.299 in his first 36 games of 2020. He finally started to get hits as September rolled around, batting .400 in the final weeks of the season; that he was able to find his groove eventually means Gardner should have offensive ability left in the tank this year. His walk rate in 2021 should remain as high as ever, as well.
Playing time and numbers aside, the most important benefit that Gardner brings to the 2021 Yankees is the hard-earned wisdom and knowledge he impart on younger players. Gardy’s a grinder and a leader. No matter how many outfield starts or at-bats he gets, Gardner can be counted on to cultivate team camaraderie and rapport. He contributes intangibles that are priceless.