Brett Gardner is one of my favorite Yankees. He’s a gritty, max-effort player who has put together some truly remarkable seasons while remaining a consistent presence in the Yankees’ lineup since 2009. It made all the sense in the world to bring Gardner back for one more year in 2021 for just $2.5 million after a year where he posted a 109 OPS+. Plus, it had the added benefit of giving a lifetime Yankee one more crack at a second championship ring.
However, Gardner is finally starting to look old at age 37. The signs have been there — he had a down year in 2018 and struggled through most of the abbreviated 2020 season before finishing strong into the playoffs. Alas, Gardner hasn’t carried over any of that late success into 2021.
More importantly, Gardner’s metrics paint the picture of a player in decline. It’s not like it’s just been bad batted-ball luck for Gardner this season — he’s swinging and missing more frequently and having a hard time generating hard contact. His trademark batter’s eye and plate discipline are still there and he still has above-average speed, but even his positives can’t outweigh the fact that Gardner is just 9-for-51 this season and has yet to show any power.
The Yankees probably had a feeling that Gardner might regress, which is why they stocked up on outfielders coming into the season. Curiously, they traded one of them away in Mike Tauchman. The player they received in return for him, Wandy Peralta, may turn out to be a good bullpen addition, but it was nonetheless odd to see them subtract from their depth, especially when they have yet to play Giancarlo Stanton in the field this season.
Thus, the Yankees don't have many options for playing time over Gardner to be the primary reserve outfielder. There’s utilityman Tyler Wade, but he isn’t a good enough hitter for regular playing time and is more of an infielder anyway. Miguel Andújar could re-enter the picture soon, but he’s barely played any outfield, and when given a shot, it hasn’t been pretty. Estevan Florial is the only other outfielder on the 40-man roster and he’s nowhere near MLB-ready, so unless the Yankees add one of their non-rostered players from Scranton, it’s pretty much Gardner-or-bust right now as the Yankees’ reserve outfielder.
Can Gardner turn back the clock? He’s certainly done it before. His inability to square up the baseball this year for power or hard contact is alarming though, as is his rise in whiff rate. He has just four hits on fastballs this year, a problem common to many Yankees hitters this season. For Gardner to get going, he needs to make better contact, which is not an easy fix for a 37-year-old hitter. It might not be an attainable goal this season.
Gardner can best help the Yankees as a fifth outfielder — a pinch-runner or defensive replacement (basically, what Wade has been this season). To move him to that role though, and cut down on his at-bats, the Yankees would need to find another outfielder. Seeing as they just traded Tauchman, I’m not sure that’s in the cards for the Yankees at this time unless they really believe in Andújar as a big league outfielder. If there was ever a time to play Stanton in the field even just once a week, now would be the time. It would allow for more DH days for Aaron Judge and Luke Voit when he returns, and minimize Gardner’s role.
Brett Gardner’s been a great Yankee, and we shouldn’t completely write him off after 20 bad games on offense. At the same time, having him be the sole fail-safe in case of injury to one of the team’s starting outfielders, or the primary bench option when someone needs a day off, is a little too big of a role for him right now. If Gardner doesn’t heat up soon, there may be a difficult decision to be made at the trade deadline — or sooner.