One Yankee front-office policy that's been the bane of fans' existence for years is the team's self-destructive refusal to sign its own players to extensions before they reach free agency. From Bernie Williams back in the 90's to Andy Pettitte, to Robinson Cano this season, the Yankees routinely watch players hit the open market only to end up paying more than they should to retain them, or losing them entirely as with Pettitte in 2003. While other teams lock their young stars up early to long-term contracts that carry them through their primes, Yankees prefer to wait.
This year we've heard calls for the Yankees to break from their tried and true practice to sign center fielder Brett Gardner to a deal before he becomes a free agent after 2014. The wait-and-see approach is for sure ill-conceived, but is Gardner really the guy to abandon it for?
In some ways, 2013 was Gardner's best year. Before his campaign was cut short by an oblique injury last week, he'd set career highs in OPS (.759) and ISO (.143) and his 107 wRC+ was above his career mark of 101. He was an everyday center fielder for the first time and he batted leadoff almost exclusively, serving as the only bright spot besides Robinson Cano in a decimated Yankee lineup for a good chunk of the season.
But Gardner turned 30 this August. If the Yankees forego his final arbitration year and sign him to a four or five year pact this winter, he'll be under contract through age 34 or 35. After earning just $2.85 million in 2013, Gardner would be reasonably affordable next year via the arbitration process, but to sign long-term he'd likely be looking for something in the neighborhood of the four-year, $48 million deal that Michael Bourn snagged from the Cleveland Indians last winter. Making that kind of commitment to a guy whose production relies heavily on his ability to run fast seems risky at best.
Gardner excelled his career norms in some areas of his game in 2013. He was more aggressive at the plate and shattered previous extra base hit highs. At the same time, he struggled with a lot of what's made him who he is. Gardner stole bases at the lowest rate of his career, notching just 24 over 145 games. His walk rate dipped to 8.5% and he swung at a career-high 29.4% of pitches outside the strike zone, resulting in an OBP eight points beneath his lifetime mark. Gardner's defense suffered, too. A drop-off from the 26.7 UZR he put up in 2011 had to be expected sliding over from left to center, but he was actually below average this year at -0.4. Too much can't be made of one year's worth of data in UZR, and Gardner was clearly a humongous upgrade over Curtis Granderson in the field. Still it's worth noting that as his speed declines, his outfield range will, too.
In recent history, multi-year contracts for speedsters at or approaching 30 haven't worked out especially well. Juan Pierre produced just 5.8 fWAR over the life of the five-year, $44 million deal he signed with the Dodgers prior to 2007, at age 30, compared with 14.9 over the previous five years. His 32.6 UZR from 2002 through 2006 dropped to 1.7 from 2007 through 2011. Bourn, also 30, has looked bust-like so far in Cleveland with just 22 steals, 1.9 fWAR and a 1.5 UZR in his first season there. His .315 OBP is well below anything he's done the past few years. Carl Crawford, a much more multi-faceted player during his Tampa days than Gardner, Pierce or Bourn ever were, but still known for his wheels, has been an abject disaster since signing on with Boston in 2011 for seven years and $142 million. Players like Chone Figgins, Luis Castillo and Dave Robers were all disappointments after inking long-term deals.
Logically it stands to reason that players who depend on speed should see a sharper, earlier decline than those who don't. You don't see many 32-year-old sprinters at the Olympics, after all. Gardner's style of play is particularly hard on his body. He goes full force out of the box every time he makes contact...he dives into second, third, home and sometimes first...he crashes into walls and tumbles after balls in the outfield.Maximum effort is an admirable trait, but not one that necessarily lends itself to longevity.
Gardner deserves credit for making the effort this year to diversify his game while the skills that brought him to the majors have begun to decline. He's hit for more power, but that approach has also led to more swings and misses and fewer walks. Ultimately, when they ponder Gardner's future the Yankees must consider whether a well-paid aging leadoff hitter with reduced speed and range is something they'll want on their roster three or four years from now. The answer has to be no.
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