2015 Statistics: 151 G, 656 PA, .259/.343/.399, 16 HR, 20 SB, 105 wRC+, 2.6 fWAR
2016 Contract Status: 3 years, $39.5 million remaining with a 2019 club option for $12.5 million.
After eight seasons in pinstripes and 11 in the organization since being drafted in the third round in 2005, Brett Gardner is currently the second-longest tenured Yankee. He's not a legend or part of a core or anything, but if you're looking for a home grown player with any real history he's all you'll find right now. 2014 was an interesting season for Gardner, one where he made a notable transformation from a speed and defense specialist into more of an all-around threat. This year, he looked to continue that trend, perhaps adding to his power numbers even more while maintaining the energetic style that's always been his trademark.
In grading Brett Gardner's 2015 performance, it feels like I'm judging two different players. First there's Brett Gardner: All-Star. For the first time in his career, the 32-year-old made it to the midsummer classic as a replacement for the injured Alex Gordon. The selection was a well-deserved honor earned through a first half in which he hit .302/.377/.484, good for a wRC+ of 137. Gardner was a huge part of a Yankee offense that excelled in the early summer, where he contributed 10 pre-break home runs and 15 steals. His success made Jacoby Ellsbury's absence from the leadoff hole from late-May through early-July mostly a non-factor.
As the summer plodded on, though, Alpha Gardner vanished in a gritty, gutty cloud of dust. He was replaced by Beta Gardner, the 11th worst player in baseball, according to his -0.3 second-half fWAR. Post-All-Star break, Gardner batted .206/.300/.292, with a 66 wRC+. As the Yankee lineup sputtered in August and September, he was a chief culprit, and he did little on the base paths to make up for his fading bat, notching just five stolen bases. Fans bemoaned the team's home run-centric, base-to-base style of attack, but it was tough to be aggressive when the only two guys in the lineup with the ability to run in Gardner and Ellsbury were pretty much never on base.
Unfortunately for Gardner, late-season swoons are starting to look like a regular thing. In 2014, he was off to a hot start with a .279/.353/.424 first half line that eroded into a 95 wRC+ second half, which included a .193/.249/.331 slash after August 1st. Grit and gut jokes aside, we know how Gardner approaches the game. If he played football he'd be called "high motor." He's intense and hard-working. Crashes into walls. Runs out everything. Insists on diving head first into any base that'll have him. As he nears his mid-30's it may be time to reel all that in a bit to better survive the rigors of sports' longest season.
Gardner's late collapse wasn't his only problem. For the third year straight his defense declined, as he put up a UZR/150 of -0.9 as a left fielder and -5.6 in center. Gardner takes smart routes and his quickness in tracking down hits and getting them back to the infield cuts down on runners taking extra bases, but his once supreme range has dwindled. As a base runner, 20 steals marked a career-low for a full season.
Despite the struggles, though, there's still a lot to like. As per usual, Gardner was high up on MLB's leaderboard for pitches seen per at-bat, tying for fourth in the majors at 4.16. His ability to turn those long at bats into bases-on-balls was back up after a dip in 2013 and 2014, as his walk rate of 10.4% was his highest in a full season since 2010. If you care about RBI, Gardner's 66 were a personal best thanks to hitting .285/.359/.520 with runners in scoring position vs. .252/.335/.385 with the bases empty. You're not getting 40-something steals or stunning outfield range from Brett Gardner anymore, but you'll continue to see improved power and an outstanding plate approach. Second half of 2015 notwithstanding, I prefer the type of player Gardner is now in a corner outfield spot.
Due to his weak finish and roster flexibility concerns, Gardner's future in New York is looking somewhat murky. His price is team-friendly (the $13 million per year he's owed through 2018 is less than he'd get if he were a free agent) and his deal doesn't include a no-trade clause, both of which make him unique amongst his teammates. If the Yankees want to free up some cash this winter or clear space for a big outfield addition–even if they'd rather move Ellsbury or Carlos Beltran–Gardner seems like the best bet to go. That's not to say he will or should be dealt, even if many fans, amnesic about anything that occurred prior to July 17th of this year, are ready for that to happen. Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi have never been shy in their adulation for Gardner, and it remains to be seen how much value he actually has. Still, it's hard to say that he'll definitely be back. Two years after the fact, Gardner may end up a casualty of Ellsbury's and Beltran's contracts.