Brett Gardner is somewhat of a polarizing figure for the Yankees. Due to his hard-nosed play on the diamond and his easygoing personality off the field, he is a fan favorite. But at the same time, he is the subject of countless trade rumors, with many feeling like he is the odd man out for a transitioning franchise. By fWAR, 2016 was his least productive season since 2009, when he played 108 games with the big league club.
The most alarming thing about Gardner's decline is his disappearing power. His 2016 slash line was a pedestrian .261/.351/.362. He only had seven home runs, and looked like a slightly slower, defensively inferior version of himself from 2010 and 2011. His days of stealing almost 50 bases and playing Gold Glove-caliber defense appear to be behind him, and his temporary power surge in 2014 and 2015 also appears to be a thing of the past.
With Jacoby Ellsbury signed to a long term deal, and the likes of Aaron Judge and Clint Frazier vying for playing time, it is easy to see why Gardner might not have a place in the Yankees' long term plans. Also, Aaron Hicks began to show some life after Carlos Beltran was traded. Even Hicks' biggest detractors have to admit that life is a lot harder for switch hitters who don't get consistent at-bats, as they have to worry about getting their timing down for two different swings.
However, even if Gardner doesn't find his power swing again, certain circumstances still make him a valuable part of the Yankees' offense. For starters, he still has the ability to grind out at-bats and see a lot of pitches. This season, he saw 4.09 pitches per plate appearance, which was the 16th highest in the league among qualified hitters. With a lineup that is getting younger, the ability to see more of a pitcher's arsenal earlier in the game can be very valuable.
Also, this isn't the same Yankees team that saw the likes of Jason Giambi and Alex Rodriguez post on-base percentages north of .400. The 2016 Yankees were 25th in the league in on base percentage, with a cumulative total of .314. Of the 11 Yankee hitters with 200 or more plate appearances, only Gary Sanchez had a higher OBP.
Even if he is not as fast as he once was, Gardner appears to have gotten smarter on the basepaths. According to Fangraphs' BsR statistic, Gardner is coming off his most productive baserunning season since 2011, when he stole 49 bases. If the Yankees aren't going to clog the bases like they used to, things like going from first to third on a single become more important.
Going strictly by measures like WAR and OPS, Brett Gardner is clearly not as valuable as he once was. But given the short-term outlook of the team, he can still provide a lot of value at the top of the lineup. He is under team control through 2018, and it is easy to see why people don't think he'll outlast players like Judge and Frazier. Even prospects like Billy Mckinney and Dustin Fowler could be threatening to steal at-bats from him in the future. But for now, Gardner's job as the Yankees' left fielder should be safe.
Data is courtesy of Fangraphs and ESPN.