It's been nearly six months since the Yankees have played meaningful baseball. During that span, the same things about the 2016 Yankees have been repeated ad nauseam.
There are many questions and concerns surrounding the team. Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, and Carlos Beltran need to fight off age and injuries to stay productive in the middle of the lineup. Masahiro Tanaka needs to stay healthy and be effective, as does the rest of the rotation. Two of the most important players for the Yankees this season, though, are not garnering as much attention as some of their other teammates. You can make the argument that a handful of players are "most important" for the Yankees in 2016, and I'd argue that Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner staying healthy and productive is as vital as anything for the Yankees being successful this season.
When Ellsbury and Gardner are healthy and producing at the top of the lineup, the Yankee offense has the potential to be one of the most potent in baseball. However, when one or both is struggling or injured, it really wounds the entire Yankee offense. Teixeira, A-Rod, McCann, and Beltran are so important because they're the Yankees' main run producers, but there must be runners on base for them to drive people in.
If they're clicking, the duo could be the best one-two lineup punch in baseball. They get on base, can swipe bags, and have some power. When the Yankees signed Ellsbury prior to the 2014 season, they pictured these two wreaking havoc at the top of the lineup.
In 2014, Derek Jeter batted second so that plan was put on hold, but both put up solid seasons. Ellsbury sometimes led off, but mostly hit third; he slashed .271/.328/.419, hit 16 homers, swiped 39 bags, and had a 4.0 fWAR. Gardner, meanwhile, spent some time near the bottom of the order, but was predominately the leadoff hitter (107 games). He jacked a career high 17 home runs, stole 21 bases, and slashed .256/.327/.422 with a 111 wRC+. However, since Jeter and his legend status was staying the in the two-hole, Ellsbury and Gardner only batted next to each other at the top of the order a handful of times.
Through the first six weeks of last season, with Jeter having rode off into the sunset, the Yankees saw just how dangerous having Ellsbury-Gardner at the top of the order can be. Before hurting his knee, Ellsbury was having an early MVP-caliber season. He was slashing .324/.412/.372, had already stolen 14 bags, and scored 29 runs through 37 games. Gardner was hitting well too; he had a .291/.366/.433 slash, three homers, 16 RBI, and 9 steals. Ellsbury got hurt on May 19th, but up until that point the Yankees were in first place with a 22-17 record and a big reason for that was the dynamic one-two punch of Ellsbury and Gardner at the top of the order, setting the table for the rest of the lineup.
After that, though, things took a turn for the worse. Ellsbury didn't return from his knee injury until July, and hit .224 with a .269 OBP down the stretch. His 59 wRC+ in the second half was the fourth worst in baseball. Gardner, meanwhile, went on a tear in June without Ellsbury, hitting .351 with five dingers and 18 RBI, but he too struggled mightily in the second half; he hit just .206, and his 67 wRC+ was the 12th worst in baseball. It's no coincidence that the entire Yankee offense ultimately faltered down the stretch. From August on, the pinstripes went just 29-31 while averaging 4.4 runs per game, as opposed to 4.9 before that.
So if the Yankees offense excels when Ellsbury and Gardner are healthy and productive, but struggles when they're not, it's safe to say that these two are crucial for the Yankees succeeding this season. Projecting just how good they'll be, though, is rather difficult given the nature of the players.
Ellsbury is still very talented, was a four-win player as recently as 2014, and looked to be headed towards another strong campaign last season before his injury. One bad half of baseball shouldn't mean that he's done. However, it was a bit concerning and he's certainly suffered his fair share of injuries throughout his career, so it's reasonable to expect that he'll spend some time on the disabled list.
Gardner had been a solid all-around player throughout his career but, unsurprisingly, his skills are declining as he gets older. He's not the stolen base threat he once was; he has just 65 steals over the past three seasons, and he's hit under .260 each of the past two seasons (his career average is just .264). While he's still shown the ability to get on base and has hit 33 homers over the past two seasons, a lot of his production came during incredible hot streaks, as opposed to consistently producing throughout the season. Gardner is the definition of "streaky."
For what it's worth, here are their Steamer projections for this season.
Those numbers are obviously very similar. Both are projected to be about league average offensive players overall with the ability to steal some bags. Given the uncertainties surrounding both, these projections are a reasonable median. These numbers aren't awful, but they'll both need to perform more towards their ceilings if they're going to be the dynamic duo the Yankees need them to be.
The Yankees have a lot of uncertainty surrounding them this season and these two are no exception. While they alone won't determine the fate of the Yankees season, the offense does largely hinge on their health and production.