Gardner, 30, is young by Bombers’ standards and has excelled as a starter over the past four seasons. And with a career park-adjusted 97 OPS+, 10.3 percent walk rate, 161 steals (an 80.9 percent SB%) and 84 defensive runs saved (DRS) in the outfield, Gardner is undoubtedly a valuable asset.
Yet, in less than a three-month period since signing Jacoby Ellsbury, which subsequently incited hoopla surrounding Gardner’s future with the organization, per The Star-Ledger’s Andy McCullough, the southpaw went from seemingly expendable to a core organizational mainstay. Given the extreme variance, it only makes one wonder: What could have changed the Yankees’ mind about Brett Gardner?
Gardner opened most fans’ eyes as a legitimate star in 2010. Returning from a fractured left thumb that stunted his 2009 campaign, the South Carolinian posted a 105 OPS+, 13.8 percent walk rate, 47 stolen bases and 35 DRS in his first full season. Despite only swatting five home runs, Gardner’s 2010 season was still worth 7.4 bWAR, according to Baseball Reference. Even though that metric shrunk to a 3.9 bWAR the following season, Gardner had nonetheless emerged as a face of the next wave of homegrown Yankees’ stars.
But Gardner’s hard-nosed play continued to take a toll on his body. In 2012, the slick fielder missed all but 16 games due to a right-elbow injury he sustained diving for a fly ball. Exhibiting renewed health again in 2013, Gardner returned to his productive ways, clubbing a league-best 10 triples and posting a 4.2 bWAR overall.
The Yankees’ sudden gratitude toward Gardner, however, isn’t truly an example of the traditional organization breaking from its alleged “no extension” policy.
The Yankees apparently waved their extension policy years ago, according to NY Daily News’ Mark Feinsand, when they unsuccessfully attempted to extend catcher Russell Martin, who played just two seasons in pinstripes. But general manager Brian Cashman also supposedly went against the grain by extending a pre-arbitration Robinson Cano in February 2008 to a four-year, $30 million contract. Cano’s contract also featured two team options for a combined $29 million—both of which were exercised.
Given the Yankees’ unlimited purse and repeated interest in extending a chosen few, it only makes Cashman’s decision to not extend Gardner at an earlier date that much more perplexing.
From a pure financial perspective, the Gardner extension is hardly a demonstration of the Yankees’ overspending folly. By comparison, Michael Bourn signed a four-year, $48 million contract as a free agent last offseason, despite rejecting his qualifying offer. Like Gardner, Bourn’s notable assets going into free agency were his speed and defense.
|bWAR||PA / Yr.|
|Michael Bourn (2008-12)||19.2||644.4|
|Brett Gardner (2009-13)||18.1||417.4|
The main difference between the two players, of course, is health—or Gardner’s lack there of.
The idiocy is not whether Gardner would be worth between $12-13 million per season in free agency, but rather, the Yankees’ inability to recognize that market tendency well prior to February 23, 2014.
In hindsight, perhaps the trade rumors linked to Gardner’s name, ranging anywhere from Austin Jackson, per Toronto Sun’s Bob Elliot, to Brandon Phillips, per CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman, were overblown. Maybe Cashman and the Yankees never had any intention of dangling their farm-raised outfielder, despite shelling out $153 million for a rich-man’s version of him in Ellsbury.
But what likely triggered the Yankees’ last minute investment in Gardner—which, in turn, is a three-year investment in an outfield Gardner, Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran—was their absent faith in Mason Williams and Tyler Austin as well as their 20th ranked farm system, per ESPN’s Keith Law (subscription required).
Williams and Austin, who dropped completely out of Baseball America’s 2014 Top 100 list due to disappointing 2013 seasons, now have no chance of breaking into the major league team’s starting lineup—barring an injury. And without the expiring contract of Gardner, the Yankees face an uphill battle of marketing the pair of struggling, young outfielders as its prime trade assets.
Whether it was the organization’s lack of faith in its farm system or simply a delayed recognition of future free-agent market trends, the Yankees’ whimsical and backwards approach to extending talent is the important takeaway from the Gardner ordeal.
If the Yankees had instead extended Gardner back in 2011, the team would have likely enjoyed discounted production through the more risk-averse age 32. The reality, however, is that the Yankees are now rewarding Gardner during his more fragile years: ages 33 and 34.
Unless the storied franchise changes its archaic evaluation methods, the Yankees will continue to be saddled with more broken players in the twilight of their respective careers. And perhaps more importantly, few of these players will have ever been homegrown in the Yankees’ minor league system in the first place.