What Changed the New York Yankees’ Mind About Brett Gardner?

According CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman, the New York Yankees reportedly extended outfielder Brett Gardner to a four-year, $52 million contract.

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.


21 responses to “What Changed the New York Yankees’ Mind About Brett Gardner?

  1. What is totally missed by the author is that Gardner’s contract is tradable at a fixed cost, limiting uncertainty of losing him to free agency in the near future.

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  4. I think Gardner’s biggest asset is his offensive abilities to be a leadoff hitter. I know they just signed Ellsbury, but Gardner appears to be a better fit. Ellsbury has slightly more power then Gardner and can be used better further down the batting order. Also, Jeter is leaving after this season. Gardner is the best they have to replace him; there are similarities in their offensive approach. For the amount of money the Yankees will have to spent on free agency to replace Jeter offensively will be more than what they have to pay Gardner. The Yankees can use that free agent money to find the power hitters they enjoy taking from other teams.

    • I don’t disagree with extending Gardner. He’s a very good player on both sides of the ball. But I just think he should have been extender much earlier on his in career.

  5. The Yankees finally became smart and locked down a guy who has contributed many more ways than one and has solidified himself as a Yankee. Doing year by year contracts were getting old. I show much respect to the organization for finally locking him down for the next 5 years.
    Good job front office. Lets geaux Yankees

    • Well, the “year by year” contracts you mentioned is arbitration–a process all players with more than 3 service years go through (and it usually lasts 3 seasons).

      But again, I’m not knocking the Yankees retaining Gardner. He is and has been deserving of one. Instead, I was pointing out how not extending him earlier exposes the organization’s archaic practices.

  6. The nice thing about Gardner is that he not only fits as a No. 9 hitter, but flourishes in that spot. Girardi loves to put a speed guy at the back end of the order as it can easily turn a seemingly easy out into a whole new threat. Gardner gets on, then back to the top of the order. Sweet!

  7. I think what the Yankees are doing is going back to what worked in the 90’s. Look at the guys they picked up this off-season. Guys who play hard all the time. Guys who want to win. And they gave up Cano–a great but lazy player–in order to get these guys. These guys want to win and do everything they can to do so. I think they looked at their team and realized Gardner is the only everyday homegrown Yankee that could be around after next year and he gives it his all. Those are the type of guys the Yanks need.

    • I don’t quite understand why people claim Robinson Cano doesn’t want to win or doesn’t play hard.

      Cano is by far the best second baseman in baseball. His offensive production (141 OPS+ and 117 HR from 2010-13) is that of a traditional corner outfielder, yet at a position that rarely witnesses an offense-first player. But Cano is also a good fielder (career 23 DRS), and one that has only improved over the past few seasons (combined -15 DRS from 2005-09 vs. combined 38 DRS from 2010-13).

      With notable improvements in the latter part of his career, there is little statistical evidence that suggests Cano doesn’t play hard. And perhaps more importantly, the Yankees would have won a heck of a lot less games if Cano hadn’t been the elite producer he was.

  8. I imagine the same people calling Cano lazy are the same ones who would’ve applauded the Yankees outbidding Seattle for him: sour grapes. If the Yankees could’ve extended Cano in 2008 to longer than 4 years at a discounted rate it would’ve been a great move, but don’t know if he would’ve jumped at the chance.

  9. Nope. I was scared at the offer of 7 years for Cano. The Yankees are in a different business than the rest of the league. They do baseball and theater. Cano can hit but the way he plays is not up to NY standards for entertainment. The Yanks did not extend Cano because they knew he was not the guy to take over the reins of the team from Jeter. They extend Gardner now simply because he is homegrown and appreciates wearing the uniform.

  10. I feel many in the baseball media put on their GM hats from afar after the Yankees signed Beltran in addition to Ellsbury. More than a rumor, the Reds in fact, actually offered B. Phillips to the Yankees for Gardner, who share an exact cost (4/52). I don’t remember anything substantiated from the Yanks end in regards to parting ways with Gardner.
    I do agree the Yankees could have extended Gardner earlier, but remember, they also offered Choo 7 years right after Ellsbury signed, so I’m sure it was a case where Yanks were more interested in others, than they were uninterested in extended Gardy.
    As far as the Bourn comp, I believe Bourn had a draft pick attached to his signing, possibly lowering his AAV a bit. Also, as your health breakdown shows, Gardy is more dynamic on a daily basis, totaling nearly the same bWAR despite roughly 35% less PA.

    • The article mentioned that Bourn rejected his qualifying offer.

      I assume that, hypothetically, if the Yankees had not extended Gardner, that they would have offered him a qualifying offer. If so, Gardner would have rejected it (as he could command more on the FA market), which would put him in a similar situation as Bourn was in.

      I agree that Gardner’s ceiling is perhaps higher than Bourn’s, but health is a major factor when it comes to multi-year contracts.

  11. Simply the Yankees plan 189 hinged on having an outfield of some combination of Mason, Heathcott, Almonte, Austin with Betances, Brackman, and Benuelos in the rotation and Montero behind the plate. Since none of that happened they had to sign free agents. They may still get one of those to fill in for Ichiro and Soriano next year meaning they would need Gardner.

    • That’s not really the point. It’s possible that if that had extended Gardner years ago, they might not have felt the need to sign someone like Ellsbury, who is more or less a rich-man’s version of Gardner.

      But the grander point is that the Yankees have a silly policy in place that prevents them from locking up talent at an earlier point in their careers.

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