2022 Center Field Targets? – Brett Gardner
Two weeks ago I looked at who I think would be best for the Yankees shortstop problem in 2022. I landed on Amed Rosario as the best option. Last week I looked at who I think would be best for the Yankees first base problem in 2022. I landed on Freddie Freeman as the best option.
This week, I look to center field to see if there are any good solutions for the Yankees going forward. We start this week with a player the Yankees can never seem to get rid of…Brett Gardner.
Brett Gardner: A Quick Overview
Brett Gardner was selected in the 3rd round of the 2005 MLB First-Year Player Draft out of the College of Charleston by the New York Yankees, signing on to play professional ball for $210,000. He spent the next few seasons (2005-2008) slowly moving his way up the minor leagues before making his MLB debut on June 30th, 2008. Gardner would go up and down between Triple-A and the MLB a few more times after this, but quickly became the Yankees 4th outfielder going forward for the rest of 2008 and through the 2009 season. (Gardner is one of 4 players from the 2009 Championship team who was on an MLB roster in 2021. This includes David Robertson, Mark Melancon, and Robinson Cano.) Going into 2010, Brett Gardner became the starting left fielder for the Yankees who would occasionally also fill in at center field. The Yankees locked up Brett Gardner on a 4-Year/$52 Million contract for 2015-2018, and after he became a free agent in 2019 and 2020, the Yankees signed him to 1-year deals for 2020 and 2021. A Yankee from 2008 through 2021, Gardner had only worn one uniform and one number (#11) over his MLB career.
Over his career, Brett Gardner had hit to a combined .256 /.342/.398 (.740 OPS/100 OPS+) extended triple-slash with 1,470 hits, 139 home runs, and 578 RBI’s in 1,688 games over parts of 14 seasons. He’s put in 13,321.2 innings in the outfield split between left (8287.2) and center (5026.0) to a combined +138 DRS and a +94.9 UZR. Combined, he’s accumulated +44.3 bWAR/+39.0 fWAR.
In 2021, Brett Gardner’s age did start to show after a couple years of a late-career renaissance. He hit to a .222/.327/.362 (.689 OPS/90 OPS+) with 86 hits, 10 home runs, and 39 RBI’s over 140 games. Gardner primarily played center field (816.1 innings) and spent some time in left field (223.1 innings) in 2021 to a combined -3 DRS and a -1.5 UZR. Combined, he put up +1.0 bWAR/+1.4 fWAR.
After being in the MLB for 14 years, Brett Gardner has had a very impressive bill of clean health. He went on the DL for a little over a month in 2009 and missed about 2 weeks with left knee inflammation in 2019. This is to also skip over Brett Gardner’s 2012 season where right elbow soreness in April turned into Gardner needing season-ending surgery that July.
The Case For Brett Gardner:
The pool of available outfielders who can man center field while playing a good overall game is always very limited in the MLB. Players who excel in center field are often locked up quick by their teams, leading teams without a stable foundation there to need to get creative. Brett Gardner has been the Yankees creative option the past few years.
Now, are a few reasons as why Brett Gardner continues to be the Yankees go-to option. One of them is definitely because of the familiarity between player and team, player and fans, and player and media. Brett Gardner has been a part of the New York Yankees organization as a player continuously since 2005. I’d bet that 99%+ of people reading this article are not working the same job that they were in 2005. And while that’s definitely because in a business outside of baseball, it can make sense to move between companies in order to get promotions, etc. there is an understanding between Gardner and the Yankees FO about how things are run.
Brett Gardner has also been around the large majority of the guys on the Yankees for the greater parts of their careers as well. He’s talked about from teammates as the funniest guy in the clubhouse and a veteran presence, who is a winner, and who has the respect that Brett Gardner has earned over his 14 year MLB career is something special. That’s definitely not something a team wants to lose overnight.
Brett Gardner is also a selfless player who understands that his best role for the team is doing what they need from him on the field. He can play any of the outfield positions, do so fairly well defensively, and has a bat that will hold up decently well over a long season. He’s not going to be the best defender on the team, nor will he have the best bat, but he’s going to play day-in and day-out, wherever and whenever the Yankees need him to.
Additionally, Brett Gardner and the Yankees FO have an understanding that Gardner wants to play in New York and is willing to do so on cheap contracts. Just last year Brett Gardner played to about 1 WAR of value. On the open market, a 1 WAR player is worth about $8M. Including the buy-out the Yankees exercised, Brett Gardner made just $3,900,000 last season. He’s affordable and he was (by one way of looking at it) twice as valuable as his contract.
Availability, Left-Handedness, and fan service are a few other reasons that come to mind, that are to the benefit of signing Brett Gardner for another year.
The Simple Pro’s: Yankees Clubhouse Veteran, Still Plays Decently Well, Will be Cheap to Sign
The Case Against Brett Gardner:
Cheap contracts, veteran presence, decent play, and fan service aside if you take away the background of Brett Gardner from the Yankees, it’s very clear to see why the team should stay away.
One thing the Yankees are very good at is not moving on from players who will not move the needle for the team, but have found themselves as favorites of the fans. While fan service is important, it’s only important to a degree. If the fans want to keep around a superstar player, after singing them talk about how important it is to listen to the fans. If fans want to keep around a player who won’t make the team great/move the needle, then fan service should be meaningless. Unfortunately, Brett Gardner is the later type player.
Brett Gardner is also going to be going into his age 38 season. In 2021, he was the 9th oldest player with 50+ games played. It’s safe to say that players in his age bracket have either long been out of baseball, are/were on long-term contracts (Pujols, Cabrera, Votto), or are retiring now (Lester)/planning to retire after 2022 (Molina, Wainwright).
Brett Gardner also just put up the worst batting average in his career in 2021. He also put up his 4th worst on-base percentage, 2nd worst slugging percentage, and 4th worst OPS+ in his career. 2021 was also his worst defensive season by dWAR, 2nd worst by UZR, and worst by DRS.
The Simple Con’s: It’s Time to Move On, He’ll be 38 Years Old, The Offense and Defense are Slowing Down
Brett Gardner will be a Yankee that fans love forever more. He’s evolution as a ballplayer throughout the true years of my Yankee fandom have been fun to watch as he’s gone from a scrappy outfielder with speed to a more patient hitter with some (ball-adjusted) pop.
He’s not going to get his number retired, though he’ll likely be given a plaque in monument park a few years after he retires for the publicity. (As should many of these “good-to-great, but not legendary” Yankees should: Hideki Matsui, Willie Randolph, etc.)
And, I fully believe that the Yankees are going to bring back Gardner (yet again) for another 1-year run. And, on one end of the marking sheet it makes sense. Brett Gardner is a viable 4th outfielder option player who can cover any of the outfield positions while he’ll likely produce about +1 WAR again. He’ll make a small relative salary and by a value of WAR per Million dollars, it will be sensible. It’s what the Yankees are going to do, bar none. Brett Gardner will be back.
And, I’m not thrilled by that move. And, I’m also not disappointed per say.
Throughout this week, I’m going to point out 4 additional targets who could play center field for the Yankees in 2021. And, they all have major flaws and risks associated with them.
Maybe the smartest move is to keep going year-to-year with Gardner until he stops producing or decides to retire.