Brett Gardner
Bruno Rouby, ESNY Graphic

He’s 36 years old and not the same at the plate, but it doesn’t matter. Brett Gardner needs to be with the New York Yankees in 2020. 

Josh Benjamin

This time last year, I’d have been more than happy for the New York Yankees to let Brett Gardner leave in free agency.

This time, I feel the exact opposite about his impending offseason. The start of the offseason has kicked off with regular center fielder Aaron Hicks needing Tommy John surgery. His recovery is expected to be eight to ten months, leaving a giant void in New York’s outfield.

Make no mistake, Yankees fans. Brett Gardner must be the one to fill this void. He’s in the twilight of his career and on the wrong side of 30, but still carries value both on the field and in the clubhouse.

His production at the plate may not be what fans expect after a strong 2019 but even still, Gardner needs to be prioritized, and fast.

A seeming decline

It’s easy to see why, after the 2018 season, some might have wanted Brett Gardner’s Bronx tenure to end. I make no bones about wanting the same because, at the time, Gardner’s offense was not where it needed to be for the Yankees to compete.

His .236 batting average was the lowest since he hit .228 in 2008, his first year in the majors. Per Fangraphs, Gardner’s line-drive rate (LD%) dropped to 17.9% compared to 22.3% in 2017.  He hit just 12 home runs after slugging 21 a year before.

Moreover, Gardner had a horrific second half and hit just .209. This was par for the course since he’s always regressed after the All-Star Break, but Gardner just looked lost at the plate. Throw in going hitless in the postseason, not to mention the Yankees having a strong outfield prospect in Clint Frazier, and it became clear.

One way or another, Gardner’s skills were trending downward.

Carolina comeback

Or, were they? Despite his subpar numbers, the Yankees brought Gardner back on a one-year, $7.5 million deal. This wasn’t a bad move, especially after Gardner continued to play strong outfield defense, but the bat was still a legit concern.

Thus, Gardner proved scrappy at the plate and had something of a rebound. He hit .251 in 2019 and saw his LD% inch ever so slightly upward to 17.8.

But what really made it clear Brett Gardner should stick around in New York was not just his .996 fielding percentage or 5 defensive-runs-saved (DRS) in the outfield, but his power. The veteran slugged a career-high 28 home runs with 74 RBI in 2019, though he did see his strikeout rate (K%) go up two points to 19.6%.

Oh, and did I mention he hit .257 in the second half after batting just .246 before the All-Star Break?

Why he should return

Now, let’s get back to why the Yankees need to prioritize Gardner’s return.

The primary reason is Hicks’ injury is a punch to the gut, one which would make even Ivan Drago shudder. He is a switch-hitter, a great defensive center-fielder with a great arm, and a home run swing which is honestly Griffey-like. He came into his own as a player in New York and was rewarded last spring with a $70 million contract extension.

Except, the Yankees won’t have Hicks next year until July at the earliest. Meanwhile, per Randy Miller of NJ.com, Brett Gardner doesn’t seem to want to leave either.

“I would love to come back next year,” Gardner said. “I’ve always been very honest about not wanting to play anywhere else.”

The competition

Granted, the Yankees have another great defensive outfielder in Mike Tauchman, so adding Brett Gardner isn’t an absolute necessity. Tauchman posted a 16 DRS across all outfield positions last year and was batting .315 in the second half before straining his calf in August.

Tauchman also under a team-controlled salary for two more years and will come cheaper. Gardner won’t command much more than what he made last year, but even still. Who’s to say Tauchman didn’t just catch lightning in a bottle for a season? The Yankees could roll the dice with him in center in 2020, but suppose he fizzles at the plate?

Another option would be to add someone like Starling Marte in free agency. However, the Pittsburgh Pirates would have to decline his option first.

The point is Brett Gardner is no longer who he once was, but is better than most other options available. For the Yankees, this should be good enough to justify re-signing him.

Final thoughts

Mind you, none of this is to say Brett Gardner must absolutely be re-signed and start in Hicks’ absence. For all we know, the Yankees’ analytics team could have numbers that say he should only come back as a reserve.

In which case, the Yankees should just re-sign Garder anyway and have him compete with Tauchman in spring training. Be it as a starter or reserve, his leadership is needed in the dugout. Him banging his bat after disagreements with umpires rallied the team and such energy or charisma cannot be replicated.

And even if Brett Gardner is truly on the decline, it’s not the end of the world if his hitting takes a step back in 2020. The Yankees have the depth to cover his production. If necessary, GM Brian Cashman can trade for an outfielder.

But one way or another, Gardner needs to be in pinstripes again in 2020. He’s a strong leader, frustrates opposing pitchers to the point of posting 4.32 pitches per plate appearance last year, and can still hang in the field. Even as a late-innings defensive replacement, he has value in New York.

The man is a Yankee, through and through, and Brett Gardner wants to remain a Yankee. Now, it’s really just a matter of the feeling being mutual.

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