Brett Gardner is a good baseball player. He has been around since 2008, but he didn’t really get a full-time shot until 2010. He posted a 6.0 WAR in 2010 due to his 97 runs, 47 stolen bases, 79 walks, and solid defense while manning left field (123 games) and center field (44 games) throughout that season. He followed that up with a good 2011, compiling a 4.9 WAR and leading the American League in stolen bases (49) while seeing his wRC+ fall below 100 (97). The 2012 season was lost due to right elbow surgery (he played in 16 games), and the 2013 season was solid (3.2 WAR), while Gardner become better than league average in creating runs (108 wRC+) while leading the AL in triples (10) and manning center full-time for an injury-crippled Yankee squad.
However, this winter, the Yankees have been very active, acquiring a new catcher in Brian McCann, a solid rotation addition in Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka, and adding one of the elite players on the open market – Jacoby Ellsbury – from their division rival, Boston. This clearly improved the roster and should allow the Yankees to be much more competitive in 2014 and beyond, but with these additions, especially the addition of Ellsbury, Gardner’s name was listed throughout many rumors, as his bat isn’t going to produce the numbers that many corner outfielders are capable of.
On Sunday, the Yankees signed Gardner to a four-year, $52 million extension. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman had this to say about the signing:
“He would be a leadoff hitter and playing center field for most organizations because most organizations don’t have multiple center-field options. There are certain places that need a center fielder and would love to have a leadoff hitter. He fit that criteria, and you have to pay him that way.”
Are there other teams out there that have two players locked into the same role, and, why, when the club was so cautious (prior to this offseason) of the payroll, was it necessary to give a decent player $13 million per season in average annual value for his age 31 to 34 seasons, when he will, likely, be less likely to run and maintain defensive value?
The Atlanta Braves just signed Andrelton Simmons to a seven-year, $58 million extension last week, so it wouldn’t be ideal for the Braves to try to sign Cuban shortstop Aledmys Diaz to a deal similar to what the Dodgers paid Erisbel Arruebarruena, as both are defensive-minded shortstops, though Simmons showed unexpected pop in 2013. Should the Yankees be excused from this type of investment because of their revenue streams?
Sure, there are other teams that have decided to employ solid defense in the outfield, potentially leaving some runs on the base paths to ensure that it is harder for the opposition to score. The Cleveland Indians, for example, went into the 2013 season with three capable center fielders in their outfield – Michael Brantley in left, Michael Bourn in center, and Drew Stubbs in right – and they became contenders, winning 92 games in 2013 after winning just 68 in 2012. Certainly, Nick Swisher‘s addition, improved production from Jason Kipnis, and surprising seasons from Yan Gomes and Ubaldo Jimenez helped, but…maybe it was the defense.
The Angels had Peter Bourjos penciled into center in 2013 until hamstring and wrist injuries kept him on the disabled list for 106 games in 2013. With Bourjos, Mike Trout, and Josh Hamilton, the Angels, on paper, had a group of three center fielders, as well; although, it would be a reach to consider Hamilton a center fielder at this point. There is also the dynamic offensive numbers that Trout can put up wherever he is playing that separates him from any of the Indians’ outfielders, as well as Gardner – so with Bourjos gone and J.B. Schuck and Kole Calhoun taking his spot, Trout manned center and, once again, posted MVP-caliber numbers while the Angels finished with a disappointing 78 wins.
There are certainly arguments for defensive value that make the Gardner extension reasonable, but $13 million per season seems like a lot of money for the 20th most valuable outfielder in baseball from 2013, tied with Rays’ outfielder Desmond Jennings and Braves’ outfielder Justin Upton with a 3.2 WAR. There are so many other options who could have been more affordable for New York as players like Coco Crisp, Marlon Byrd, and Shane Victorino could have been available to them, and they each posted more productive seasons while earning similar totals to what Gardner will earn from 2015 through 2018.
Beyond Gardner’s peers, should the Yankees be concerned about his production when compared to his past production?
His best season will be three-plus years ago when the 2014 season starts and his production has been all over the place since then. You can see that Gardner’s walk rate has gone from 13.9 percent in his breakout 2010 to 8.5 percent in 2013, while, at the same time, his strikeout rate jumped to a full-season worst 20.9 percent in 2013. Gardner may have been pressing due to a need to be productive with all of the injuries around him, but if he isn’t on base, he isn’t running, and if he isn’t running, where does his value lie? It lies in his defense and if he isn’t playing center field, does that decrease his overall value?
Again, there is such a thing as an elite defense, but teams tend to want big offensive production from their corner spots. Brett Gardner is not as sexy in left as he is in center, and with Jacoby Ellsbury unlikely to ever reach the outlier power numbers that he showed in 2011 ever again, there isn’t room for error, regression, or depreciation in Gardner’s skill-set over the next four seasons for him to be worth this investment.
Whether a win is worth $5 million, $7 million, or it is immeasurable, this contract seems unlikely to contain any room for surplus value for the Yankees.
While the Yankees may be able to afford a failed investment that a team like the Reds, Rays, or Pirates can’t, but $52 million for a league-average player doesn’t seem like a wise investment – cost of a win be damned.