In extending Brett Gardner, Yankees get a rare bargain
When the Yankees signed Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year, $153 million free-agent deal back in December, many observers concluded that it might spell the end of Brett Gardner's time in the Bronx. Despite much speculation that he could be traded, the Yankees resisted all overtures for his services, and now they've made clear their commitment to him. On Sunday, they announced that they have signed the 30-year-old outfielder to a four-year, $52 million extension — a move that has the potential to be a significant bargain.
In a year where so much went wrong for the Yankees, Gardner's rebound from a lost 2012 season flew under the radar. Limited to 16 games that year due to inflammation and a bone spur, he underwent surgery in late July and was reduced to cameo appearances as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement upon returning.
Not only did Gardner get back to being an everyday player in 2013, but he also reclaimed the Yankees' center-field job for the first time since 2009. In 145 games, he hit .273/.344/.416 with a career-high eight homers and an AL-best 10 triples, not to mention 24 stolen bases. He proved more than capable of handling the middle pasture; via Defensive Runs Saved, he was six runs above average. In all, his season was worth 4.2 Wins Above Replacement, the second-best mark of his career and his best since 2010, when off-the-charts defense in left field and center (+35 runs overall) boosted him to 7.9 WAR.
The combination of Ellsbury's signing and so many visible needs on the Yankees' roster led to much speculation that he would be dealt this winter. The Reds, Tigers, Giants, Indians and Phillies were among the teams said to be interested, with Cincinnati's Brandon Phillips, Detroit's Austin Jackson and Cleveland's Justin Masterson a few of the names mentioned as potential returns. It doesn't sound as though any deal was ever close, however, and Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has often reiterated his commitment to Gardner. Indeed, the Yankees broke a longstanding policy by signing him to an extension before he reached free agency, something they explored with Russell Martin and Robinson Cano, only to watch them depart. As Cashman told ESPN, "We don't typically do this, but it shows the level of confidence, belief and trust in the type of person and player he is, and we're excited to know he's going to be part of this thing going forward."
With the signing of Ellsbury, Gardner is slated to return to left field, which might be a suboptimal arrangement if he were on some other team, but works out well for the Yankees, since the left-field area of their ballpark is considerably larger than most. On a per-season basis, Gardner's defense has actually been significantly more valuable at that spot; his DRS per 1,200 innings — roughly 135 full games, and right around his average for his last three full seasons — is 26 runs above average in left, 17 runs above average in center. His play in left earned him Fielding Bible Awards in both 2010-2011 as the majors' best defender at the position.
In theory, Gardner's bat isn't as valuable as a leftfielder as it would be as a centerfielder, since leftfielders are typically expected to produce more, but the gap between the average production at those two positions has narrowed in recent years. In 2013, the two positions were just five points apart in terms of OPS (.735 for left field, .730 for center), while in 2012, the gap was just nine points. In 2011, centerfielders actually outproduced leftfielders by seven points (.735 to .728) — part of an odd trend I documented at Baseball Prospectus.
Gardner made just $2.85 million last year, his second year of arbitration eligibility, and he more or less doubled it for 2014, agreeing to a $5.6 million salary back in January. This deal, which doesn't take effect until 2015, includes a $12.5 million option and a $2.0 million buyout for 2019. Contrary to my initial report in this space, for luxury tax purposes, the two contracts are treated as separate ones, which means that while Gardner is now effectively on a five-year, $57.6 million deal, his AAV for this year is still at $5.6 million, while it will be at $13 million for 2015-2019.
By extending him now, the Yankees are avoiding the likelihood that Gardner could command more with another good season under his belt. Indeed, he probably would have netted a contract worth at least $15 million per year had he reached free agency given his ability to cover center. Despite never having an offensive breakout as big as Ellsbury's 32-homer, 39-steal 2011, his defense has put him on par with his new neighbor in terms of total value. In fact, he's been the more valuable of the two in terms of WAR if one goes as far back as 2009 (18.0 to 17.5) or 2010 (15.7 to 14.8), though that has a whole lot to do with the timing of each player's injuries. Still, their similarity in value is unmistakeable; on a per-600 PA basis since 2010, Gardner has been worth 5.2 WAR, Ellsbury 5.0. If he's worth half that going forward, the Yankees will more or less break even on the contract given the market rate of $5.45 million per win.
As the game's financial powerhouse for the past two decades, and a team that doesn't produce a whole lot of homegrown talent, the Yankees aren't accustomed to getting many bargains. In extending Gardner, however, that's exactly what they've gotten. This article has been updated to correct information regarding Gardner's impact on the Yankees' luxury tax payroll.