2016 In Review: Brett Gardner

In no particular order, I’m going to begin player reviews of the 2016 season. Today, Brett Gardner.

Preseason Expectations

For most of his career, Gardner had been a steady top of the order hitter with good ability to get on base. In the past two years, the left fielder unexpectedly added power to his repertoire, blasting 33 home runs. That quickly surpassed his 23 career long balls amassed from 2008-2013.

The Yankees shouldn’t have expected much different with the bat, penciling in Gardner in the two-hole with some continued moderate power. On the basepaths, perhaps another 20 stolen base season with the previous three campaigns hitting that mark. Last but not least, another season of defensive excellence in left field was essentially a given.

ZiPS’ projection for Gardner illustrated the above. The forecasted batting line was .256/.330/.405 (104 OPS+) with 12 home runs and 17 steals in 547 plate appearances. One  important note is that the Gardner had surpassed 609 plate appearances in each of the previous three seasons, but ZiPS foresaw either some playing time lost to injury or other players.

What Happened

Gardner stayed healthy but had a mediocre offensive season, hitting .261/.351/.362 (92 OPS+). Despite some improvement in on-base ability, 2016 was an overall disappointment at the plate. In recent seasons, Brett had established himself as a slightly above average offensive player thanks to some newfound power. That power also made up for his slowdown on the basepaths.

With just 7 homers in 2016, Gardner became a one-dimensional hitter: one with on-base ability and not much else. That’s not awful for a leadoff hitter, a role the 33 year-old assumed midseason after swapping lineup spots with Jacoby Ellsbury. Still, the Yankees hoped for more. Alas, there wasn’t any room in Gardner’s game to make up for his downfall in pop.

If there was any hope that he could become more aggressive stealing bases, it never came to fruition. Gardner swiped 16 bags all season. That’s down from his previous outputs, although not too far off. Regardless, it’s hard to expect a player at his age to start stealing bases like he’s 27 again. Those near-50 stolen base seasons are a distant memory.

It was fun to watch Gardner in the field, at least. He’s been swell with the glove ever since he debuted, and that certainly didn’t appear to taper off in 2016. We saw some pretty spectacular plays, to boot:

Looking Ahead

The extension signed that began in the 2015 season still has two more years remaining with an option for a third in 2019. It’s quite possible that Gardner doesn’t make it through the contract in pinstripes, however. He’s been subject to trade rumors in the past, and likely will again this winter. Certainly, the Yankees would rather trade away Ellsbury given his similarity to Gardner at a much steeper price. Yet, the Yankees made their bed with the contracts given to the two players, so it’ll likely be Gardner gone before Ellsbury if there must be a trade of one of them.

Unfortunately, the Yankees missed their best chance to cash in on Gardner at a higher value last offseason. No prospective team is going to expect his power to rebound, and realistically at 33 years-of-age, his decline has begun. His contract is reasonable, though, with $25M guaranteed through 2018 and another $10.5M for 2019 if the team option is exercised. There certainly will be clubs interested in him as a leadoff hitter that might still be able to play centerfield even though that hasn’t been his primary position since Ellsbury has been in the fold.

There’s an argument for keeping Gardner, even if they don’t miraculously dump Ellsbury. The other major-league-ready outfielders are either uninspiring or unproven to this point. Between Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge, Tyler Austin, and Mason Williams, there’s a lot that could go wrong in the outfield corners if Gardner was sent packing. Yes, all four of those players have varying degrees of upside, but at least Gardner would be a known commodity in 2017. What to do with Gardner is a decision that’s dependent on the organization’s goals for next season, as any return for him probably wouldn’t be anything too special.

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