Posted February 23, 2014

In extending Brett Gardner, Yankees get a rare bargain

Brett Gardner, New York Yankees
(Michael Dwyer/AP)

Brett Gardner slashed .273/.344/.416 in a bounce-back season for the Yankees in 2013. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

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.

13 comments
eckman
eckman

Gritty Gutty Brett Gardner creates value in subtle ways that are now being rewarded in dollar amounts that were unthinkable years ago thanks to Sabermetrics.  Jay Jaffe is usually a clear eyed realist when it comes to measuring player performances.  However, as an analyst of baseball teams, I am not so sure he bases his observations on data as much as bias.  On Clubhouse Confidential today, Mr. Jaffe postulated that they Yankees are the only team still interested in throwing their money at free agency to fix their problems with the $400 million + spent this off-season.  I was surprised to hear him parrot conventional wisdom as he has been fighting the old conventional "eye tests" of professional scouts. A data driven person would try to eliminate their own bias and notice that the Dodgers are heavily invested in free agency and salary dumps.  The Dodgers and Angels are both so invested in the free agent market that their payrolls are expected to exceed the Yankees this year.  I am not saying the Yankees are austere in the approach but they certainly aren't the only one preparing for 2014 having made extremely large investments in players not yet their own.  Take the Mariners, for one.  They just invested $240 million in Robbie Cano and outbid the Yankees in the process.  So, the point is, if you call yourself data driven, stay away from statements like Jay Jaffe made on Clubhouse Confidential.  They are inaccurate and misleading.

Kensington
Kensington

A bargain? Let's look at the numbers. Average BA, average OPB, way below average OPS for an outfielder, a terrible throwing arm, and below average steals for a guy with his speed. All this for only $52M and that's considered a bargain. My God? What would Mickey Mantle make today?

oasis1994
oasis1994

The only reason this is a bargain is because all these stupid sports writers are saying it is.

I wish a writer would come out and say how bad these signing are.

wetmouse
wetmouse

On the wrong side of 30 with an injury history and not capable of the kind of production the Yankees need right now = Not a bargain. Not that the Yankees can't afford him, but don't tell me Gardner is a bargain at $52M.

Batgao
Batgao

Say what? a BARGAIN? its actually OVERPAID.. he's among the best trade chips the yankees had that is already in the major leagues but then they signed him to that ludicrous contract and now from an asset he became a liability because of that contract.. shame what a shame..

The_truth_hurts
The_truth_hurts

Its going to be fun watching this team struggle for 70 wins.

DODGERFAIL2013
DODGERFAIL2013

@eckman hope you enjoyed wasting moments of your life typing that post out for me to tell you to, "suck a d1ck".

yankee42
yankee42

@Kensington Boy am I glad you ain't the Yanks GM. And by your comment you can evaluate baseball talent either. So take a hike and blog on some other teams site. I had a NEUTERED CAT named Kensingston once .

Rico1
Rico1

@wetmouse  When you consider all these other ridiculous deals going on, yes, it is a bargain. It's not about what you think he's worth. It's about what the market thinks.

yankeedave
yankeedave

@The_truth_hurts If I thought I could collect, I'd spot you 10 wins and bet you on this season. But it's easy to say BS when you're leaving anonymous comments on a message board. If you want to bet, email me at davey.d@lycos.com