The Yankees argument for bringing back Brett Gardner
CLEVELAND — In the movie “Cocktail,” which I’ve never seen, Tom Cruise’s character proclaims, “Everything ends badly. Otherwise, it wouldn’t end.”
Which brings us right to the Yankees and Brett Gardner.
In their most important game of the 2020 season, the Yankees started Gardner in left field Tuesday night, leaving the younger Clint Frazier on the bench, and saw him contribute a single, double and homer to their 12-3 pounding of the Indians in this American League wild-card opener at Progressive Field. After the game, to boot, Gleyber Torres — who pounded four hits and drew a walk, matching Gardner’s three RBIs — credited Gardner for getting his mind right.
Does this sound like a relationship going badly?
To the contrary, it’s looking increasingly sensible for the Yankees to extend their relationship with the 37-year-old Gardner, who first put on the pinstripes in 2008, into 2021.
“Tremendous leader. Just lays it out there on the line every day,” the soft-spoken DJ LeMahieu, who chipped in with two hits and an RBI of his own, said of Gardner on Wednesday, before the Yankees and Indians took the field for Game 2. “Comes to play, shows up, plays through injuries, comes up in big situations, comes through. I knew last night he was going to have great at-bats. Not only that, helping other guys, pushing other guys.”
“Before the game, I had a really good conversation with Gardner,” Torres said late Tuesday night. “He told me [that] during the season we didn’t do a really good job as players. … Also, he told me that baseball gave me another opportunity. … This is the time we need to do the job.”
To be clear, I am not advocating for the Yankees to exercise the $10 million team option they have on Gardner for 2021, even though that becomes a $7.5 million decision when you factor in the $2.5 million buyout on the option. Gardner did struggle for the bulk of this COVID-reduced campaign, and he is approaching baseball senior-citizen status, and the Yankees need to re-sign LeMahieu and Masahiro Tanaka while they cope with massive revenue cuts from 2020 with no guarantee of a return to normalcy in 2021. Lucky for Gardner and the Yankees, they’ve danced this dance before; two years ago, the Yankees declined their $12.5 million option on Gardner for 2019, paid him a $2 million buyout and then signed him to a new, one-year, $7.5 million pact, saving $3 million.
Through his actions and words, the homegrown Yankee has made it clear he doesn’t want to play anywhere else, and he’s on record saying he wants to play again next season. After an ice-cold start, he wound up with a respectable .223/.354/.392 slash line, though he did generate a small red flag with reduced defensive metrics in left field. Interestingly, he still scored very well during his handful of games in center field.
At a reduced salary (perhaps with incentive clauses for plate appearances), Gardner would be worth the risk. If it all falls apart for him next year — it’ll have to at some point if he keeps coming back — then it’ll be on the Yankees to produce some Mike Tauchman-type to fill the void. Maybe it can be Tauchman, who regressed this season after a highly encouraging 2019.
For sure, you don’t want Gardner to block the development of Frazier, who finally established himself as a keeper this season. Given the injury-prone nature of Aaron Hicks and Aaron Judge, however, odds are that Gardner wouldn’t lack for at-bats.
Following Game 1, Gardner looked as chipper and vital as ever, speaking to the media on Zoom.
“I’ve felt pretty good and healthy all season,” he said. “I know that up until a few weeks ago the numbers weren’t where they wanted to be. But I feel like I’ve been attacking the baseball a good way. Good balance, good takes, carry that into [Wednesday].”
For Game 2, Aaron Boone started Gardner in left again.
“Definitely the right thing to get him back in there and hopefully build on a good first night,” the Yankees’ manager said.
More and more, it looks the right thing will be to not let that prosperous relationship between the Yankees and Gardner end quite yet.
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