COMMENTARY | After failing to reach the playoffs in 2013, the New York Yankees headed to the offseason with many roster holes expected to be filled. One area that seemed solid was center field, where Brett Gardner established himself in 2013 as the Yankees best offensive weapon after Robinson Cano.
After Cano began to hold up the Yankees free-agent process, they went out and signed former Boston Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year, $153 million contract. The signing immediately pushed Gardner out of the roles he worked so hard to gain and back to where he began his Yankee career.
Gardner has long been a catalyst for the Yankees, except they did not place him in the lineup spot that suited his tools or in the field where he could best serve the team regularly (and not because of an injury to another player) until 2013. When he received his opportunity to man center and leadoff the lineup, he took it and provided the Yankees with virtually everything they expected.
According to FanGraphs, Gardner produced a slash line of .273/.344/.416 in a career-high 609 plate appearances in 2013 after missing almost all of the 2012 season due to injury. Gardner scored 81 runs and set career-high marks in hits (147) doubles (33), triples (10), home runs (8), RBIs (52) and slugging percentage. He recorded a 3.2 WAR, good for second best on the offense behind Cano.
If there was a knock on Gardner in 2013, it would be about the one thing that defined him in previous seasons, his speed. He swiped 24 bases in 2013, down from two straight 40-plus stolen base seasons. He was thrown out in 25 percent of his attempts last season. Further disconcerting, there is a downward trend developing -- Gardner was caught stealing 21 percent of the time in 2011 (62 attempts) and a touch more than 16 percent of the time (57 attempts) in 2010. The attempts going way down while atop the order and getting caught in more of them as a percentage of attempts may have sounded some alarms in the Yankees front office.
In the field, Gardner had been heralded as one of the best defensive left fielders in the game, and the person many felt should have been the regular center fielder in previous seasons. When Gardner arrived to spring training in 2013, the center field job was set to be a competition between him and former Yankee Curtis Granderson. Granderson got hurt during the spring and Gardner claimed and maintained his rightful spot in center.
Surprisingly, defensive metrics did not show Gardner in a good light in 2013. After producing UZR/150 ratings above 30 in 2010 and 2011, his -0.3 mark in 2013 ranked him in a tie for 10th place with Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout among all center fielders. For reference, Ellsbury ranked fifth with a 12.9 in UZR/150. Maybe the Yankees saw something there too?
Once Ellsbury was signed, speculation grew about Gardner as a trade chip. The Bombers needed another starting pitcher and Gardner's name began to float around the rumor mill. The team continuously stated he was not going anywhere. And once the Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka, the conjecture subsided, as the Yanks pitching depth became less of an issue.
I'd expect there to be some talk mid-season if the Yankees desperately need an arm or sit well out of the playoff picture since Gardner is a free agent after the season. He is just about their only worthwhile trade chip with major league tools.
For now, there is no doubt that Gardner will be shifted back to left field with Ellsbury in center. There will be some chatter about where Gardner should be slotted in the lineup. With Ellsbury sure to be the leadoff hitter, will the Yankees drop Gardner back to ninth in the lineup again? Or will he snag the number-two slot from Derek Jeter?
Jeter, returning from a lost 2013 campaign, will likely get the nod initially because manager Joe Girardi will not want to slight the Yankee captain. However, if within a month or two of play, Jeter's bat is slow to develop, don't be shocked if Gardner begins to get at-bats behind Ellsbury.
Either way, there are benefits for the Yankees who often struggled to score runs in 2013. Having a productive number-nine hitter is a plus for any team, and Gardner's proven ability to get on base (career .352 OBP) slots nicely in the two-spot as well.
With Gardner in left field, Ellsbury in center and newly signed Carlos Beltran in right field, the Yankees have one of the better defensive outfield alignments in the game. While many have postured about Gardner being wasted in left field, there is now a better option with Ellsbury aboard. Gardner can once again flourish in left and potentially feel less pressure than he did in center field and leading off.
Assuming Ellsbury can play 2014 without major injuries and Gardner can also avoid missing time, I'd expect Gardner to thrive again in left field and outside of the leadoff spot. A return to his very good 2010 and 2011 seasons (6.0 and 4.9 WAR respectively) is easily within reach. Put him down for a .265/.350/.390 slash line with 45-50 extra-base hits, 30-plus steals and superior defense in left. Surely, this is something the Yankees would love to get no matter which slot Gardner hits.
Statistics provided by FanGraphs.
Please see the author's profile page for recent articles detailing what the Yankees can expect from their players in 2014 as part of an ongoing series.Chris Carelli is a freelance sports writer/editor and the Director of Content Strategy for Sportsideo. Besides his work as a New York Yankees contributor for Yahoo Sports, Chris created and maintains his own blog site, The Baseball Stance, which provides commentary about all of Major League Baseball. He is a member of the Baseball Bloggers Alliance and the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America. Connect with Chris on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.
- Sports & Recreation
- New York Yankees
- Jacoby Ellsbury
- Brett Gardner