TYA Mailbag: Brett Gardner to the Nationals?

Most people see an amazing catch. I see WAR!

Welcome to TYA, where the trade speculation about Brett Gardner never stops! In case you missed it, my fellow writer EJ Fagan tackled this subject on Thursday. Around the same time we also received the following email from reader Travis:

“The Washington Nationals seem to have a need for a leadoff man and center fielder.  Brett Gardner (although I like him in pinstripes) fits the mold for what they are looking for.  Here’s the question… What would the Nats give up for Gardner? Would they trade Peacock, Detwiler and Stammen? Or any two of the three? I dont think just one would suffice, seeing as how Gardner is cheap, has 3 more seasons of team control and was the 4th best LFer in MLB (2nd in AL), and contributed around 5.0 WAR.  Peacock and Stammen’s sample sizes are small (under 15 IP) and Detwiler seems shaky to me, so I’m not sure what your take is on this situation, if it were to arise.  Thanks.”

Travis, thanks for your question. Before I answer it I want to elaborate on two points that Travis made. First, he’s referring to Nationals pitchers Ross Detwiler, Brad Peacock, and Craig Stammen. Stammen is the oldest, at age 27, but only threw 10.1 innings in 2011, after throwing 128.0 innings in 2010. Peacock is a prospect who threw just 12.0 innings in 2011, while Detwiler started 10 games and threw 66.0 innings of 129 ERA+ baseball.

The second point I wanted to flush out is something I believe most Yankee fans realize, but is worth elaborating upon further. Brett Gardner is very, very good. Whether your preferred metric is fWAR or bWAR, Brett Gardner rates as the third best position player on the Yankees in either system. fWAR says that he is a 5.1 win player, just a half a win behind Robinson Cano, while bWAR says that he is a 4.4 win player, just 0.2 wins behind Cano. In short, the two systems we reference the most here at TYA, which don’t agree on much, do agree that Brett Gardner is worth quite a bit to the Yankees.

With that information in mind, the question then becomes whether or not the Yankees and Nationals would come to a trade agreement sending Gardner to Washington in exchange for what would essentially be a package of pitching prospects. In short, I don’t see this trade happening. In fact, I struggle to see the Yankees trading Gardner at all, and it doesn’t just have to do with his high value to the team.

The main reason why I don’t see the Yankees parting ways with Gardner is because he generates so much of his value through his defense. Baseball Reference says that in 2011 Gardner was worth a total of 4.4 WAR, but a whopping 3.2 of that came with his glove. fWAR has a similar assessment. Fangraphs says that Brett saved 25.8 runs in the field (once again making him far and away the leader in that category in all of baseball), which means that roughly 2.6 of his 5.1 WAR were due to his fielding.

The problem with generating so much defensive value is that defensive metrics are spotty at best. Even if the Yankees don’t fully trust UZR or Plus/Minus, someone somewhere in the front office is fully aware of how much the defensive stats love Brett. As a result, it behooves the Yankees to get similar value back in a trade, and most teams still undervalue Brett’s best skills. The Yankees would need to get a pitcher on par with 2011 Matt Garza or Chris Carpenter or a hitter on par with 2011 Albert Pujols or Matt Holliday (setting age aside) to break even if they dealt Gardner. Ask yourself this: would you trade 2011 Albert Pujols for 2011 Brett Gardner? I believe Brett is as valuable as the numbers say and I’d have serious trouble punching that ticket. That, more than anything else, is why I believe Gardner stays right where he is. He’s great for the Bombers but his skills aren’t the kinds that trade well.

The other reason why I don’t see such a trade happening, even if the Nationals were willing to trade a front line pitching prospect for Brett, is because it doesn’t make sense for the Yankees. The Yankees need a front line starter who is ready to contribute right now. When it comes to pitching prospects, however, the Yankees are stacked with Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, Hector Noesi, Adam Warren and D.J. Mitchell, to name a few (and excluding Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova). As a result, I struggle to see the Yankees trading any of their regulars for pitching prospects, which is something they have in spades.

There is one last reason why I believe Gardner will find himself playing out all of his cost-controlled seasons in the Bronx, and it is essentially the same reason EJ gave yesterday. EJ argued that trading Gardner doesn’t make sense for the Yankees because he is so good in the field that losing his glove would actually weaken the pitching staff. My take on this is that Gardner’s speed and defense are actually worth more to the Yankees than to almost any other team. He is just about the only regular the Bombers have who contributes so much speed and defense on a regular basis. If they trade him the team doesn’t have a go to player to fill his shoes. He leaves more of a gap in the team’s arsenal than if they traded a different player, on who hit for power, for example.

The Yankees will once again find themselves in the market for starting pitching this offseason. They’ll find themselves in that market in crisis mode should CC Sabathia leave the team. To meet those needs, the Yankees should and will be ready to part ways with any of their core players for a deal that makes sense (although the package needed to get, say, Robinson Cano would probably cripple any other franchise in baseball). That includes trading Brett Gardner, but of all the Yankee regulars he strikes me as one of the least likely to be traded because he generates such high value that is difficult to measure. If the Yankees were to trade a corner outfielder, and specifically for prospects at that, my hunch is that they’d exercise their option on Nick Swisher and then trade him because the market trusts his skills more and the Bombers have shown a better ability at replacing what he provides. That said, I don’t see the Yankees making meaningful trades this offseason at all. The team needs a starter who is ready to go, and so far there don’t seem to be a lot of those available.

8 thoughts on “TYA Mailbag: Brett Gardner to the Nationals?

  1. As I said in yesterday’s thread, I’m open to trading Gardner for the right package. This is not the right package. They aren’t rebuilding and aren’t going to trade someone who is contributing at the ML level as much as Gardner is for prospects.

  2. Mike I agree with you that trading Pujols for Gardner is not a deal anyone would make but how can you say that and at the same time endorse the fWAR numbers that (if I recall correctly) had Gardner pegged at approximately 94% of Pujols’ value? Doesn’t that tell you that those numbers, the largest component of which are derived from UZR, are highly suspect?

    • Forgive me if you get two replies. WordPress seems to have eaten my initial response.

      A couple of points of clarification. First, in 2011 both Brett Gardner and Albert Pujols produced 5.1 fWAR. Therefore, to break even in terms of 2011 fWAR the Yankees would need to trade Gardner for a player who produced as much as Albert did this past season, not in other seasons. Remember, this was a down year for Pujols.

      Next, UZR is not the primary component of fWAR. wOBA is probably the primary component. UZR is just a key component of Brett Gardner’s fWAR because of how highly it rates his glove.

      Finally, I said in the post that defensive metrics are spotty. This means that Brett’s high valuation is also spotty because it relies so much on his defensive contributions. The Yankees know that Brett is valuable, but they don’t know precisely how valuable. Both B-Ref and Fangraphs suggest he is as valuable as 2011 Robinson Cano, but in order for the Yankees to approach anywhere near a fair trade another team would have to agree with that valuation, which is unlikely. It is therefore precisely because this valuation of Gardner is so hard to trust that I feel he will not be traded anytime soon. Rather than risk losing his production and getting back less value in return it makes more sense for the Yankees to trade other players.

  3. I think everyone is available in the right trade. However thinking long term here, Gardner has additional value because he is so cheap. Now that doesn’t matter as much to the Yankees as it does to other teams, but it does matter. In the next two years we will face Cano and Granderson’s impending free agency. They will both most likely command long term deals past their prime for 100 million or more. Relying on cheap, inexpensive, and effective players like Gardner will then get that much more important, especially if Granderson has to be switched to LF.

    Don’t know why they don’t do that anyway seeing as how Gardner’s value is in his defensive prowess, might as well maximize it. The “if it aint broke don’t fix it” attitude is not a school of thought I am a fan of but I guess thats a different debate.

    • The problem with switching Gardner and Granderson is knowing how much of a difference it would make, versus the potential PR, and clubhouse drama it could cause. Sending Granderson to CF is going to be seen as a demotion no matter how it’s spun, and will generate a lot of media attention both because of the spot involved (center field) and the town our players play in. Unless you are absolutley sure the difference isn’t negligble I wouldn’t endorse it.

      Granderson would have to learn to read balls off the bat different than he ever has before which could also cause a problem, and the last thing we need is a disgruntled, poorly performing Granderson going into 2012.

  4. I appreciate advanced stats but don’t know I properly understand them and am kind of embarrassed to ask. More of a testament to how well the writing is on this site, allowing total novices like myself to understand a players performance. UZR stands for Ultimate Zone Rating, which sounds like it measures how much ground you cover. It would make sense to favor Gardner because he is extremely fast. Likewise it would make sense to not favor Cano, because I remember a lot of talk on his lack of speed. Just from watching it seems Cano’s howitzer of an arm makes up for his lack of speed. Am I right?

    • gardner needs to be in CF..he has better routes to the ball, plays angles real well. can not trade this kid without having an equal replacement out there.be tough to find one.

    • Actually, probably not. The way UZR works is that it measures what balls a player gets to. While Cano’s arm strength may allow him to convert some outs that another player wouldn’t, it probably is not enough to make up for his poor range. UZR doesn’t rate Cano or Granderson all that highly but it is unclear how accurate this statistic is. It does, however, love Brett Gardner.