The Yankees’ new $52 million man didn’t even know if he’d be a Yankee in 2014. After the team signed Jacoby Ellsbury in the beginning of the offseason, trade rumors indicated that the Yankees may have been willing to part with the speedy outfielder for a starting pitcher or infielder. By the end of February, Gardner’s name popped up in the news again, but this time it was for a 4 year $52 million extension with an option, giving the Yankees team control over him until 2019, his age 35 season.
With Ellsbury in center field, Gardner projects to be the Yankees’ left fielder for the next five to six seasons. Though he was a highly effective center fielder, his defense in left field looks much more valuable according to most of the advanced defensive metrics. UZR/150 gives him a 36.5 in left field, while DRS holds him at 50 runs saved across what’s essentially two full seasons. According to this, Gardner saves between 25 to 36 runs compared to your average left fielder. In center field, his defense has only been worth between 10.7 runs (UZR/150) to about 17 runs (average DRS). Obviously the defensive competition in center field is much stronger, which is why the average center fielder saves so many more runs than the average left fielder, but in the end he looks to have considerable value compared to other left fielders.
Gardner’s offense is equally dependent on his speed. Over his career, Gardner owns a batting average of .276 on ground balls, .190 on fly balls, and .681 on line drives. Compared to most hitters, Gardner obviously does not hit the ball as hard, which is why we see low batting averages on his fly balls and line drives. Gardner excels offensively by working counts, drawing walks, and beating out infield ground balls and bunts. For whatever reason, the left-hander took a step back in his ground ball rates in 2013. Though he’s still getting on base at a high rate, the rate at which he hits ground balls fell to 41.4% in 2013 compared to a career 48.7%. This came with an increase in fly ball rates, which is unacceptable for such a light hitter. This should correct itself in 2014.
It’s very likely that Gardner finds himself as the number 9 hitter. Though this will limit his at bats, he’ll have a left-handed hitter in Ellsbury batting after him, and then Derek Jeter after. When Gardner does get on base, he’ll present both of these hitters with a hole in the infield, forcing first basemen and middle infielders to defend against the steal. This assumes that Gardner runs. 2013 was a disappointing season considering he stole just 24 bases after stealing 47 and 49 in 2010 and 2011. Perhaps last year’s offense contributed to that, as base runners were a major need, and Robinson Cano‘s bat often made first base scoring position. There seems to be no decline in speed, so I do expect Gardner to steal more in 2014.
We’ll likely see Gardner showcase his speed more often this season, and I think he’ll improve upon his batting average, on base percentage, and stolen bases. He’ll likely bounce back to hitting 10% more of his hits on the ground, which should boost his batting average, and his on base percentage should increase slightly to his 10.3 BB%. With these corrections made, I project that Gardner will hit about .280/.350/.380 with 6 home runs and 35 stolen bases.