How good Brett Gardner really is has often been a hot topic among Yankee fans. A lot of people who favor sabermetrics see Gardner as an extremely valuable player and others see him as barely more than a fourth outfielder. As with most debates the true answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.
Gardner's name came up a ton in trade talks this offseason when the Yankees were looking for a starting pitcher. The prevailing thought was that with the signing of Jacoby Ellsbury the Yankees would be looking to move Gardner because he and Ellsbury are similar players. The opposite proved to be true, as the Yankees signed Ellsbury with the idea of creating a great speed combination in the outfield and at the top of the lineup with Gardner.
With the signing of Masahiro Tanaka those talks have been put to rest. The Yankees didn't trade Gardner because they knew that they were going to be in on Tanaka, and because they really value what Gardner brings to the team.
Amazingly, Gardner is the only projected opening day starter that was in the Yankees opening day lineup last year. He was solid last year, as he and Robinson Cano were the only consistent players in the day to day lineup. Gardner had a slash line of .273/.344/.416/.759 with a 108 wRC+ and a .335 wOBA last season.
Gardner's defensive abilities is what makes him so popular among saber guys, although his defensive numbers were a little down when he moved back to center field last season. According to FanGraphs, Gardner was only worth 1.3 runs above average last year and had a -.5 UZR. He still had a bunch of highlight catches, so to the naked eye he certainly did not seem as pedestrian in center field as those numbers suggest.
Gardner will be moving back to left field this season with Ellsbury playing center. Gardner was worth 20.9 runs above average with a 26.7 UZR in left field in 2011, so he should be an elite defender there. Left field is very important at Yankee Stadium, since it is among the biggest in MLB.
There are still things Gardner needs to improve upon. He only had 26 stolen bases last year, which is a pretty pathetic total for somebody with his speed. He should be able to steal 45 without even blinking like he did with 49 in 2011 and 47 in 2010. Gardner was only successful on 80% of his stolen base attempts last year and always looked timid when trying to get a good jump. That should be something that Ellsbury helps him with.
Gardner should also have a higher OBP with his speed than .344. If he wants to be one of the best lead off hitters in the game it needs to be better. Gardner's walks were down last year, as he only had a 8.5% BB rate as opposed to his career 10.3%. He is a very patient hitter, but he found himself down 0-2 in the count 121 times last year and only hit .198 in those situations.
Gardner will be looking to have a career year this year because he will be a free agent next offseason. It will be very interesting to see how much he gets paid and if the Yankees make a big effort to re-sign him. They proved in signing Ellsbury that they are not afraid to pay a speed guy into his 30's if they think the player is worth it.
How prospects Slade Heathcott, Mason Willams and Tyler Austin perform in the minors this season might have an impact on re-signing Gardner. If the Yankees think that one of them can start in their outfield in the near future than they might decide to let Gardner walk. Also, how Carlos Beltran holds up physically in right field this year will factor in.
A player Gardner compares similarly to is Michael Bourn, and Bourn received a four-year, $48 million deal with a $17 million vesting option in 2017 from the Indians last offseason. Gardner has even been a little better in his career than Bourn. Gardner has a career .268/.352/.381/.733 slash line with 101 wRC+, and Bourn has a career .271/.335/.364/.700 slash line with a 92 wRC+. So, Gardner should get even more money than Bourn got because he has been more productive, and the market for players keeps going up.
With the holes in the infield the Yankees will be counting on Gardner to stay healthy and be a force. He can make big contributions for the team and for himself. This year will be a huge indicator of what Gardner's real value is, since we really only have three healthy seasons in which to judge him on.