Heading into the 2021 MLB season, the Yankees have made several notable moves. The most newsworthy additions were obviously resigning D.J LeMahieu, and bringing in former ace Corey Kluber. The Bombers also acquired Jameson Taillon from Pittsburgh on Sunday, reports say.
In addition, the team added depth with signings like Jhoulys Chacin and Asher Wojciechowski (try saying that five times fast). However, with under a month until Spring Training, they are likely not done making moves.
Another free agent that the Yankees have been talking to is one that the fans are very familiar with. Brett Gardner has been a career Yankee since his MLB debut in 2008. He has quietly carved out a great career for himself, as well. After the retirement of C.C. Sabathia, Gardner was the only remaining member of the 2009 World Series-winning team. He has been worth a total of 43.0 bWAR across 13 seasons and hit a career-high 28 homers at 35 years old in 2019.
The scrappy outfielder had a team option worth $10 million for 2021, which the Yankees declined. However, this does not rule out a return to the team by any means.
According to the NY Post, Gardner previously stated that he wanted to play for one more season so that his family could see him play again (that was not a possibility last season, of course). ESPN’s Buster Olney says the Bronx Bombers reportedly wish to bring the outfielder back for one more year, so it appears that his wish will be granted. But should it?
A Financial Crunch
Currently, the Yankees do not have a ton of room financially if they wish to remain under the luxury tax. Spotrac reports that the Bombers are less than $3 million away from going over the tax. It is well-known that the Yankees, like most other teams, have a heavy desire to stay under that number.
So while Gardner wouldn’t necessarily demand a large sum of money, particularly not at age 37, any potential deal would likely be the last that the Yankees could afford to make while remaining under that $210 million benchmark.
Of course, there are solutions to this. Adam Ottavino has been the subject of trade rumors for a decent amount of time now. Joel Sherman of the New York Post recently reported that the Yankees are attempting to unload as much as Ottavino’s salary as possible. While the team would certainly have to retain some of that $9 million, moving any of that money off the books would certainly free up some space.
If the Yankees could clear half of the righthander’s salary (likely with a prospect attached in the trade), it would free up an additional $4.5 million. Add that to the $2.6 million that the Yankees currently are playing with, and they have just over $7 million to hand out while still remaining under the tax.
With the additional space, the Bombers could sign Gardner to a 1-year deal, worth around $2.5 million. Of course, this is significantly lower than the $10 million that he would have received if the team picked up his option. However, as Gardner ages and his role decreases, it simply didn’t make sense to dole out that amount of money.
If “Gardy” is brought back, he will likely be the team’s 4th outfielder. The consensus is that Clint Frazier will take over the starting job in left field, which would relegate Gardner to the bench.
When you consider that a guy like David Dahl only was able to fetch $2.7 million on the open market, it makes a Gardner contract for $3 million or less seem much more realistic. Sure, Dahl hit only .183 last season. But he also only played in 24 games and had a .297 average in the first 240 games of his career. He offers more upside than Gardner for the future, and also expects to start in left field for Texas.
In our theoretical situation, a contract for $2.5 million would still leave the Yankees with slightly more than $4.5 million in space. This would allow them to pursue another reliever, intended to fill Ottavino’s role at a lower cost.
So, who would that reliever be? The Yankees could potentially target someone such as Brandon Kintzler, or Tyler Clippard. Despite Kintzler’s great 2020 (2.22 ERA in 24 and 1/3 innings), the Marlins declined his $4 million option. Teams may be scared off by his disturbingly high FIP (5.00), but he has nonetheless pitched to a 2.55 ERA across the last two seasons.
Clippard quietly had one of the best seasons of his career in the shortened 2020 campaign. A reunion in the Bronx could be in order, as the specs-wearing righthander has a 3.22 ERA since 2018, and posted a 2.65 FIP last season. The 36-year-old arm made just $2.75 million last season with Minnesota, so even with a slight pay raise, the Yankees could remain under the tax.
The Bombers want at least a bit of financial flexibility. Dumping half of Ottavino’s salary, and signing Gardner/Clippard for a combined $5.5 million would still keep the team just over $1.5 million under the tax.
Ottavino vs Gardner?
Brett Gardner has never played for another team in his MLB career. However, his return may hinge on whether or not the Yankees can move the salary of Adam Ottavino.
Of course, it may not. Gardner could sign for $2.5 million today, and the team would still be under the luxury tax. However, it’s hard to imagine that the Bronx Bombers would be comfortable with just $103,333 in room under that benchmark (The team currently has $2,603,333 in space, according to Spotrac).
The Tauchman Conundrum
Another factor in all of this is whether or not the team trusts Mike Tauchman. The lefty-hitting outfielder was phenomenal in 2019, but could not replicate that production whatsoever last season.
After slashing .277/.361/.504 in 87 games in 2019, those numbers dropped to .242/.342/.305 in 2020. No, that’s not a typo. Tauchman posted an astonishingly low .305 slugging percentage during the 2020 season. He failed to hit even a single home run, and Baseball Savant says that his hard-hit rate dropped from 38.9% in 2019 to 24.3% last year.
The way that Tauchman was pitched to didn’t exactly change, either. In fact, he saw fastballs at a higher rate in 2020 than he did in 2019 (from 60.6% to 63.8%, according to Savant). To put it bluntly, Tauchman couldn’t have hit water if he fell off a boat last season.
Of course, this was a relatively small sample size. Tauchman played 43 games last year, which was a majority of the shortened season, but hardly a quarter of a full year. However, his impressive 2019 was also a relatively small sample size.
Yes, 87 games is significantly more than 43. But 87 games is still just over half a season. Tauchman still has yet to play a full season, and has actually played just 182 games total in his career. Until he can maintain his 2019 production, or a level close to it, across a full season, it’s hard to trust that his first year in pinstripes wasn’t just an apparition.
Time for the Gardy Party
Ultimately, you know what you’re getting out of Brett Gardner. He still offers plus defense in the outfield and can work the count and grind long at-bats against any pitcher in the league. In addition, as the longest-tenured Yankee (by far), he’s an extremely valuable veteran presence in the locker room.
His .223 average was low, but he picked up the production as the season went on, hitting .288 over the last month of the year. In addition, Gardner was one of the Yanks’ best hitters in the postseason, slashing .368/.500/.579.
Are there better outfielders available? Sure. Joc Pederson is left-handed and has a tremendous amount of pop. But again, the Yanks have been clear in their desire to remain under the luxury tax. Despite a poor showing in 2020, Pederson would still very likely demand more than $2.5 million, which deems the Bombers unable to afford him.
As the Yankees search for a 4th outfielder, one thing is clear: the best option is Brett Gardner.