When the Yankees signed Jacoby Ellsbury during the 2013-14 offseason, one of the assumed ramifications, other than an expensive hole in the lineup, was the hastened departure of Brett Gardner.
More than five years later, Gardner still stands, starting nearly everyday despite every obstacle the Yankees and Father Time threw in his direction.
Now, there are a few new road blocks to playing time for Gardner and they’re literally quite large, namely Edwin Encarnacion, Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge. The latter two were inevitable, players expected to man the Yankees’ outfield before the season.
Encarnacion’s acquisition throws a wrench into everything. He takes the at-bats as the designated hitter which presumably would have gone to Stanton and Judge upon their respective returns. Now, a fully healthy Yankees team includes Stanton and Judge in the corner outfield and Gardner a healthy scratch, finally relegated to the fourth outfielder role prescribed to him in the offseason.
Yet, we’re talking about Brett Gardner, the outfielder who never dies, the man who will be playing left field at new Yankee Stadium long after the sea rises and turns New York City into an underwater wasteland. There is going to be playing time for Brett Gardner.
When Ellsbury came to town, not only did Gardner stay, but he signed an extension. He’s survived the Yankees’ minor teardown in 2016 — having a dearth of power and seeming decline sapped his trade value — and even lasted past the Bombers getting under the luxury tax. Andrew McCutchen, Clint Frazier, Aaron Hicks and Ellsbury have been candidates to cut into his playing time, and he’s outlasted each one. Even a ricocheting helmet left Gardner unbroken.
Not a lot going Gardner’s way lately. Can’t even get mad without taking a shot to the face. pic.twitter.com/U1rEOUyBAX— Jomboy (@Jomboy_) June 8, 2019
And he’s transformed as a hitter in the process, adapting to the times. His average has dwindled from the mid .270s at the start of the decade to a cold .233 this year with a corresponding drop in his on-base percentage. His walk rate has gone down, yet so has his strikeout rate. In response, he’s posting a career-high isolated power of .216 with 11 home runs in just 67 games. He has a 101 wRC+ and posting a 98 wRC+ from 2016-2018.
While getting more days off makes sense for the 35-year-old outfielder — he tends to wear down as the season goes along — he’s going to play more than you think, and it won’t take blood magic for that to happen. In fact, until Judge returns, he’ll still be an everyday player, perhaps losing some at-bats against lefties to Cameron Maybin.
But Judge is going to need days off with an oblique injury that could linger. Stanton possesses the ability to play through injury every day like he did last year, but he doesn’t need to and will likely rest at least once a week, or once every other week. Aaron Hicks’ back injury probably dictates a rest schedule of once a week.
And a day off for one of the outfielders is a start for Gardner. He’s averaged just over 22 at-bats a week this season and that will be cut to 10-15 once Judge returns. He can add more appearances as a pinch runner and defensive specialist, though that won’t increase his plate appearances.
If all went as forecasted, Gardner’s drop in playing time would forecast a 2020 where he actually sees himself relegated to a fourth outfielder role for good. Encarnacion likely won’t be back, but Frazier should be and that may spell the end for Gardner in pinstripes.
However, all challengers have been defeated thus far. Gardner remains the Yankees’ left fielder until someone rips the position out of his hands. Until someone does, we shouldn’t count him out.