(You might need that helmet, dude. Courtesy of Jim McIsaac/Newsday)
Brett Gardner became the first of the Yankees' 5 remaining arbitration eligible players to avoid it yesterday and sign a new deal for 2013, guaranteeing that no matter what warm body the Yankees stick in right field next season, they'll at least have their 2 returning starters in center and left. As it was with Michael Pineda and Mariano Rivera, 2012 was basically a lost season for Gardner. He had just 37 plate appearances in 16 games before suffering the elbow injury that eventually ended his season. But Gardner swung the bat well in those 37 PA, hitting .323/.417/.387 and scoring 7 runs. The figures of Gardner's new deal have yet to be disclosed, but with him playing so few games last year I can't imagine he'll get much of a raise from the $2.8 mil he made, if he even gets a raise at all. With what he did in 2010 and 2011, the possibility of Gardner coming back and playing a full season at that price tag is exciting and could end up being very beneficial to the Yankees.
Sure, Gardner's stat line from 2012 has to be taken with a huge grain of SSS salt. There's nothing you can definitively draw from 37 PA. But it is worth pointing out that Gardner's solid slash line was consistent with the type of offensive production he's put forth in the previous 2 years. It was an exaggeration of Gardner's offensive makeup- high on-base guy with great speed, minimal power, and whose BABIP heavily influences where his batting average ends up- and that makeup is going to come in handy in next year's lineup. The Yankees lack speed and they lack consistent contact bats, and Gardner brings both of those skills to the table. My days of hoping for Gardner to develop a little more power to his swing are probably over, but a return to his .270/.360/.370-style of offensive production would be incredibly valuable, possibly at the top of the lineup early in the season if Jeter isn't ready to go.
And while we're on the topic of value, let's not forget Gardner's elite defense. He posted some of the highest defensive metric ratings in baseball in 2010 and 2011, won the Fielding Bible Award for left field in those years, and could have finally gotten his due with a Gold Glove if he didn't get hurt last year. Remember that Gardner hurt himself making a great sliding catch in left field, this is his calling card. There have been talks about switching Gardner and Curtis Granderson in the outfield this season and moving Gardner to center field, something that would only increase his value to the team and make the Yankees better defensively.
This constant mentioning of value is a subtle reminder that Gardner had been one of the most productive outfielders in terms of fWAR before getting injured last season. He had 6.2 in 2010, 5.2 in 2011, and although there's no way to guarantee he would have repeated that this past season, he was certainly on the right path with his early offensive performance and his strong defense and baserunning. Based on those WAR values, Gardner was worth over $23 million in each of his 2 full seasons and he was giving that level of production to the Yankees for league minimum cost. Now he'll come back after a year off, fully rested and fully healthy, with a chance to do it again.
Gardner's playing style isn't exactly conducive to staying healthy, but the fact that he didn't take a full season's worth of wear and tear this year should make him incredibly fresh coming into 2013. And a fresh Brett Gardner playing center field and possibly leading off at a salary below the league average is a dangerous Brett Gardner, especially if he can manage to dive fewer times and not foul so many balls of his feet. For all the talk about how the Yankees are going to fill their roster and stay competitive while tightening their payroll belt, Gardner stands as a reminder for how they can do it. He's a cheap, homegrown player who uses his speed and patience to create runs offensively and save them defensively. Brett Gardner can be tremendously valuable to the Yankees in 2013, and I can't wait to see him back on the field.