Monday, February 24, 2014

Brett Gardner Extension Thoughts & Afterthoughts

(Courtesy of Getty Images)

We were told last week that the Yankees were done giving out Major League contracts now that Spring Training had officially started.  That was either a lie or they had a tiny asterisk somewhere when they made the statement because the extension that Brett Gardner signed yesterday was most certainly a Major League one.  After looking like he was being set up for a free agent exit after this season, Gardner and the Yanks agreed to terms on a 4-year/$52 million deal with a team option for a 5th year.  This guarantees that Gardner will remain a Yankee through the remainder of his prime and sets him up to be a Yankee for life.  After the jump, some random thoughts on the deal and what it means for Gardner and the team going forward.

- Before getting into the nitty-gritty baseball and business details of the signing, I'd just like to say as a fan that I'm incredibly happy for Gardner.  The first thing I did when I read the early tweets about the story breaking yesterday afternoon was smile.  Gardner is such a likable player, the kind of hard-nosed, all-hustle guy that fans from the oldest of old schools to the modern, "sabermetric or bust" new schools can appreciate and root for.  He's, dare I say, gritty, and to come up through the system as an unheralded MiL guy, carve a starting job out for himself, work himself up to the top of the batting order and the starting center field job, and then cash in on a well-deserved big money extension is just awesome and I couldn't be happier for him.

- And as for the Yankees' side of the deal, it's hard not to be happy for them too.  Combine the $5.6 mil they're paying him this season and the $1 mil buyout if they don't exercise the 5th year option, and this works out to a 5-year/$58.6 million deal with the potential for it to be a 6-year/$70.1 million deal.  That's great value for Gardner, who could have been looking at something in the realm of 5 years/$70 mil on the open market if he had another 3-4+ WAR year in 2014.

- The Yankees get another bonus point for making that 5th year option a team one and not a player or mutual option.  Banking on guys whose speed is their greatest asset in their 30s is somewhat less risky than guys with big power bats, but there's still a fair amount of risk that comes with Gardner based on his playing style and injury history.  If he does end up getting banged up and/or losing a step over the next 4 years, the Yanks won't be married to him for too long.

- On the other hand, if he stays healthy and continues to produce at the level he has when he's been healthy, this deal could turn into a steal.  The comparisons between Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury have been made constantly signed Ellsbury signed and they are a lot closer as players than some people realize.  To set yourself up to get the same type of production at a third of the price is a smart business and baseball decision by the Yankee front office.

- To that point, and I touched on this in greater detail earlier today, I think this extension for Gardner on the heels of the Ellsbury deal and some of the other moves this offseason signifies a much-needed change to the Yankees' approach in building their team.  They've been inconsistent at best when it comes to extending their own players in years past and with this deal Cash declared that old "no-extensions" policy officially dead.  They also haven't always put a premium on defense and speed and that's exactly what they did this offseason.  It still has its holes, but the current projected Yankee roster looks a lot more balanced in terms of tools and skills than it has the last few years.  At least that's my take.

- In addition to calling death to no extensions, it was good to hear Cash say that talks on this deal started up at the Winter Meetings.  When the Ellsbury and Beltran signings went down, the team's declaration that they had no interest in moving Gardner seemed like lip service more than anything.  The fact that they followed that up by proactively working to get a new deal done shows how honest they really were when they said that and how much they like and value Gardner.

- What does this change in organizational mindset mean for fellow extension candidates David Robertson and Ivan Nova?  Tough to say since their situations are drastically different than Gardner's, but if it means the Yankees are open to the idea of discussing extensions with either of them, I'm all for it.

- So what now for Gardner?  Obviously the expectations for him increase.  We're going to be looking at him to at least match what he's done over his last 3 healthy seasons (.335 wOBA, 4.5ish WAR) with possibly a greater hope for a return to his 2010 levels (.346, 6.0).  He won't be the leadoff hitter or center fielder with Ellsbury around, but he can be if needed and he could still end up being a very important part of the top of the lineup after Derek Jeter retires.

- More than anything, I think we'd all like to see Gardner get back to being the beast he was on the basepaths in 2010 and 2011.  Some of that baserunning aggression led to him getting banged up, and perhaps he was trying to scale that back a bit in an attempt to stay healthy and not hurt his market value last season.  That's no longer a concern with 52 mil coming his way, so a boost back up to the 40-SB days of a few years ago would be a great way to remind AL teams that he's still a major SB threat and a potential nightmare for opposing pitchers and catchers when teamed up with Ellsbury at the top.

- Defensively, I have to think Gardner is going to land a Gold Glove at some point and a few more Fielding Bible Awards in left field over the next 4 years.  He's already proven himself to be a world-class defensive left fielder and the move back there should be an easy one considering his familiarity with the park.  And when he has to, Gardner can easily step back into center field and hold that down at, at worst, an above-average level.  The Yanks are double-covered at the most important outfield position for the next 5 years.

- Which brings us to the prospects and where they stand now after another long-term blockade has been put in front of them.  I didn't think Mason Williams, Slade Heathcott, and Tyler Austin necessarily had to be considered bigger trade chips after the Ellsbury/Beltran signings, but I definitely do now.  These guys are all 2 years away from the show at most and there's only 1 outfield spot opening up in that timeframe.  If they have bounce back seasons in 2014 and re-establish some of their prospect value, I think the Yankees would be crazy to not shop them around for pitching or as part of a package for a young position player.

- All in all, there's a ton to like about this move and almost nothing to not like.  The Yankees get to hold onto a productive, homegrown player through the remainder of his prime years at a very reasonable price, and Gardner gets to stay in New York, where he said he wanted to be, and rest easy knowing his financial future is secure.  Everybody wins, everybody's happen, and the Yankees have another core piece in place for the foreseeable future.

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