The New York Yankees are an old team. Like, really old. Don’t believe me? Check out the age of their projected starting lineup and rotation as of right now (well, assuming Ichiro officially signs):C: TBD 1B: Mark Teixeira, 32 2B: Robinson Cano, 30 SS: Derek Jeter, 38 3B: Kevin Youkilis, 33 / Alex Rodriguez, 37 LF: Brett Gardner, 29 CF: Curtis Granderson, 32 RF: Ichiro Suzuki, 39 DH: TBD SP: CC Sabathia, 32 SP: Hiroki Kuroda, 37 SP: Phil Hughes, 26 SP: Andy Pettitte, 40 SP: Ivan Nova, 25
Gardner is the youngest player on the Yankee lineup — at 29-years-old. Twenty-nine, people. That’s not young. He’s at the very end of his prime, at best. Given his skill set, he’s probably past his prime. Let me say that one more time:
The youngest starting position player for the Yankees is past his prime.
Teixeira is coming off the worst year of his career. Cano has nowhere to go but down. Jeter is aging and injury-prone. A-Rod is injured and is probably more of a DH than a third baseman. Granderson has become an Adam Dunn-type player. Ichiro — well, Ichiro is 39-years-old and is coming off a season with a sub-.700 OPS overall.
That’s why Gardner, the youngest position player on the starting lineup, the only one under 30, is absolutely essential to this team’s success. I’ve written about this before; Gardner is probably one of the most underrated players in baseball. His elite defense and ability to get on base has provided immense value to the Yankees in the past. They need him to do that again.
Last year, the Yankees won 95 games. I explained last week why I think the Yankees are a much worse team this year. Let’s say that once they fill their remaining holes, they are a 92-win team. I think that’s probably generous, but we’ll go with it anyway. Now, that’s with Gardner in the lineup, and he provides, say, five wins. This is reasonable, given his 6.2 and 5.2-win seasons in 2010 and 2011 respectively.
Now, say Brett Gardner has an off-year or gets injured again and provides, instead of five wins of value, two wins of value. The Yankees are now an 89-win team instead of a 92-win team. That may seem like a small difference. It’s not. As a 92-win team, the Yankees are in the thick of the wild card race. Sure, they wouldn’t have made it last year with that record, but 92 wins is nothing to scoff at. Winning 92 games in a season is a good bet to make the playoffs.
But not winning 89 games. No, if the Yankees had won 89 games last season, they would have missed the second wild card spot by four games. That’s not close. Sure, in other years, 89 games would be barely enough to snag the second wild card spot. But it’s by no means a sure thing. Those wins in between #89 and #92 are absolutely crucial in increasing a team’s odds of making the playoffs.
That’s why Gardner is the most important position player, and possibly most important player, period, for the 2013 Yankees. If he plays elite defense and contributes offensive value as well, Gardner could lead the Yankees to a division title. If he falls prey to the BABIP gods, or his defense regresses, or he injures himself, the Yankees’ hopes of making the playoffs tumble.
Sure, you could say this about any of the players on the team. But look at their ages. Most are well past their prime, well past their years of elite production, well past their ability to be game changers. They’ll provide value, but most, outside of Cano, don’t have the 5+ win potential that Gardner has. The Yankees’ success this season largely depends on Gardner’s production. Let’s hope he brings it.