Brett Gardner’s Yankee career is one that deserves more recognition than it gets.
In Bryan Hoch’s most recent Yankee mailbag, the beat writer expressed relative confidence that Brett Gardner would return for the 2021 season. Not only has Gardner, 37, said he wants to return, but he’s a Yankee-lifer for whom Brian Cashman has nothing but praise.
But amongst all these signs of a Gardner return, there’s one little problem. Regardless of how one reads his 2020 season (110 wRC+, 0.6 WAR in 49 games), he’ll have to fight for playing time in 2021. Clint Frazier, Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton (if he can get some reps) all rank above him in the outfield pecking order. Then there’s further competition from Mike Tauchman, Greg Allen and Estevan Florial.
As I read Hoch’s piece, I marveled at the fact that I’d first thought Gardner’s time in New York was done as early as November of 2015. The Yankees had three starting outfielders in Gardy, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltrán when they traded for an enticing youngster named Aaron Hicks. Never would I have imagined that Gardner and Hicks would remain teammates for five, and now possibly six, years.
2015-16 was a tough offseason for Gardner. While he was coming off his first and only All-Star appearance, that only added insult to his second-half shortcomings (67 wRC+ vs 137 in the first half). Gardner was much older than Hicks, and he lacked the superstar branding of his other outfield teammates. On top of that, Beltrán posted a solid second half in 2015 (138 wRC+), and Ellsbury, unlike Gardner, could blame injuries for his poor performance.
While 2016 wasn’t a great renaissance either, it marked the beginning of his survival. And it was more than that. Gardner went from being that guy who just happened to have been around for a few years, to the bat-banging, identity of the franchise.
Not all of this is to Gardner’s credit, however. He outlived Carlos Beltrán as Yankee because from late 2015 through 2016, Beltrán was the better player (and thus used a trade chip). Then, in 2016 the Yankees were in a bit of a rebuilding mode. Iván Nova was shipped away for almost nothing. That Gardner, a 33-year old, well-removed from the years in which he’d flirted with stardom, made it through that campaign (with few expectations that he wouldn’t), which illustrates how much the Yankees have relied on his potential and leadership.
Gardy has been consistently healthy, playing in the bulk of his team’s games in every year since 2013. Furthermore, he never goes a season without streaks of brilliance. Despite the disappointments of 2015, he still became an All-Star. Despite losing his job to Andrew McCutchen in 2018, he nonetheless managed to spend May 2018 as one of baseball’s best offensive forces. And despite almost facing Gary Sánchez-like scorn in 2020, he fought back with a 132 wRC+ in the season’s second half.
Gardy has rarely been the most talented Yankee, but there’s always been just enough spark in him to silence the critics for at least one more season.
He somehow spent his solid rookie season fighting for outfield time with Nick Swisher, Johnny Damon and Melky Cabrera. He then survived and thrived on rosters that have included numerous stars (Swisher, Granderson, Soriano, Ichiro, Ellsbury, Beltran, Judge, Stanton, and McCutchen have made a combined 44 All-Star appearances) and highly-regarded understudies (Hicks, Frazier, and Tauchman).
Hope remains that this Houdini act will continue through 2021. And from there? All’s possible in baseball’s realm of magic.