Brett Gardner was one of the top free agents of last winter’s class who didn’t wind up signing prior to Opening Day. That wasn’t on account of a lack of interest in the 38-year-old, as the Blue Jays touched base with Gardner’s camp during Spring Training as part of their search for a left-handed hitting outfielder.
Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic now reports that Toronto offered Gardner a $6MM contract at the time, but the 14-year MLB veteran turned it down. According to Rosenthal, Gardner also recently declined to pursue an opportunity with the Braves. After losing right fielder Eddie Rosario to late April eye surgery that figures to cost him two-to-three months, Atlanta expressed interest in Gardner but was rebuffed.
Rosenthal suggests Gardner would likely only continue his playing career with the Yankees, the lone organization for which he’s suited up. A third-round pick by New York in 2005, the College of Charleston product first reached the majors midway through the 2008 campaign. By 2010, he’d cemented himself as a regular and wound up spending more than a decade in pinstripes. Gardner hit .256/.342/.398 in a bit more than 6600 plate appearances over that stretch, and for the majority of his career, he was one of the game’s preeminent defensive left fielders. Gardner claimed a Gold Glove award in 2016 and routinely drew excellent marks from public metrics like Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating.
As recently as 2019-20, Gardner continued to produce at an above-average offensive level. That wasn’t the case in 2021, when he hit .222/.327/.362, although he still walked in an impressive 13% of his plate appearances and held his own defensively despite being unexpectedly thrust into a regular role in center field. Both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference felt Gardner was worth about a win above replacement last season, so it’s not surprising teams like the Jays and Braves were amenable to bringing him in to fill part-time roles.
That level of interest seemingly hasn’t been present on the Yankees’ part, however. General manager Brian Cashman said in Spring Training that he’d had some contact with Gardner’s reps since the end of the lockout, but added the team was “focused on what we have” internally at the time. Both Gardner and the Yankees had an opportunity to unilaterally continue their relationship into 2022 at the start of the offseason. The outfielder declined a $2.3MM player option — which isn’t too surprising given that a team like Toronto was willing to offer a greater sum — leaving the Yankees with a $7.15MM option. New York instead paid a $1.15MM buyout, essentially passing on a $6MM call on Gardner’s services.
Over the season’s first month-plus, the Yankees have had one of the game’s best outfields. New York has a .262/.345/.458 line from their outfielders, translating to offensive production 41 percentage points above the league average according to wRC+. That’s the third-best mark in the league, with only the Angels and Twins getting better production.
The bulk of that great work has come from star sluggers Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, both of whom are off to fantastic starts. Center fielder Aaron Hicks has a robust .364 on-base percentage but has offered virtually nothing from a power perspective, while last summer’s marquee trade deadline pickup Joey Gallo has underwhelmed since landing in the Bronx. That said, the Yankees aren’t likely to seriously consider curtailing Hicks’ or Gallo’s playing time given their strong track records, so there probably wouldn’t be a path to regular reps for Gardner in the Bronx barring injury.