When the Yankees signed Jacoby Ellsbury, it looked like the writing was on the wall for Brett Gardner. He was being replaced as the starting center fielder and leadoff hitter heading into his final arb-eligible year. The Yankees had just committed $153 million to a player with an almost identical skill set as his, there was no way they were going to entertain the idea of re-signing Gardner and carrying 2 speedy, low-power outfielders for the next X number of years. They'd make Gardner a qualifying offer after the 2014 season, he'd decline, they'd recoup a draft pick, and he'd sign a 4 or 5-year deal somewhere else to be that team's starting center fielder and leadoff hitter.
Almost immediately the rumor mill fired up with potential trade partners for the Yankees to move Gardner. The prevailing thought was that they could try to move him as part of a package to add starting pitching, a thought that I admittedly shared and was on board with earlier in the offseason. But the Yankee decision makers, to their credit, stated quite emphatically that they had no intentions of trading Gardner and wanted to keep he and Ellsbury together in the outfield. That commitment came to a pleasantly surprising conclusion yesterday when the news broke that the Yanks and Gardner had agreed to a 4-year/$52 million contract extension.
Not only did the Yankees want to reap the benefits of having Ellsbury and Gardner together in the same outfield this season, they wanted to have them together as part of the core group of players to move the Yankees into their next generation. It was a refreshing, if not somewhat startling, change of pace from the Yankee brass, one that signifies them finally breaking the bonds of their outdated philosophies and moving forward in the new era of baseball.
There was a time not too long ago when the front office's reaction to losing Robinson Cano would have been different. Rather than go after the next best all-around player available, they would have taken that Cano money and used it on a player or players who were more direct replacements for his lost production. Cash has long talked of his affinity for "big, hairy monsters" who can work counts, draw walks, and hit home runs, and losing his premiere middle-of-the-order bat would have been reasons A, B, and C to go out and find a new one. Not this time though. Instead, Cash and ownership decided it was better to give that money to Ellsbury, a player known more for his speed, defense, and contact skills at the plate.
There was a time not too long ago when the addition of a player like Ellsbury as a pseudo-replacement for Cano would have guaranteed that Gardner was a goner. One speedy, low-power type in the outfield was fine, but 2? Unheard of. A big, hairy monster would still be needed and Gardner, for all the value he brought to the table with his legs, didn't fit that bill.. Not this time though. Exhibiting a more thoughtful, rational, baseball-savvy mindset, the front office decided to do away with both their love affair with big, hairy monsters and their foolish no-extension policy, valuing Gardner's speed and defense over everything else and committing to that as a building block for the future of the team.
That, more than anything, is why yesterday's contract extension was so important. It symbolizes the Yankee front office waking up to what's been happening around them over the last 5 or so years and realizing that a team full of mashers isn't going to get it done. Pitching wins championships, and elite defense behind any kind of pitching can elevate a team's chances to win just as much as a bunch of 30-HR hitters can. That's the kind of defense that Ellsbury and Gardner will provide. Another thing that helps win championships is keeping your best players around while they're in their prime, and the Yankees recognized that Gardner does fit that bill even without plus power. He can hit at the top or bottom of a lineup, he can be an elite defensive outfielder in multiple positions, and he's 30 years old. He would have been expensive to retain had he hit the free agent market after this season, possibly too expensive for the Yankees' plans. Rather than take that risk, they decided to do the smart thing and negotiate an extension with him. They said they wanted him around and they took proactive steps to ensure that he still would be. What a concept!
And it's not just Ellsbury and Gardner that stand out as examples of this evolving front office philosophy. Look at some of the other moves they've made this offseason. Brian McCann is one of the best catchers in the game and a well above-average hitter, but he's no one-trick pony. His defensive skills are just as good if not better than his bat, and the value he'll bring to the pitching staff and team defense will be felt just as much as every home run he hit over the short porch. Kelly Johnson certainly isn't an All Star at any position, but he can play a bunch of them and play them well according to most defensive metrics. Brendan Ryan's only draw is his glove, and that draw earned him a 3-year deal. Do you think there's any chance the Yanks would have given all-D/no-O Ryan that contract 5 years ago? I doubt it.
This past offseason was a very successful one, and it got a little more successful yesterday with the Gardner extension. Sure, there are a few things the Yanks could have done differently that could have made it better. I know I'm no more comfortable with the situations at second and third right now than I was a week or a month ago. But in looking at what the Yankees have done, they certainly appear as though they're making a concerted effort to build a more balanced baseball team. They've still got some mashers in the middle of the order, but they've surrounded them with better starting pitching, better overall pitching depth, more speed, better defense, and increased roster flexibility. If the Gardner extension was a sign of new things to come as we move further away from the Core Four Era, we should all be excited about what the future may have in store for this franchise.
(Photo courtesy of Mark Feinsand's Instagram)