Because of the high amount of roster turnover this offseason, the bulk of the player analysis has focused on the new guys. Will Didi be able to hit enough to be an everyday shortstop? How will Headley do in a full repeat season? Can Eovaldi improve his performance to match his stuff? How will all the new bullpen arms get worked in? Does Stephen Drew really suck as bad as he did last year?
While all of those are valid questions and some are very important to the Yankees' future, it's the returning group of holdover players that is more important to the team's immediate success. There hasn't been a lot said about that group of incumbent everyday Yankees this offseason, and over the next week or so I'd like to shine the spotlight back on them and take a look at what they key issues are with them that will determine how 2015 plays out. Today we'll start off with the pair of speedsters who hold down 2/3 of the starting outfield and 2 spots at the top of the lineup.
Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury were the 2 best everyday Yankees last year. They were 1 and 2 in games played, plate appearances, runs scored, wOBA and wRC+ among players who played a full season with the Yankees, and fWAR. They were both 3+ WAR players who did all they could to produce hitting out of their normal spot while most of the middle of the lineup battled injuries. They could have been 4-5 WAR players had they been a little more consistent and a little healthier.
Gardner and Ellsbury played 148 and 149 games respectively last season, which is exactly what the Yankees wanted and needed them to do. They also played a significant percentage of those games at far less than 100% physically. Ellsbury battled foot, ankle, and other leg injuries from very early on in the schedule. Gardner played most of the second half with an abdominal strain that required surgery after the season. Joe described Ellsbury as "pretty beat up" multiple times during the 162-game grind, and elected to sit both of them in the season finale because of how hurt they were.
Had the rest of the Yankee lineup not been so thin and unproductive over the summer, Joe probably would have given Gardner and Ellsbury more rest. It wouldn't have been a huge surprise if one or both of them went on the 15-DL at some point. That wasn't the case, however, and Gardner and Ellsbury's production both suffered because of it. Gardner hit .279/.353/.424 in the first half of the season and .218/.286/.417 in the second. Ellsbury hit .282/.346/.400 in the first half, .255/.298/.450 in the second. His overall production didn't take a huge dip, but the drops in average and OBP at the expense of more power are indicators of how Ellsbury was changing his hitting approach to compensate for his leg issues and the team's lack of thump.
These 2 are at their best when they're hitting in the top 2 spots of the order and working as table setters for the middle of the lineup. Their speed and plate discipline are both plus, and they each have enough proven power to keep pitchers honest. Unfortunately, the argument can be made that Ellsbury and Garder are also at their worst when they're playing the table-setter type of game. Their speed allows them to cover a lot of ground in the outfield and on the basepaths, and that leads to more crashes into walls, awkward dives, and chances to turn ankles and get fingers/hands stepped on. Both of them have experienced injuries on plays like that, neither is an especially big dude, and they now have a pretty long history of injuries adding up, lingering, and hindering their performance.
So what's the solution to this problem? There may not be one. Gardner and Ellsbury are the types of players who are going to go all out all the time, and as smaller guys that is going to leave them prone to some extra wear and tear from time to time. Asking them to not play that way would not help them or the team. The Yankees need them at the top of the lineup, they need them patrolling the outfield, they need their energy, and they also need them healthy. The only thing anybody can really do when it comes to the health of these 2 is hope for the best.
If they can avoid some of the freak things like fouling balls off themselves or getting hit by pitches in bad spots, maybe Gardner and Ellsbury can both turn in 150-game seasons where they're feeling good for most of them this year. That would obviously help the team defensively and I believe it would also help their individual offensive production. Having a pair of 5-WAR outfielders out there would go a long way in helping the Yankees contend in 2015. Having some good injury luck for a change would go a long way in making that a possibility.