What do the following players from Yankee history, Bob Meusel, Tommy Henrich, Charlie Keller, Gene Woodling, Roger Maris, Reggie Jackson and Paul O’Neill have in common? All were outfielders who, except for Jackson, were very good Yankee players, but not quite of Hall of Fame caliber. Reggie was a truly great player, but spent only five years in pinstripes. However, they have something else in common as well; they all played fewer games in the outfield for the Yankees than Brett Garnder has. Currently, Garnder has played the eighth most games in the outfield in Yankee history. If he plays 50 next years, he will pass Hank Bauer an move into 7th place on that list, one hundred more games patrolling left or center field will push him past Hall of Famer Earle Combs into sixth place. The next question is a little easier. What do Rickey Henderson and Derek Jeter have in common? They are the only two players who have stolen more bases with the Yankees than Gardner.
Gardner is at the tail end of a career where he was overshadowed by teammates who have higher profiles and were better paid. He has never been the best player on the team, but he has usually been a pretty good one. That is beginning to change. Last year was Gardner’s worst year since becoming a full time player in 2010-with the exception of 2012 when he was injured. Gardner’s on base percentage, a key measure for a top of the order hitter sunk to .322 last year, well below his .344 career mark. Because of his speed and defense Gardner still brought some value to the team, but he struggled in the second half and lost his left field and leadoff jobs to late season acquisition Andrew McCutchen.
Over the last century, while never as well known as Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Jackson or Jeter players like Meusel, Henrich, Woodling and Roy White have helped the team win many championships. Gardner fits neatly into that group, but only has one World Series ring as compared to five for Woodling, three for Meusel and several for the others as well. Few Yankee fans today recognize just how good Gardner has been, but his 37.7 career WAR is an impressive 23rd on the all time Yankee list for non-pitchers-just ahead of Henrich and below 1942 MVP Joe Gordon.
This is all interesting for Yankee fans with a sense of history, but does not tell us whether or not the team was wise to give the aging Gardner a one year contract worth $7.5 million for 2018. Gardner got that contract in part because of his veteran presence and in part because left field is a question mark, but Gardner, who will be 35, is precisely the kind of player that can help the Yankees win the World Series next year if he is used wisely. While the Yankees probably cannot win it all with a 35 year old Gardner leading off and playing left field, they will have a hard time winning the World Series without useful role players like Gardner. Gardner, due to his age and declining offensive production, is no longer an effective full time player, but can be very useful in a part time role. Moreover, several of his skills are very valuable, particularly in the post season. Gardner plays excellent defense in left, and still passable defense in center, so is a good defensive replacement. He is also a smart and fast baserunner so in the right spots can be effectively deployed as a pinch runner. It is also not hard to imagine him coming off the bench against a tough righty late in a close game and working a walk leading off an inning.
The Yankees are poised to go into 2019 with strong front line talent in their lineup. A healthy Aaron Judge along with Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks, Miguel Andujar, Gleyber Torres and, if he bounces back from an off-year, Gary Sanchez, still form the nucleus of an impressive offensive attack. Last year the team paired with sometimes dreadful second line talent. Kyle Higashioka and Austin Romine were underwhelming as backups to the oft-injured Sanchez. Shane Robinson was the team’s starting rightfielder for what seemed like a month while posting an OPS+ of 17. Brandon Drury and Ronald Torreyes were utility infielders who brought little value to the team. Upgrading in all of these areas, and minimizing the playing time of people like Robinson is one of the things Brian Cashman can do to quietly, but meaningfully improve the team. Doing that by resigning, at a good price, longtime Yankees who have done a lot for the team over the years is even better.
Photo: cc/Keith Allison