For once, Brett Gardner may be in the midst of a truly relaxing offseason.
There is something different about this winter for the Yankees' left fielder; Gardner's name is not mentioned in virtually every trade the club is rumored to be interested in making. In fact, Gardner trade rumors - an annual offseason tradition - are near non-existent besides intermittent Twitter chatter. The interesting aspect of this change of pace is that Gardner's economically sound contract is tied to a player coming off a solid all-around 2017 season.
At the outset of the 2017 season, Gardner was tasked by former Yankees manager Joe Girardi to be the catalyst for the club, and push aside a rough 2016 season. Girardi told Gardner he had to work to score 100 runs, and if he was able to do so, the Yankees would be a tough team to beat. Gardner narrowly missed the milestone, but Girardi pegged the premise correctly in that Gardner was the spark-plug the Yankees needed at the top of the order.
Gardner set career best marks in plate appearances (682), hits (157), home runs (21), slugging percentage (.428) and OPS (.778). He recorded the second-most runs scored in a season of his career (96, one short of his career-high) and swiped 23 bases, marking the first time he went 20/20.
Gardner continues to manage long plate appearances (4.23 pitches per PA in 2017 with the MLB average being 3.90), and while he strikes out more than one might like out of a leadoff hitter, he still draws a fair number of walks to keep his on-base percentage in the .350 range. His game is changing in that he goes into at-bats looking to ambush balls, especially in situations in which he is leading off an inning (10 home runs in such situations in 2017; five in the first inning as the leadoff batter).
When that does not come to fruition, Gardner is able to work counts into his favor in an effort to get on base for the next hitter to move him over or do so himself. Gardner's 23 stolen bases in 2017 represented the most he managed since he swiped 24 in 2013. He remains an above-average baserunner, running from first-to-third and second-to-home 49 percent of the time in 2017 (league average was 40 percent), though the mark did drop from 56 percent in 2016 and 58 percent in 2015.
While the power boost has helped to transform and lengthen Gardner's ability to remain productive on the offensive side, he can still stand to be more aggressive on the bases in regard to base-stealing opportunities. Gardner tends to defer to the batter, whereas he may be able to take advantage of the quality of the hitters behind him, meaning he can take chances to steal early in counts without putting the batter in a hole.
Gardner's abilities in the outfield have not diminished, in fact he's been among the league leaders in defensive runs saved among left fielders the last couple of seasons, turning in an MLB-best +17 mark in 2017. He does not have the strongest arm, but does get himself into the best position to make throws which, in turn, allows him to either keep runners at bay or throw them out as they try to advance (10 assists in 2017 was third best among MLB left fielders).
As cemented to left field as Gardner is, the Yankees will have an issue finding time for all of their outfielders to get sufficient reps. The balance will be one of new Yankees manager Aaron Boone's challenges. There has been discussion among the Yankees that both Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton will be tested in left field in spring training. As strong as Gardner is and as durable he has been - he's played in at least 145 games in five straight seasons - giving the aging veteran a rest here and there could aid him across the long season.
Speculating Gardner's production in 2018 is relatively easy in some respects, and more difficult to ascertain in others. He will work counts, is a consistent on-base machine, and his fielding in left field will likely remain among the best in the game. However, marking 20 homers and 20 stolen bases in ink may be a stretch.
The fact remains that the Yankees do not need Gardner to hit homers, but they do benefit from his ability to get on base and wreak havoc. The Yankees may obtain further advantage from Gardner slugging 10-15 home runs, and stealing 30 or more bases than going 20/20 again.
Gardner is a certain key to the Yankees' offense, and penciling him in for a .260/.350/.400 line with 12 home runs and 25 SB in 600+ plate appearances along with above-average fielding in left field is more than reasonable. If Gardner can attain, or even surpass those figures, there is a chance the Yankees entertain picking up his team option (worth $12.5 million with a $1 million buyout) to keep who will be an 11-year veteran in pinstripes in 2019.