With two gargantuan outfielders on the roster, it can be easy for Yankees left fielder Brett Gardner to become hidden from view. However, Gardner's stature on the field and in the clubhouse is always front and center.
The Yankees tout one of the more powerful offenses in the game, and it will be sparked, or it could fizzle out, depending on Gardner's contributions at the top of the lineup. Gardner, while subject to losing time in the field to his larger counterparts, remains one of the best defensive left fielders in baseball.
Simply put, at 34 years old, Gardner is still a valuable player for the Yankees.
It is true that the "old fashioned" leadoff hitter - slap hitters whose speed prevails above all other facets - is going by the wayside. As such, Gardner has figured out a way to stay at the top of the lineup over the last few seasons, while somewhat converting his style at the plate.
Gardner has become adept at using his power to pull baseballs into the seats. His career-high 21 home runs in 2017 included five in the Yankees' first at-bats. Gardner has averaged 15 home runs per season over the last four years so the power, albeit not Judgian or Stanton-like, is legitimate for a leadoff hitter.
Gardner might not be as fleet of foot as a base stealer he was six years ago when he led the American League with 49 stolen bases, but he nonetheless possesses above-average speed moving from first to third and second to home on base hits, which will continue to go a long way toward the Yankees' offensive prowess.
That said, Gardner still stole 23 bases in 28 attempts in 2017. I've often commented that Gardner could likely do more as a base stealer, and worry less about providing the hitters behind him chances to "get their pitch." He has to understand that those hitting behind him, because of their own diligence, will see their fair share of pitches regardless of his stagnancy at first base.
Gardner consistently provides the Yankees with quality plate appearances, having maintained a .348 on-base percentage across the last three seasons (1,972 plate appearances), which is virtually spot on with his career mark of .347 over his 10-year MLB run. His patience at the dish is among the best in the game, seeing an average of 4.24 pitches per time up to the plate through his career, which is well above the norm across the game.
Gardner is also the longest-tenured Yankee, and this goes a long way toward being a quality teammate and clubhouse leader. He is the one who comes out to his locker - win or lose - after every game, and breaks it down for the media. Gardner, the "old man" in the dugout, is every bit as energetic as his youthful teammates. To say that he has "been there and done that" in the big leagues is an understatement.
His teammates - of all experience levels - can relate to him in a number of ways.
Gardner understands what it is like to fight for a roster spot and for a starting role, similarly to the younger players on the current squad battling to break camp with the club for the first time in their professional careers. He can also attest to the difficulties in maintaining his role, and what it takes overcome the perception that a decline in production is coming simply because of age. Gardner is also very aware of what it feels like to be part of the trade rumor mill, something that has followed him since he signed his team-friendly four-year, $52 million extension.
Regarding Gardner's contract, while it ends this season, there is a $12.5 million club option for 2019. There are some that believe the Yankees will move on from Gardner after this season because of the glut of outfielders on the MLB roster, let alone those players waiting in the wings, namely 23-year-old Clint Frazier.
However, if Gardner performs at or near his 2017 level in 2018, he could well remain with the club a la CC Sabathia's inexpensive, one-year deal signed this offseason. Whether Gardner returns next season in a reduced role or as a full-time starter, the lone guarantee is that his presence would never be understated.
That could be the tipping point for the Yankees to sign on the dotted line.