Brett Gardner's name is constantly bandied about in trade rumors, but once again he seems locked in as the Yankees' Opening Day left fielder. Gardner brings enough to the table to make his contract desirable, but can he reclaim extra-base power and base-stealing prowess in 2017, which would aid the Yankees on the field and boost his value on the trade market?
How did Gardner fare in 2016?
Gardner's overall offensive performance continued to skid in 2016. Gardner posted a .261 batting average, .351 on-base percentage and a .362 slugging percentage. Gardner stroked 22 doubles, six triples and seven home runs, scored 80 runs and drove in 41. Gardner's 92 OPS+ was by far his lowest measure since 2011. Most disappointing was Gardner's work on the base paths in which he swiped just 16 bases in a disturbingly low 20 attempts.
Much of Gardner's performance value came from his exceptional play in left field where he won his first Gold Glove Award in 2016. Gardner, generally considered an above-average fielder throughout his career, took things back to levels unseen from him since 2011. In 2016, defensive metrics showed Gardner saving 12 runs above the average left fielder.
How will Gardner fare in 2017?
In the same fashion Gardner rediscovered an extra step in left field in 2016, he needs to amp his offensive game back to that of an above-average left fielder. Gardner's average and on-base percentage were not issues as both marks increased year over year.
However, Gardner's slugging percentage dropped significantly last season. Gardner's 35 extra-base hits in 2016 was well below the 49 he averaged across the previous three seasons. While Gardner might take over complete control of the leadoff job from Jacoby Ellsbury on a permanent basis after snagging the job in the middle of last season, the left fielder's ability to drive the ball cannot be hindered by his slot in the batting order. Gardner must regain the ability to drive the ball into gaps and occasionally over the fence in an effort to boost the Yankees' offense.
I do believe Gardner is better suited to bat lead off versus Ellsbury, simply because the former has proven time and again that he can get on base, while the latter has not. Gardner decreased his strikeout rate in 2016 (16.7) and increased his walk rate (11 percent), which certainly contributed to the slight rise in on-base percentage from 2015. Gardner consistently averages over four pitches per plate appearance, but when he put balls in play in 2016, he was bouncing them into the grass versus lifting them into the air. Gardner's ground ball percentage soared to 52.3 percent, which was up seven points from 2015 and 10.6 points above 2014's mark. Elevation of his batted balls will be critical for Gardner who also saw his infield hit percentage drop to a career low in 2016 (6.1 percent).
Gardner's aggressiveness on the bases absolutely needs to change. Once a prolific base stealer, Gardner's stolen base totals have continued to drop, and worse, the number of attempts has shrunk significantly. At 33/34 years old this season, we cannot expect Gardner to steal 40-plus bases, but 25-30 steals should be the bare minimum if he sits atop the Yankees batting order. The Yankees will need to generate runs in multiple ways, and having Gardner on base and determined to steal a bag will go a long way toward boosting the club's overall offensive needs after a disappointing showing in 2016.
In left field, I would expect Gardner to continue to utilize his speed, ability to range to the appropriate spots and sure hands to maintain an above average measure in defensive runs saved.
The Yankees would benefit in two ways by an offensive resurgence from Gardner. Obviously, improved offensive production from Gardner directly improves the team's run-scoring abilities. Additionally, Gardner regenerating some pop at the plate and demonstrating a proclivity to steal more bases with all else being equal, might increase the perception of his trade value by those outside the organization. Such a change in Gardner's perceived value might finally connect with the Yankees' desires in a trade package for their homegrown left fielder.