We have reached that part of the lockout in which we discuss Brett Gardner’s free agency. Because how many different ways can we delve into the markets for Carlos Correa and Freddie Freeman with, you know, little to mainly no new information?
When it comes to the Yankees, until Hal Steinbrenner signals a sea-change in how he views his payroll, I do not think his team will be bidding significantly on either Correa or Freeman. When it comes to Correa, the Yankees feel that they have two near-MLB-ready, high-end shortstop prospects in Oswald Peraza and Anthony Volpe, and do not see investing substantial funds in this area as the best use of their budget.
As for Freeman, do the Yankees like him? You bet. Does he fill needs, plural? Yep. He is a much needed two-way first baseman. Plus, he has a lefty bat. Plus, his presence would allow the Yankees to spend minimally on a defense-minded stopgap shortstop — maybe that should be shorstop-gap — until Peraza or Volpe is ready.
But though Steinbrenner blessed a $25 million, one-year bid on Justin Verlander earlier this offseason, I do not anticipate him authorizing that kind of annual total (or more) for at least six seasons on Freeman, who will play at 32 next year. Not when the current inclination is to prioritize extending Aaron Judge — an endeavor which, if successful, will take Judge, Gerrit Cole and Giancarlo Stanton into their late-30s on the Yankees’ dole.
The National League almost certainly will be getting the designated hitter beginning in 2022, but that does not mean the compensation is that the AL will get to use a second (or third one). And the Yankees would have to think about a 2027, for example, in which Judge would be 35 and Freeman and Stanton would each be 37.
An aside here: In the 2007 draft, the 6-foot-6 Stanton was taken by the Marlins in the second round with the 76th pick and the 6-5 Freeman went two picks later to the Braves, while the Yankees, with their only pick before that, also accentuated height by selecting the 6-10 Andrew Brackman 30th.
Now, back to the show.
I would think the $25 million Steinbrenner was willing to invest on Verlander might represent the total general manager Brian Cashman will have to address first base, shortstop, pitching depth and outfield protection — especially if Aaron Hicks needs pit stops in a return from wrist surgery. Could that mean a reunion with Gardner?
I asked Gardner’s long-time agent, Joe Bick, if the 38-year-old intended to play in 2022 and received a one-word text reply: “Yes.” When asked if he would do so for a team other than the Yankees, Bick responded, “Yes. But would obviously prefer to stay with the NYY the entirety of his career.”
Which brings us to our second digression. The bridge between 2021 and 2022 looks as if it is going to end a lot of eras.
There were 17 players who finished last season with at least 10 years of service having played for no other major league team. Three — San Francisco’s Buster Posey, Seattle’s Kyle Seager and Washington’s Ryan Zimmerman — announced their retirements after the season. Five — Freeman, Gardner, the Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen and Clayton Kershaw, and the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter — are free agents. The other seven are under team control through at least 2022: St. Louis’ Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright, Houston’s Jose Altuve, San Francisco’s Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford, Kansas City’s Salvador Perez, and the Angels’ Mike Trout.
Gardner is by far the longest-tenured exclusive Yankee, and if he does not return, that role will be assumed by Luis Severino, then Gary Sanchez, then Judge — all of whom could be in their walk years.
With Melky Cabrera (who did not play in the majors in 2021) also announcing his retirement this offseason, there are just five active players who were part of the 2009 Yankees championship: Gardner, Robinson Cano (who will return to the Mets after missing last season following a PED-related suspension) and free agents Ian Kennedy, Mark Melancon and David Robertson — a trio of relievers all part of the Yankees’ 2006 draft that also included Dellin Betances and Joba Chamberlain.
If Gardner were to return to the Yankees and play in 102 games (Will there be 102 games this year?), he would jump Willie Randolph, Joe DiMaggio, Don Mattingly and Bill Dickey into ninth all-time in games played for the franchise.
Should he be brought back? Gardner has become a polarizing figure among a not small subset of Yankees fans. His presence and regular play have been viewed as the organization not being willing to do better than him. But especially in recent years, Gardner’s frequency on the field has been about the failure of others in health or performance. In none of the Yankees’ plans was he supposed to play the third-most games on the team last year.
And overall he had one of his worst seasons, hitting .222 with a .689 OPS. It suggested perhaps that was the end. But few Yankees seemed quite as flummoxed by sticky stuff as Gardner. Internally, he was vocal about pitches not behaving as in the past. Enforcement against the practice intensified in late June, and Gardner was much better from there forward. Over the final two months, he was one of the Yankees’ better hitters.
His slash line from Aug. 1 onward was .261/.351/.441. He had a .791 OPS, 11.9 walk percentage and 18.9 strikeout percentage — the MLB averages for the same period were .738, 8.4 and 22.4. Gardner can’t run or defend as he did in his prime, but he can still run and defend just fine, and he is a serious-minded gamer unafraid of the big stage.
If Gardner were kept to a 300-plate appearance fourth outfielder, I think he still has something left to help the Yankees. And, if not them, Gardner would be good depth for the Mets, behind Mark Canha, Starling Marte and Brandon Nimmo.
After all these years, Gardner can still help a contender.