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The next nine months: What to do about Gardner?

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Brett Gardner [2]

With a few exceptions, I try to give my take on all of our Pinch Hitter blog posts. Sometimes there’s a deeply personal story that I let stand on its own, but for the most part, I enjoy building off the ideas and opinions that our Pinch Hitters bring to the blog. That said, Wednesday’s guest poster, Delia Enriquez, was pretty quickly overshadowed by the news of Masahiro Tanaka’s signing. For whatever it’s worth, here’s my take on Delia’s idea of signing the Yankees left fielder to a long-term extension. 

Last week, the Yankees did exactly what we expected them to do with Brett Gardner: They avoided arbitration, signed him to a one-year deal, and gave themselves a bit of temporary stability without removing any options for the future. Gardner can be traded. He can be released. He can be re-signed. He can be allowed to walk away into free agency. The only thing that’s guaranteed is that the Yankees have the option of using Gardner as an everyday left fielder this season.

What happens next requires some serious reevaluation of two things: Prospects and policies.

Wednesday morning, Delia made her case for signing Gardner to a long-term extension, and I don’t necessarily disagree with her. I don’t think I’ve ever been in the strictly-a-fourth-outfielder camp when it comes to Gardner. I like his skill set. There times when his approach at the plate gets him into bad counts, I often wonder why he doesn’t try to steal more often, and I realize he has a kind of wacky history with injuries, but I think Gardner’s a nice player. I certainly believe he could land a starting center field job on several other teams, and I think there’s real logic in the idea of having a center-fielder’s range playing left field at Yankee Stadium, and I think he showed something last year when he was asked to carry a heavier load.

I like Gardner, and not only because he grew up on a farm like me (though, that obviously helps).

Brett Gardner [3]As for signing him long-term, though, I think the timing works out pretty well for the Yankees to make that decision sometime in the next nine months. Any later than that, and it’s too late. The Yankees can let Gardner enter the free agent market if they’d like, but if that happens, it should be because they’ve decided to let him go. The ultimate decision of whether to keep him should happen sometime between now and November.

Nine months should be enough of time to evaluate whether Slade Heathcott seems ready to step into a big league role. It might not be enough time to be certain, but it should give the Yankees an idea of what Heathcott can do in the upper levels (and maybe in a taste of the big leagues). It just so happens that two of the Yankees highest-ceiling prospects — Heathcott and Mason Williams — are speedy, left-handed-hitting center fielders who play good defense. That should give the team some hesitation about committing to Gardner, but only if the team is convinced Heathcott and/or Williams is seriously big-league caliber.

Nine months should also be enough time to determine whether Carlos Beltran can be counted on for at least a little bit of time in right field beyond 2014 (or if he’s strictly a DH for the final two years of his contract). Also, is Zoilo Almonte an option? Are Ronnier Mustelier, Adonis Garcia or Jose Pirela worth a look? Can Tyler Austin rebound from a rocky season and regain some of the prospect status that vanished last year? The Yankees know they have Jacoby Ellsbury locked up. Is there anyone else in the outfield mix beyond this season, or is Gardner their best option?

And if Gardner is the Yankees best option, nine months should be enough time to get him signed for another three or four years. In recent years, the Yankees have shown signs of breaking away from their policy of never signing players to mid-season contract extensions. For Gardner — and, come to think of it, for Dave Robertson — it’s worth reevaluating that policy, because it might not make sense in the new landscape of free agency and fiscal restraint. The Yankees face a lot of lineup uncertainty beyond this season. Shortstop, second base, third base, and either right field or designated hitter will be a question mark for 2016. Left field will be as well if Gardner walks away.

You know why it seems fewer top players are hitting the open market these days? Because teams are signing their good young players to long-term deals before they reach free agency. If the Yankees decide they need Gardner — and they have nine months to make that decision — they should think about following that example.

Associated Press photos