When the Yankees signed Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year deal this offseason, manager Joe Girardi reached out to Brett Gardner with a message of reassurance. Gardner would not be lost in the shuffle, Girardi said. The Yankees still expected him to play a big role going forward.
On Sunday, the Yankees made that commitment with more than words.
After months of under-the-radar discussions, the Yankees and Gardner agreed to a four-year, $52-million contract extension that begins in 2015 and includes a team option for 2019. Gardner, 30, was set to become a free agent after this season.
“When they signed Jacoby, definitely when your name gets thrown out in the trade rumors and all that, it’s kind of annoying, really,” Gardner said. “I didn’t want to get traded. I don’t want to go anywhere else. I let them know that, and we were able to get this done.”
For the Yankees, a long-term commitment to Gardner is a kind of victory for the farm system, which has taken heat for failing to deliver impact position players in recent years. Gardner has been an exception to the rule with high-end defense and a .352 career on-base percentage.
The former walk-on at the College of Charleston does not have typical left-field power, and he’s battled injuries, but he led the American League in triples last season and led the league in stolen bases in 2011.
“He’s made himself into something very special,” general manager Brian Cashman said. “…It’s hard to ignore what that combination (of Gardner and Ellsbury) can bring to the table with their speed and defense and their offensive capabilities. It creates an exciting dynamic.”
Gardner will make $5.6 million this season, then $12.5 million the next four years. If the Yankees don’t pick up a club option for 2019, he’ll get a $2 million buyout. The contract does not include a no-trade clause, but Gardner will get a $1 million bonus if he’s traded.
Cashman used Michael Bourn’s four-year, $48-million deal with Cleveland as a point of comparison.
The Yankees once had a policy of never negotiating contract extensions, but Cashman said that rule has faded in recent years. The team tried to work out other extensions — Russell Martin is one example — but none came together before Gardner.
“Once you get into free agency, all bets are off,” Cashman said. “This winter, we needed to make things happen to reset some things for us, and it cost a lot of money.”
Instead of accepting that uncertainty, the Yankees committed themselves to Gardner, signing him for the same length of time that they signed new catcher Brian McCann. With a strong final season, Gardner might have earned more on the open market. With a bad year, he might have gotten less.
“At the end of the day, it’s a lot of money,” Gardner said. “Where I come from, that money or twice that much money, I’m not going to change the way I live my life. … It takes a lot of pressure going off and having to perform in a walk year. Free agency is something that, it kind of intrigued me, but it also kind of scared me. I’ve never been anywhere else. I got drafted here almost nine years ago, and I love it here.”