If the New York Yankees move on from their longtime outfielder, Brett Gardner, he could represent a potential answer for the Chicago Cubs in center field.
To say the least, center field was a problem spot for the Chicago Cubs this season. Albert Almora, Jr. struggled, turning in some of the worst numbers of his career, and Jason Heyward, who saw a lot of time in center field after the Cubs acquired Nicholas Castellanos, was up and down. Even if the Cubs were to re-sign Castellanos to play right, which is far from a certainty, they still will need more production in center field.
There aren’t many internal options, so the Cubs will likely have to look to free agency, especially if they non-tender Almora, which is a real possibility. Looking at MLB.com’s list of center field free agents, only three center fielders finished with a positive WAR. The leader, by far, is Starling Marte, whom the Pirates are likely to bring back on an $11.5 million option. The other two, Jarrod Dyson and Billy Hamilton, would not be an upgrade, particularly on offense.
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This is why I throw out the name Brett Gardner, a 36-year-old veteran who has spent his entire 12-year career with the New York Yankees. Gardner is listed as a left fielder on MLB.com, yet he played 98 games in center in 2019.
While not a spectacular defender, he’s had a positive defensive WAR every year of his career but one (including 0.7 in 2019 while committing just one error) and he won a Gold Glove Award in 2016. He could, at the very least, share time with Heyward in center while also serving as a backup for Kyle Schwarber in left.
On offense, Gardner again has never been a star but has always been a solid contributor who is coming off one of his best years in 2019. In 141 games, he set career-highs in home runs (28), RBI (74), slugging percentage (.503) and OPS (.829). He’s scored at least 80 runs nine times in his career, and while he’s not the base stealer he once was, he would bring some baserunning acumen to a lineup that desperately needs it.
Gardner does come with some warning signs. His OBP in 2019 was the second-lowest of his career at .325 (.322 in 2018). It looks like he’s becoming more of a power hitter later in his career, so he might not be a solution in the leadoff spot. And since he’s turning 37 next year, it’s not likely that he’s going to improve on or even repeat his 2019 numbers.
Still, Gardner would provide a veteran presence and give the new manager some flexibility in his outfield alignment. And given his age, some team out there would likely be able to get Gardner on an affordable short-term deal.
I have no idea how much of a chance there is of Brett Gardner coming to the Chicago Cubs. It will depend largely on whether the Yankees want to bring him back. And I also don’t know whether he’s someone Theo Epstein would seriously consider. Still, given that the Cubs will need to get some help for their outfield this winter, Gardner’s name is at least worth bringing up.