Although the Yankees are on pace for another playoff berth with one of the best records in baseball, the team has had numerous injuries and a few slow starts, so some fans are beginning to worry and question recent decisions. The dominant view of their off-season moves is that they probably gave up too much for Curtis Granderson and were foolish to think Nick Johnson could stay healthy for a whole season. According to this view, Austin Jackson, who was traded for Granderson, and Johnny Damon who left via free agency are both posting good numbers and would have been useful to the Yankees.
While there is some empirical truth to the components of this view, the overall situation is less clear for one major reason-Brett Gardner. While Jackson and Damon have been useful pickups for the Detroit Tigers, thus far in 2010, Gardner has been the superior player. In the off-season, the Yankees had to resolve a number of questions regarding leftfield, centerfield and DH, but equally importantly, and somewhat surprisingly, they had a surplus of speedy outfielders with limited power, Jackson, Gardner, Melky Cabrera and Johnny Damon. Damon had hit for some power in 2009, but was not really a power hitter. The Yankees probably only could have really used one of them.
So far in 2010, the numbers suggest that they made the right choice. These numbers are obviously based on only about one third of a season, but they still paint a clear picture.
Cabrera .253/.313/.330 OPS+74 WAR 0 in 216 PA
Damon .281/.380/.412 OPS+112 WAR 1.2 in 248 PA
Jackson .308/.352/.412 OPS+103 WAR 1.3 in 267 PA
Gardner .317/.401/.429 OPS+128 WAR 2.4 in 239 PA
Other than Damon, who is now best suited for DH, all three are roughly comparable defenders, but Gardner clearly has been the best hitter in the bunch. Moreover, his salary is also about one fifteenth that of Johnny Damon, one sixth of Cabrera’s and about the same as Jackson’s. Gardner, however, is also about three years older than Jackson. This is a significant difference which will likely lead to Jackson having the better career, but for now, Gardner is better, and will likely remain so for the next few years. Gardner’s strike zone discipline is also considerably better than Jackson’s which explains most of the difference between the two in OBP, and may help Gardner develop into a better player over time. Johnny Damon is a good player having a decent year, but had the Yankees kept him and gave him playing time they are now giving Gardner, it would have been a serious mistake. Similarly, Jackson may have a good future, but probably won’t eclipse Gardner for a few years. Gardner’s development has made the loss of Austin Jackson a lot easier for the Yankees.
From the Yankee perspective, the problem with the deal at first glance, is that Granderson thus far, .241/.325/.440 OPS+ 107 WAR 1.4, has proven little more than a continued inability to hit lefties and is not much of an upgrade from what Jackson could have done with the Yankees, suggesting that maybe the Yankees should have kept both Gardner and Jackson. Granderson, however, has been hurt for much of the season, making it hard to evaluate him, but more importantly Granderson is a different type of player than either Jackson or Gardner. While it is easy to get distracted by Granderson’s speed and his use by the Tigers as a leadoff hitter, his real value to the Yankees is as a power hitting centerfielder who should be batting sixth or seventh, not first or second. While Granderson is probably already an inferior leadoff or number two hitter to Gardner, Damon or Jackson he is able to provide more power than any of them. This is what the Yankees need him to do. In this context, giving up Jackson to get Granderson makes more sense.
If Granderson is able to produce similar power numbers to what he had done in the past, 75 homeruns and a .499 slugging percentage between 2007-2009, he will be able to make a contribution to the Yankees that could not have been expected from Jackson, Damon or Cabrera. If Granderson does not hit in New York, it will create a problem but not one that could have been solved by Jackson, Damon or Cabrera. As it turned out, the best thing about the Granderson trade for the Yankees may have been that it opened up playing time for Brett Gardner. Of course, if the Yankees put Francisco Cervelli and Ramiro Pena in the lineup together with any frequency, the outfield will be the least of their problems.