TAMPA, Fla. — The reunion many considered inevitable finally came to fruition early Friday evening.
Brett Gardner, drafted into the organization in 2005 when the Yankees made him their third-round pick, agreed to a one-year deal worth a guaranteed $4 million, a source confirmed, that includes player and team options for 2022.
"I definitely don't want my last games played to be in front of no fans," Gardner said toward the end of last year’s COVID-19-shortened 60-game season. "I would love to see my family to have the chance to see me play again."
Gardner, who will turn 38 on Aug. 24, has not played for any other team and likely won’t, which is the way he has always wanted it.
Like many players in the sport, the outfielder had an uneven 2020. He batted .223 with a .354 on-base percentage but was hot at year’s end, putting together a .409/.519/.591 slash line in his last eight games, which helped him earn the start in leftfield in five of the Yankees' seven postseason games. He went 7-for-19 (.368) with a home run, three RBIs and six runs scored in six playoff games.
His time on the field in the playoffs meant far less time on it for fan favorite Clint Frazier, but fans should not assume Gardner’s return in 2021 will have a significant impact on the latter’s chances to start.
When asked if he sees Frazier as the Yankees' starting leftfielder, manager Aaron Boone said "I do" on Wednesday. Although few players ever are guaranteed a starting job at the start of any spring training — including Frazier — all indications are the position is his to lose.
Gardner received a $2.5 million buyout in October after the Yankees declined his $10 million option for 2021. There was mutual interest in his return in 2021, but with managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner wanting to keep payroll under the 2021 luxury tax threshold of $210 million and other needs to be filled, the outfielder was low on the priority list.
After the Yankees re-signed All-Star second baseman DJ LeMahieu to a six-year, $90 million contract and addressed the rotation, they were ready to deal with Gardner. They stayed in touch all winter with a player beloved by the organization — Gardner has been among the most respected voices in the clubhouse for years — and Boone twice hinted this week that he might be back in the fold soon.
"You never know what can happen, but we’ll see," Boone said Wednesday during his first news conference of spring training when asked about Gardner. "Obviously, he’s been a great Yankee and we’ll just see how things unfold."
While extolling some of the emerging leaders in the clubhouse early Friday afternoon, Boone smiled and said: "I feel like we have a lot of strong personalities that lead in a number of different ways. And we still may add to that mix."
About four hours later, his meaning became clear.