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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees play it smart by locking up Brett Gardner

Brett Gardner works out at Steinbrenner Field in

Brett Gardner works out at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa on the morning of Feb. 20, 2014. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - Brett Gardner's newly minted $52-million extension, agreed upon Sunday with the Yankees, shows what can happen when a franchise has the financial means to make themselves look smart.

The Yankees didn't need to lock up Gardner right now. He was eight months away from free agency. They could have waited until October to work on a deal -- just as they've done with almost every other player who's come up through the organization.

We say almost because Robinson Cano was a notable exception last year, and because Brian Cashman let us in on a little secret Sunday when he said the Yankees tried to get an in-season extension done with Russell Martin.

In Cano's case, it takes two to tango, and the Yankees knew that wasn't happening when his camp began floating 10-year contracts in the $300-million range.

Gardner required much less heavy lifting. But this took more than his publicly stated affection for playing in the Bronx. It needed the Yankees to realize that maybe re-stocking the roster through free agency every four or five years no longer will be a workable strategy in the not-too-distant future.

Not when the game's elite players are staying put.

Gardner isn't in the class of a Cano or Mike Trout, who reportedly has begun talks on his own extension with the Angels. But he excels in two areas that are highly valued these days: He has a career .352 on-base percentage and plays superior defense.

He also was good for a 3.2 WAR last season, identical to Justin Upton, who signed a five-year, $75.25-million contract with the Braves last winter.

In 2010, Gardner's breakthrough season, his WAR was 6.0, which was 13th best in the majors -- between Miguel Cabrera (6.2) and Shin-Soo Choo (5.9).

We're a few years removed from that now, and Gardner is no youngster at age 30. But the Yankees, even after their offseason makeover, had only two outfielders locked up for 2015 in Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, whose number of DH days will surely increase over the length of his three-year, $45-million contract.

Also working in Gardner's favor: Cashman has no obvious reinforcements coming up through the minor-league ranks -- in other words, a lower-cost alternative. For $52 million, Cashman buys some peace of mind for the next four years with a proven commodity who can help blanket the Stadium's vast lawn in left-centerfield. And should something happen to Ellsbury, the team's recent $153-million investment, Gardner provides outstanding insurance there, too.

"He really has developed into a real solid everyday major-league player," Cashman said. "He's tough. He's a gamer. Listen, I love everything about Gardy. I think he's part of the solution here.

"We're a better team with Gardy on it. That's the bottom line and that's why we extended him. We think he has a chance to be a big piece."

The Yankees liked Cano, too. But they were convinced he wanted to test the market, and when he did, Cano got $240 million from the Mariners.

Gardner could have tried to put up career numbers in his walk season with the idea of cashing in next offseason, but there are no guarantees.

Ask Nelson Cruz, who seemed to be in line for his own Upton-like deal this offseason before settling on a one-year, $8-million contract with the Orioles.

Gardner lost both his centerfield job and leadoff spot to Ellsbury, but he still happily re-upped with the Yankees.

"At the end of the day, I feel like it's the right decision," he said. "I'm not going to look back on it no matter what happens."

From a statistical standpoint, Gardner's numbers can be crunched to support any argument regarding his value. After two seasons of 40-plus stolen bases, Gardner regressed with 24 last year. He's never hit more than eight home runs in a season. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that's never been more true with Gardner, who fills a specific role on a team that has committed to spending $530 million after falling short of the playoffs last September.

"Hopefully," Cashman said, "it will work out over the next four or five years for everybody."

The Yankees have tried to buy out any uncertainty. And with Gardner, it's nice to already know what they've got.


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