Why Did the Yankees Turn Away Brandon Phillips?

The New York Yankees have a reputation for bringing in high-dollar, high-quality veterans in their never-ending quest to add to their record number of World Series titles. So you can understand my surprise when the team turned down the chance to trade for a three-time All-Star last week.

According to multiple sources, the Yankees walked away from a deal with the Cincinnati Reds that would have given them Brandon Phillips to replace Robinson Cano at second base. The trade would have required them to part with Brett Gardner, who now looks like a utility outfielder after the team's signings of Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran this offseason.

The obvious question is: What's Gardner worth to the Yanks?

Image via Keith Allison, Flickr.

Brett Gardner's value
Brett Gardner has played in New York since 2008. The 30-year old led the AL in steals in 2011 and was first in triples last year, but he's had his share of injury problems. In the past five seasons, Gardner has missed a combined 232 games due to wrist, elbow, and oblique issues.

A perfect statistic to measure the outfielder's value is wins above replacement, or WAR, which tracks how many wins a player contributes to his team each season versus a replacement level player...from baserunning to hitting. Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) and ESPN calculate these values from Baseball-Reference data.

Last year, Gardner was 16th among outfielders in WAR. Before losing most of 2012 to injury, he finished 17th in WAR in 2011, second in 2010, and was a top 60 player in his first two MLB seasons. By comparing this information with salary data, we can see how much the Yankees have paid for Gardner's services.

Year

WAR

Salary

Value/Win

2008

1.2

$210,000

$175,000

2009

2.1

$414,000

$197,143

2010

7.0

$452,500

$64,643

2011

3.7

$529,500

$143,108

2012

0.2

$2,800,000

$14,000,000

2013

4.2

$2,850,000

$678,571

Total

18.4

$7,256,000

$394,348

WAR data via Disney's ESPN. Salary data via Baseball-Reference.

Now, the MLB's average value per win was between $5 million and $7 million in 2013. By this metric, the Yankees have gotten an absolute steal in Gardner. In five out of his first six years in the league, he's been underpaid significantly. For Gardner's entire career, this discount works out to roughly 90%.

Let's think about this another way: Gardner's career earnings in New York are $7.25 million. If the Yankees had been forced to pay a fairly valued contract, it would have cost them over $90 million -- an average of about $15 million per season.

The Yankees also have Gardner under contract in 2014 for $4 million. To get their money's worth, the outfielder will need to contribute a WAR of just 0.7 next year. If he stays healthy, this should be no problem. Now that we know Gardner is worth about $15 million a year to the Yankees, the second most obvious question is: Why didn't they trade him for Brandon Phillips?

Image via Keith Allison, Flickr.

Gardner v. Phillips
The answer is easy. Gardner's future production should outpace that of Phillips.

Year

Gardner WAR

Phillips WAR

2013

4.2

1.7

2014

2.9

2.7

2015

2.7

2.5

2016

2.4

2.3

2017

2.3

2.0

2018

2.2

1.8

Total WAR Next 5

12.5

11.3

Value Next 5*

$62.5M

$56.5M

Source: Author's calculations using Jay Jaffe's WAR method via Time Warner and Sports Illustrated. *Assumes a market value per win of $5 million.

Jay Jaffe of Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX  )  Sports Illustrated has used this methodology before, which is based on Tom Tango's Marcel method. As Jaffe explains, "the simplest projection system would start with a weighted average of recent years, with the most recent season valued the highest." I chose to use a 5/4/3/2/1 system, which accounts for the past five seasons. I also discounted 0.4 WAR per year to account for aging, which sticks closely to Jaffe's approach.

Over the next five years, Gardner is worth $62.5 million compared to Phillips' estimated value of $56.5 million. Aside from being two years younger, Gardner's defensive sabermetrics have been better than Phillips' in three of the past four years, and his career on-base percentage is 30 points higher. Gardner is simply the more complete player.

It's also worth pointing out that Phillips is owed $50 million over the next four seasons. This offers significantly less flexibility than Gardner's contract, which has one year remaining.

Future expectations
Assuming a modest value per win of $5 million, the Yankees look like they'll need to pay Brett Gardner handsomely next winter if they want to keep him. If the aforementioned projections hold, he's worth about $12.5 million a year over the next half-decade.

Teams like the San Francisco Giants, Detroit Tigers, Cleveland Indians and Reds are rumored to be interested, and that sentiment is unlikely to change by 2015. Because of this attention, I wouldn't be surprised if he signs a premium deal in the range of $15 million to $17 million through 2018, his age 34 season.

Speedy, defensive-minded outfielders with the capability to player center aren't exactly bountiful these days. If the Yankees can lock up Gardner to play alongside the similarly fast Jacoby Ellsbury, they'll be sitting pretty. Judging by the statistics, it's easy to see why the team turned away a trade for Brandon Phillips.

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Read/Post Comments (8) | Recommend This Article (5)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On December 17, 2013, at 3:35 PM, cbchef2003 wrote:

    Kudos to the Yankees in realizing that bigger pay doesn't always guarantee results. I am a lifelong fan of the team, but shook my head in disgust at the Arod move. As much as I loved Cano on my team, his worth was not 24 million a year to the team, not one single player in sports is worth that kind of money, refer back to my stand on Arod...

  • Report this Comment On December 17, 2013, at 3:44 PM, Hecklrkosh wrote:

    The yankees willl always find a way to shoot themselves in the foot. Always lookinig short term, penny pinching. Bret Gardner has little value- that's why the Yanks kept him; it's costing them nothing to keep him, but they lost Brandon Phillips who is a way better fielder than whomever they're getting. They kept Girardi-big mistake; they let Cano walk-who knows? who cares?...they're going to creep into the playoff's next year and get blown out in the first round.

  • Report this Comment On December 17, 2013, at 3:55 PM, fulredy wrote:

    There is no way Gardner is worth $15 million a year! This entire article is gobbledygook.

  • Report this Comment On December 17, 2013, at 4:12 PM, pphantc wrote:

    the $/WAR figure only applies to post-arb players

  • Report this Comment On December 17, 2013, at 4:52 PM, mtkk2318 wrote:

    Gardner isn't odd man out in the outfield. Soriano/Beltran alternate in the outfield and at DH. Gardner might move around in the outfield but he plays most everyday.

    The 2 that will not play will be Suzuki and Wells. Wells costs us nothing but after May of last year delivered nothing. He needs to go and open a roster spot. Suzuki could also play OF and DH still to rest other guys. Beltran isn't a spring chicken anymore either.

  • Report this Comment On December 17, 2013, at 4:59 PM, JakeMann wrote:

    Fulredy, I respect your opinion, but remember that Michael Bourn is getting $48M over 4 years. Add two years and more teams to the picture to that, and it's not unreasonable to see Gardner get something like $60M over 4. He's statistically better than Bourn.

    At the very least, he'll get a deal equal to that of Bourn's assuming he stays healthy.

  • Report this Comment On December 17, 2013, at 5:14 PM, Observer82AB wrote:

    Phillips is the second best 2nd baseman in baseball comparing him to no one. I am a Reds fan lifelong. Phillips who is comparable to Cano at a fraction of the price???? When they are the most stupid spending team in MLB???? Yankees are fools are always these past years!!!!! I loathe yankers!

  • Report this Comment On December 17, 2013, at 11:55 PM, mark2283 wrote:

    One thing you missed .....By your own math Gardner will need to be paid 15 mil per year, Brandon will make an average of 12.5 over the final 4 years of his deal....So the Yankees could have gotten a similiar war player for 2.5 mil less at a position they direly needed who was already signed......As a Reds fan I'm so glad this trade did not happen.....before BP got hit in the arm he was on his way to a career year in OBP AVG and SLG....Even after he still managed to get to 106 rbi....Thanks Yankees for not making this deal

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