Why 2019 is likely the last stand of the Yankees' old guard
CC Sabathia is set to retire while Brett Gardner is on a one-year deal
On Saturday, CC Sabathia made it official: He will retire after the 2019 season.
He may not be the only Yankees veteran to leave New York after the season.
While Sabathia enters his 11th season in pinstripes, Brett Gardner will be playing his 12th after debuting mid-way through the 2008 season. Both Sabathia and Gardner re-upped on one-year contracts early in the offseason and it very well could be a changing of the guard for the Yankees in 2020.
The duo has become the de facto leaders for the team as the old guard of the Core Four, Alex Rodriguez and others retired. When new players enter the clubhouse, they unanimously rave about the influence of Sabathia and Gardner, each a positive influence on the clubhouse the Yankees have built. Though this era has been defined by the Baby Bombers, the old guard has paved the way for them.
After clearing the path, then the next step would be passing the torch, both on the field and in the clubhouse. The latter part comes easier. Though both Yankees mainstays hold sway in the dugout, the young voices they've helped cultivate should be able to take over, be it Aaron Judge, Didi Gregorius or Luis Severino.
On the field, the transition from Sabathia and Gardner to their replacements isn't quite so simple. For one, both still provide value. CC has posted three consecutive years of above-average production for over 150 innings, including the postseason. Gardner has had a power surge in his later career and plays a Gold Glove left field. The Yankees aren't going to find two players who replicate those traits and would instead need to find a different type of player entirely.
Luckily, the Yankees have another year with both players, maybe more in Gardner's case. Ideally, you'd pencil Sabathia in for 25+ starts and 150 innings. For Gardner, perhaps 130-140 games and 500+ plate appearances instead of the 600+ he's accumulated in each of the last six years.
Gardner's durability has worked against him in some seasons. He's been able to play banged up and it's clearly affected him as he's struggled in the second halves of many seasons. In 2017, he was able to find his bat by the postseason, but that wasn't so last year.
The Yankees have a clear desire: Have Gardner hold down left field and the bottom of the lineup while Clint Frazier gets his feet under him. If Frazier is ready to push Gardner for at-bats by midseason, then things are going according to plan. If Gardner's hitting well enough to hold off Frazier or still retain playing time, the Yankees can work with that, provided they're able to give him more time off, as was the stated goal going into 2018.
And 2019 doesn't have to be the swan song for Gardner. A rebound to his 2017 production instead of the decline of last year would go a long way to erasing worries about his bat. The team lacks left-handed bats and Gardner still works counts to infuriate opposing pitchers.
Sabathia, like Gardner, needs rest during the season as he enters his age-39 season. His knee requires workload maintenance and he's also coming off heart surgery. He gets a natural five-game break to start the year after his suspension for throwing at Jesus Sucre last September and, in epic fashion, directing profane words towards the Rays' dugout.
Of course, Sabathia could make 33 starts, the Yankees wouldn't say no, but the likelihood trends close to zero. Instead, the team simply needs him to remain healthy heading into the stretch run and postseason, potentially setting up for a 2017-esque run from the veteran hurler.
Gardner and CC going out together would have a fitting feel to it, though Gardner sticking aboard would signal a rebound. In a season already set up to honor Sabathia's achievements in pinstripes, it's important not to forget Gardner's less-heralded work and see that both get the proper spotlight. From there, the Yankees can look to the next group to rise into leadership roles while taking from both Sabathia and Gardner's leads.