NEW YORK — Brett Gardner lingered in the aftermath of the Oct. 5 loss to the Red Sox in the American League Wild Card Game, sensing no urgency to remove any piece of his road-gray attire, save for the cleats. It was left unspoken in that pin drop-silent Fenway Park visiting clubhouse that the Yankees’ longest-tenured player might be wearing his uniform for the final time.
Gardner became a free agent late on Thursday, potentially ending his 14-year pinstriped career. It came on the anniversary of its pinnacle moment: the Yanks’ 2009 World Series championship, when Gardner — then 25 years old — dashed from center field to join an ecstatic pile atop the mound, confident that more titles would be in store.
“As a young player, you don’t know that you’re going to be here for 14 years,” Gardner said in October. “I don’t want to say you take it for granted, but with the team we had back then in 2009 and the team we had going into 2010 … you think you’re going to go there [to the World Series] every year.”
First baseman Anthony Rizzo, right-hander Corey Kluber and right-hander Darren O’Day are also now free agents. Rizzo and Kluber became free agents on Wednesday, while Gardner and O’Day both declined player options on Thursday, followed by the Yankees declining their club options.
Gardner’s player option was valued at $2.3 million. His club option was $7.15 million with a $1.15 million buyout.
“This game has been great to me and great to my family,” Gardner said. “The longer you play and the older your kids get, the harder it gets, and the more things I missed out on, not being able to see them back home doing their thing. It’s harder to be together all the time.
“I’ll obviously have some real serious conversations. I’m fortunate to have a great family and have always had all their support. We’ll see where the next few weeks and months take us, but physically, I’m healthy and I feel strong. I feel like I can continue to play this game at a high level. I do feel like I still have a lot to give.”
Gardner, 38, slashed .222/.327/.362 with 10 homers and 39 RBIs in 140 games this past season. A third-round selection of the club in the 2008 MLB Draft, Gardner ranks among the all-time franchise leaders in defensive WAR (12.9, ninth), triples (73, tied for eighth), stolen bases (274, third), stolen-base percentage (81.07 percent, fourth) and hit-by-pitches (67, eighth).
Rizzo was acquired in late July from the Cubs, taking over at first base during Luke Voit’s injury-marred campaign. The 32-year-old Rizzo batted .249/.340/.428 with eight home runs and 21 RBIs in 49 games with New York.
While Rizzo has said that he enjoyed his pinstriped experience, Voit remains under team control and it is unclear how aggressively the Yankees plan to pursue Rizzo in free agency. Rizzo earned $16.5 million this past season, reportedly turning down a five-year, $70 million extension from the Cubs in the spring.
“Coming from Chicago, we had that similar situation with the high expectations and being in a big franchise. The transition [to New York] was kind of seamless,” Rizzo said in October. “As far as staying here long term, that’s out of my hands. This game is crazy; you never know what’s going to happen.”
After losing most of the 2019-20 seasons to injury, Kluber returned to the mound after signing a one-year, $11 million pact in January.
Kluber’s season highlight came on May 19 at Texas, when the 35-year-old tossed the Yanks’ first no-hitter since David Cone’s 1999 perfect game, but Kluber exited his next start with a right shoulder injury. He did not return until late August; in 16 starts, Kluber was 5-3 with a 3.83 ERA.
O’Day had a $1.4 million player option, $3.15 million club option or $700,000 buyout; the 39-year-old hinted at retirement this past season, which ended in July due to a left hamstring injury.
Left-hander Joely Rodríguez ($3 million club option, $500,000 buyout) has a decision upcoming, and the Yankees must settle his situation by Sunday.