Derek Jeter has been perched near the top of the New York Yankees batting order for 18 years. At the conclusion of the 2014 season, the Yankees will hand over the top-of-the-order reins to the dynamic and unique duo of Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury.
The Yankees made that crystal clear when they afforded over $200 million in long-term contracts to the speedy combination of Gardner and Ellsbury this winter.
In December, the former Red Sox star arrived to man center field and bat in the leadoff position.
Now, according to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports, the homegrown Gardner has agreed to a four-year deal worth $52 million. By eschewing the lure of free agency next winter, Gardner will combine with Ellsbury to form the new duo atop New York's order for at least the next four years.
Gardner: "I love it here, I love everybody in the organization, the coaching staff and all my teammates and this is where I want to be.”— Erik Boland (@eboland11) February 23, 2014
If the fifth-year option is exercised on the the deal, Yankees fans will have the chance to watch Ellsbury-Gardner ignite the order for at least four more seasons after Jeter's retirement.
If Yanks pick up Gardner's 5th yr option, he'll make $62.5M. That would lock him up thru 2019. Ellsbury deal is thru 2020 w option for 2021— Jack Curry (@JackCurryYES) February 23, 2014
"I like what he brings—the speed dynamic, the defense and I think the offense is there as well," Cashman said. "Although he's going to be playing left field most of the time for us, I think he's one of the better leadoff/center fielders that this game can provide."
Due to excellent on-base ability and world-class speed, expect the Ellsbury-Gardner combo to wreak havoc for years to come. Despite past injury issues that have cost each of New York's now-expensive outfielders major playing time, both stand near the top of important categories since 2010: on-base percentage and stolen bases.
Let's start with on-base percentage.
In 2013, the average major league hitter posted a .317 OBP, failing to reach base at least 32 percent of the time. For all of the theories on why offense is down in the sport—power arms, drug testing, bigger ballparks—the most telling reason is a drop in on-base percentage throughout lineups.
Without the ability to consistently get on base, teams struggle to sustain offense.
As Yankee fans have come to expect since 1996, Derek Jeter—hitting in either the No. 1 or No. 2 hole in the order—has reached base at an outstanding clip of .381. From 1999 to 2003, the great shortstop averaged a .400 on-base percentage.
While it's unlikely that the Ellsbury-Gardner duo can reach those heights during a five-year span, they do reach base better than most hitters.
People wondering if Gardner extension is a good idea. Are you kidding?— Brian Kenny (@MrBrianKenny) February 23, 2014
Since 2010, only 23 outfielders in baseball own a .350 or better on-base percentage. Both Gardner and Ellsbury are on that list (subscription required). If they can stay healthy and play full seasons, the Yankees can be comfortable with having two on-base machines to ignite their offense for years to come.
Of course, what makes the new, speedy Yankee outfield duo so dangerous isn't just on-base percentage or the ability to work counts and drive up pitch totals for opposing pitchers.
Speed, and the ability to convert it into extra bases and run-scoring chances, gives the Yankees a new top-of-the-order look in the post-Jeter future.
Despite each missing significant time due to injuries over the last four seasons, Gardner and Ellsbury both rank in the top 12 of stolen base totals during that span. When looking at their ability to swipe bags over the course of a full season, a stark picture emerges of a game-changing force forming for Joe Girardi's everyday lineup.
Since 2010, Gardner has averaged 43 stolen bases per 162 games played. During that same span, Ellsbury has topped him by swiping 48 per 162 games. Combined—when playing on an everyday basis—the Yankees now boast a duo that swipes 90-plus bags per season.
How rare is that? In 2013, only 13 teams stole at least 91 bases.
Of course, as any forward-thinking baseball fan or analyst would remind a stolen-base fan, reaching base is the first step in this equation. With this pair, that's not a problem. Then, when they reach first base, the pressure is on the opposing battery to try to slow them down.
How many stolen bases will Ellsbury-Gardner combine for in 2014?
Considering the type of stolen-base acumen both have, that's become a tall task for opposing catchers.
As Cashman would likely point out, there's more to this new Yankee dynamic than just offense. Both are capable defensively in center field, allowing the franchise a rare ability to use either in center or left field as they age through their 30s.
Yet when Jeter finally departs, the team must address offense first. That offense, specifically the players that headline the lineup, has been easy to dissect and understand for nearly two decades: Derek Jeter's all-time great bat anchored and jump-started excellent offensive teams.
By securing both Gardner and Ellsbury in the same offseason, the Yankees proactively answered a major question before it was actually posed next winter: How can the offense replace game-changing hitting ability?
The answer: Game-changing on-base and stolen-base ability.
Over the next four or five years, the Yankees have the potential to run their opponents into the ground with a skilled pair of left-handed speedsters.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. All contract figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts. Arbitration numbers and projections courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors. Roster projections courtesy of MLB Depth Charts.