If Yankees GM Brian Cashman hopes to add new pieces to the roster or significantly change from within, it will likely come at the expense of left fielder Brett Gardner.
Cashman arrived at the Winter Meetings ahead of his normal offseason pace having made a preliminary move Sunday, signing Matt Holliday to be their primary designated hitter. The team left Thursday having agreed to terms with Aroldis Chapman for five years, $86 million to be their closer.
If you believe Cashman, the team is at the top of its budget with the two expenditures, leaving some positions open -- two rotation spots and potentially a left-handed reliever. The Yankees will have to be creative if they are not satisfied with sticking with the in-house options.
They have already stopped talking calls on Chase Headley, who is owed $13 million for each of the next two seasons. If the club saw a way to deal Jacoby Ellsbury's contract, he might be the first choice, but it is Gardner who represents the most realistic option to be playing outside of New York in 2017.
The Yankees have been taking calls on Gardner since he signed his five-year, $55 million deal before the 2014 season. Gardner is an interesting case because he still provides some value to the club, but does he offer more as a trade piece?
According to Cashman, the offers to the Yankees have not been enough to move the process along. They would like to find a trade partner who takes on the remaining $24 million on Gardner's contract, but they might have to settle for paying some of the salary. A Gardner trade would not only free up some payroll space but it could open up roles for others on the roster.
The Yankees could try to trade Gardner to a team that has a similar contract in place with a middle of the rotation pitcher. The Yankees currently have five or six pitchers set to battle for the final two rotation spots in the spring, but it is possible they decide they're better off letting them battle for one, believing an additional experienced arm who can eat innings would benefit the club more. The issue with this option is that it has to fit perfectly with another club and that situation does not seem to exist at this time.
The Yankees could try to capitalize on the deal just made between the Nationals and White Sox, which involved top-tier prospects traded for outfielder Adam Eaton. Gardner is not Eaton's equal on the field, plus the latter is younger and has more years under control at a lower average annual cost. But the deal showed that the outfield trade market is ripe.
It is conceivable that trading Gardner could return a couple of mid-level prospects from an organization. Such a deal frees up all or most of Gardner's salary, which the Yankees can utilize for a starting pitcher and lefty reliever if desired.
As Cashman has mentioned quite often this offseason, there are not a whole lot of enticing free agent starting pitchers on the market. The Yankees have checked in on left-hander Derek Holland, who would likely take a one-year deal. Another one-year option would be right-hander Tyson Ross, who was not tendered a contract by the Padres last week. Ross might represent the best chance to provide the Yankees with the innings they might seek.
Any signings beyond these two might end up being of the minor league variety with an invite to spring training. The reality is that the hurlers the Yankees can slot into the final two rotation spots have as much or more upside than anyone left on the market.
The Yankees have pitchers Luis Cessa, Dietrich Enns, Chad Green, Bryan Mitchell, Luis Severino, and Adam Warren who might deserve the chance to log innings in the major leagues in 2017. The best part of this crew is that most of them can be effective as relievers as well.
If Gardner is traded and new salary is not received in the deal, the Yankees should also have enough for a left-handed reliever. The Yankees have been connected to lefties Boone Logan, a former pinstriper, and Mike Dunn. Logan might require a larger and longer investment than Dunn, but represents the best option in my opinion.
Besides the salary dump and maybe more importantly, trading Gardner allows the Yankees to see more of Aaron Hicks and Tyler Austin in 2017. If Aaron Judge is able to nail down the starting job in right field, a loose platoon of Hicks and Austin (he could be sharing time at first base as well) could produce significantly more offense than Gardner. With Hicks taking on the larger role because he is a switch-hitter (and stronger from the left side) the defense would not suffer. Hicks is every bit the defensive player, if not better than Gardner, who won a Gold Glove in 2016.
I believe it is important to find out if either Hicks or Austin is part of the long-term future and they will not be able to decide if Gardner is on the squad and Judge is patrolling right field. I believe Hicks would benefit from more playing time as he demonstrated during a stretch in 2016. Having more options available for Austin, who showed he might be ready to blossom in 2016, could benefit the Yankees.
Finally, removing Gardner from the roster changes the dynamic of the lineup. Neither he nor Ellsbury has shown the speed on the base paths that we once witnessed, and the trend will likely continue. Without the ability to steal bases, Gardner and Ellsbury do not provide enough offensively to warrant having both of them in the regular lineup.
The Yankees might be a year or two away from being considered a solid postseason club. Trading Gardner will not bring back a piece that makes the Yankees much stronger for 2017, but it would allow for significant flexibility in payroll, could add more to the farm system and it opens avenues for expanded roles for players the club would like to better understand their place in the organization's future.