The Yankees said they were going to be active this offseason, and while they let the only truly elite player on the market slip away to Seattle -- being unwilling to match the Mariners' offer of $240 million over 10 years for Robinson Cano -- the Yankees have still spent like the Yankees. They've signed two of the top position players available, catcher Brian McCann and centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, to a pair of contracts that will be worth over $230 million combined across the next five to seven years; they've signed aging but still effective veteran outfielder Carlos Beltran to a three-year, $45 million deal; and in a couple of smaller moves, signed utilityman and defensive wizard Brendan Ryan to a two-year, $5 million deal with an option for a third season, and second baseman Kelly Johnson to a cheap one-year contract for next season.
There's still work to do, of course -- the team could use an actual third baseman, considering the very strong possibility that Alex Rodriguez will miss at least next season, and the fact that he's pretty much a full-time designated hitter now even if he does play -- but the primary area of interest for the other 29 teams in baseball is the fate of Brett Gardner, the 30-year-old veteran outfielder going into his seventh season with the club.
Gardner will not be an everyday player next season. Despite being a better defensive player than Ellsbury (and, once we factor in that Ellsbury won't be playing half his games in Fenway Park, nor will he likely have a homerun spike and correspondingly valuable offensive season like his 2011 again, possibly not so far off on offense either), teams don't sign guys to $153 million contracts and then not play them full time. Gardner will have to find his at-bats as part of the ever-shifting corner outfield/designated hitter mega-platoon the Yankees have run over the last few seasons, the 2014 edition of which already involves some combination of Gardner, Beltran, Ichiro Suzuki, Vernon Wells, and Alfonso Soriano. That's five players for three spots, and Beltran will be playing just about every day as either the right fielder or the designated hitter, leaving even fewer at-bats to go around for the other guys.
This is not a long term problem for the Yankees. While Ellsbury and Beltran are under contract until the latter part of the decade, the rest, including Gardner, will be free agents after the 2014 season. Except for Gardner, none of the players in that four-man group have serious trade value (though the San Francisco Giants could kick a lottery-ticket prospect or a reliever of some sort in New York's direction for Ichiro later in the offseason). The question the Yankees face is whether or not they should trade Gardner to try and bolster one of their other areas of need on the team (second base, third base, the rotation), or if they should hang on to him and either try to work out an extension of some kind. They could also play him as much as possible in the upcoming season, hit him with a qualifying offer on his way out the door next winter, and try to recoup a draft pick.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has already shown he's unwilling to just dump Gardner to fill holes on the team: the Yankees turned down a one-for-one swap of Gardner and Cincinnati's long-time second baseman Brandon Phillips. The move didn't make sense for the Yankees according to CBS Sports' Jon Heyman, though it's unclear whether the primary issue was Gardner's value to the club, or that Phillips is an aging second baseman due $50 million over the next four seasons. Outside of Phillips, the trade market for second base is fairly thin. Ian Kinsler has found a new home in Detroit and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have Mike Trout to play centerfield and no particular need of another outfield bat, so even after the Skaggs/Santiago trade, if they do move Howie Kendrick it will likely be for more arms.
The most logical deal might involve another trade with the Seattle Mariners. The M's have bevy of young talent at second base that now has nowhere to play -- Nick Franklin being the most valuable of the lot -- and Gardner would allow the Mariners to start Michael Saunders in right field, Corey Hart in left, and use Logan Morrison as a bench bat, which is what Morrison is at this point in his career.
Gardner could also be moved for a pitcher of some sort, though the ceiling for the Yankees return should be somewhat lower than it would be if he were moved for a position player -- given the current market conditions, young, controlled pitching should almost never be traded for arbitration-eligible, nearly FA-eligible hitting, unless the position player coming back is elite. Garnder's a nifty player, and does have some elite tools -- his speed and defense, mainly -- but he doesn't have the offensive production to justify giving up a starting pitcher of great value, unless some GM goes off the deep end and makes a bad trade. Which, in all fairness, is something that's been known to happen.
I don't think Garnder will be -- or should be -- moved, however. It's worth noting that the consistent messaging out of the Yankees FO is that Gardner isn't being shopped; teams are approaching New York about deals, not the other way around. Even with a qualifying offer on him, Gardner shouldn't have problem finding work after next season, so there's no worry that the Yankees won't recoup a pick if Gardner turns down the QO and walks. And most importantly, Gardner isn't a broken-down aging vet like every other player he's competing with for playing time (and though Gardner missed most of the 2012 season, Ellsbury's career durability track record is spottier). He should get his 600 plate appearances this season so long as he stays healthy, be it in left field, as the designated hitter, or giving Ellsbury the day off in center. Soriano and Beltran are reasonable candidates for a high number of maintenance days as the season goes on, and frankly, considering how much of Vernon Wells's salary is being paid by the Angels this season he's a good candidate to simply get DFA'd.
The Ellsbury trade all but assures that Gardner is gone next winter unless his own value collapses, but that doesn't mean he's a proper "fourth outfielder" or that he'll be deprived of playing time. If the Yankees are serious about winning next year, they should keep Gardner and trim in other areas, notably Suzuki and Wells -- unless someone comes to them with a proposal that strengthens their ability to contend not only now, but in future years as well.
And to Brian Cashman's credit, it sounds like that's just what he's doing.