Trading Gardner could be necessary for the Yankees' to help fill one of several remaining holes on their roster.
This scenario, while not likely to be in play at this time with the Yankees pursuing Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka and several other frontline starting pitching options still available in free agency, could quickly become a reality.
If the team is not willing to go over the $189 million luxury tax threshold for 2014—as I wrote two days ago, they're close now even with the savings from not having to pay Alex Rodriguez's big salary in 2014—or if they are unable to sign at least one of the top four starters remaining from Tanaka, Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana for any other reason, the starting rotation would be a huge question mark heading into the 2014 season with staff ace CC Sabathia coming off of a terrible second half (6.08 ERA in 12 starts) and two spots up in the air after soon-to-be 39-year-old Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova.
In addition, the Yankees bullpen might be equally questionable at this point with David Robertson currently slated to step into the closer's role and no proven options to step into his place as the primary setup man. And with the third base opening created by Rodriguez's one-year suspension currently expected to be filled by some combination of Kelly Johnson, Eduardo Nuñez and Scott Sizemore, it's also not a bad idea to explore a Gardner-for-starting third baseman deal.
Trading Gardner, who had a .759 OPS with 33 doubles, 10 triples, eight homers and 24 stolen bases in 2013, might be the most cost-effective way to fill a much bigger hole on the roster. Their pitching staff has some gaping holes that are quite obvious. Meanwhile, they should have enough depth with Alfonso Soriano, Ichiro Suzuki and Abraham Almonte to make up for the loss of Gardner in left field.
While I don't see a potential trade for a starting third baseman out there, here are three trade ideas that could land the Yankees a starting pitcher and another for a late-inning reliever.
Why in the world would the Yankees make a trade with the division rival Boston Red Sox? Because this trade might make too much sense to pass up. One year of Brett Gardner going to Boston for two years of John Lackey (pictured) would fill major voids on each side.
The 30-year-old Gardner gives the Sox a leadoff man to replace Jacoby Ellsbury, who signed with the Yankees this offseason, while giving them a backup plan to the unproven Jackie Bradley Jr. in center field. Should Bradley show that he's ready to step in to the everyday lineup, Gardner would be the primary left fielder.
Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes would then be relegated to more of a bench role, but the depth of the 25-man roster would improve greatly and they could possibly trade Mike Carp to one of a handful of teams in need of a first baseman or designated hitter.
The Yankees would be getting a bargain in Lackey, who is owed $15.25 million in 2014 but will cost only $500,000 in 2015 in the form of a club option. If he's willing to restructure the deal so that a majority of the remaining salary would count against next year's payroll, it could help the team's efforts to stay under the $189 million tax threshold for the upcoming season.
The Sox would lose a great value in Lackey, though they would be saving approximately $11.25 million in the deal—Gardner is projected to make $4 million through arbitration, according to MLBTradeRumors—and could re-invest the money into Masahiro Tanaka or one of the other free agent starters.
With lefty Tony Cingrani likely in the big league rotation to stay, top pitching prospect Robert Stephenson on the fast track to the majors and veteran free agent Bronson Arroyo still a possibility to return on a multi-year deal, the Cincinnati Reds could be open to trading one of their starting pitchers in order to help fill the void created by the departure of center fielder Shin-Soo Choo.
Asking rookie Billy Hamilton, who posted a .308 on-base percentage in Triple-A last season, to step into the starting center fielder spot while hitting at the top of the lineup could be a bit much too ask—especially when the player he's replacing was one of the most productive hitters in the game in 2013.
Trading for Brett Gardner, who the team reportedly had discussed acquiring for second baseman Brandon Phillips earlier in the offseason, according to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports, could still be their best chance at filling the center field void for one season while Hamilton continues to develop in the minors.
While the Reds aren't likely to give up right-hander Homer Bailey, who can become a free agent after the 2014 season, in a straight-up swap for Gardner, the Yankees could be satisfied with a solid back-of-the-rotation starter like Mike Leake (pictured).
The 26-year-old Leake, who is under club control for two more seasons, went 14-7 with a 3.37 ERA, 2.2 BB/9 and 5.7 K/9 in 31 starts in 2013. He wasn't as effective in his home ball park, but his 4.00 ERA in 15 starts at hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park indicates that he wouldn't be a terrible fit at Yankee Stadium.
It appears that the Pittsburgh Pirates are content with allowing Jose Tabata to once again be their starting right fielder, at least until top prospect Gregory Polanco proves that he's ready to take over. Or are they?
While it makes sense to not block Polanco, who is one of the top hitting prospects in the game, by bringing in a long-term outfield solution to go along with Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte, adding a one-year stopgap as he enters his first full season in Triple-A would be appear to be the safer option for a team hoping to take another step forward after a successful 2013 season.
It's arguable that the Bucs are more in need of a middle-of-the-order power hitter, but the speedy Brett Gardner could give the offense an identity that, although it might be a bit of a throwback, could still prove to be very effective as they look to return to the playoffs for a second consecutive season.
Alongside Marte (41 SB in 2013) and McCutchen (27 SB in 2013), Gardner would help form an outfield and a top-third of the order that would be one of the fastest and most dynamic in the game.
By trading 2013 All-Star pitcher Jeff Locke (pictured), who surprisingly appears to be the odd man out in the 2014 rotation, and hard-throwing reliever Stolmy Pimentel, who was impressive during a September call-up (9.1 IP, 2 ER, 6 H, 2 BB, 9 K), they could entice the Yankees to give up Gardner.
The Yankees get two young, cost-controlled pitchers who could help right away while the Pirates would become even more enjoyable to watch in 2014.
The Minnesota Twins, heading into a season where they're not expected to even sniff a playoff spot, probably have no business trading for one season of Brett Gardner. But, then again, a 32-year-old setup man making $3.25 million might be even less necessary.
A straight-up swap of Gardner for Jared Burton (pictured), who had a 3.82 ERA with a 3.0 BB/9, 8.3 K/9 and 27 holds in 2013, probably wouldn't be an even deal, but the Twins could sweeten the pot by adding lefty reliever Caleb Thielbar, who dominated lefty hitters in his rookie season (11-for-77, 4 BB, 23 K).
With the bullpen being one of the Twins' lone strengths in 2013, removing two key components could make it even tougher to compete next season. But, then again, they do have some pretty good arms, including Ryan Pressly and Michael Tonkin, that could potentially step in for Burton in the 8th inning setup role, and lefty Edgar Ibarra, who posted a 1.93 ERA between Triple-A and Double-A last season, as a solid option to replace Thielbar.
Bringing in Gardner would give the Twins' offense a much-needed catalyst at the top of the lineup, as well as a very good stopgap for center fielder Aaron Hicks, who proved that he wasn't ready for the majors in 2013. If Hicks or even Byron Buxton, who might be the best prospect in baseball, knocks down the door to the majors in 2014, Gardner could move over to left field or become a valuable trade chip in July.
From the Yankees' perspective, they'd be adding a reliable setup man in Burton, who also has a $3.6 million club option for 2015, to replace Robertson, and an inexpensive lefty specialist to replace Boone Logan, who signed a free agent deal with the Colorado Rockies.
It could still be argued that two big league relievers aren't enough to entice the Yankees to trade Gardner. A third piece, possibly a mid-level pitching prospect, might even have to be included. But what is evident right now is that, regardless of how much the Yankees' offense has improved with all the star power added this offseason, the current projected bullpen is not one that appears very capable of holding leads in 2014.