The hot stove started warming up with Tuesday's opening of the free-agency period. A year ago, the New York Yankees shopped early and often, stockpiling marquee signings Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran and Masahiro Tanaka—by the end of the winter, they'd spent around $500 million.
But after getting burnt by a failed 2014 campaign, general manager Brian Cashman could look to reload more pragmatically and flexibly this time around, perhaps going after more mid-level free agents or pursuing targets via trade.
A more cost-effective method may have become more likely after Monday's rumor, per the New York Daily News' Mark Feinsand and Bill Madden, that the Yankees "have no plans" to pursue top pitching targets Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and James Shields or third baseman Pablo Sandoval.
Of course, they could start by bringing back mid-tier free agents Brandon McCarthy and Chase Headley. But they'd still be looking at some Opening Day combination of Brendan Ryan, Martin Prado, Rob Refsnyder and Jose Pirela to fill the middle infield as well as a bevy of questions about the health and productivity of the rotation.
Speculation since last offseason has tossed around some viable, and mutually beneficial, trades, such as for the White Sox's Alexei Ramirez or the Diamondbacks' Didi Gregorius, shortstops from two teams who could be interested in the Yankees' catching depth. Some hopeful wishing for blockbuster deals has floated the idea of the Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton or the Rockies' Troy Tulowitzki—though the Yankees may not possess a talented enough prospect pool to secure either.
Several other under-the-radar names could be dangled this winter, however, whether due to their financially strapped clubs seeking a return on a player who could walk in future free agency or because they have a greater positional need for 2015.
If the Yankees fail to answer all of their questions in free agency, they could look to pull off one of the following three unexpected trades in the next few months to help position themselves for 2015 and avoid missing the postseason for a third straight year.
Johnny Cueto, SP, Cincinnati Reds
Four of the Cincinnati Reds' starting pitchers—Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Alfredo Simon and Mike Leake—will become free agents after the 2015 season, and it's unlikely they'll be able to afford extending each of them to long-term deals.
While health has been an issue most recently for Latos and as recently as 2013 for Cueto, the latter would generate the most value for Cincinnati, having just come off a season in which he led the National League in strikeouts (242), posted the NL's second-lowest ERA (2.25) after Clayton Kershaw and logged 243.2 innings for a 20-9 record. His $10 million option was an easy decision for the Reds to pick up last Wednesday.
He could be a desirable, flexible commodity for the Yankees since they wouldn't need to commit beyond 2015 and could find themselves looking to add an additional starter for much cheaper than a premier free agent. For the right package of prospects and immediate help, it's one trade the Yankees could pull off this winter.
ESPN Insider Buster Olney (subscription required), who in late September suggested the Reds make Cueto available, wrote:
Cueto's dominance, coupled with his modest salary, gives him enormous value right now, and he might look even more attractive this winter...
Cueto would be a less costly alternative for interested teams, just as David Price was before the trade deadline. Teams that might be looking to improve next year without having to commit to a major long-term deal -- the Giants, Yankees, Dodgers, etc. -- could look at Cueto as a way to upgrade without committing huge dollars down the road.
The Reds' biggest need is on offense; they finished second-to-last in team batting average and on-base percentage and 26th in slugging, and only the Braves and Padres drove in and scored fewer runs. Cincinnati could use a serious upgrade in left field, where last year, Chris Heisey and Ryan Ludwick combined for 17 homers, 77 RBI, 158 strikeouts and a .234 average.
Hamstrung by several of their contracts, the Reds would probably be unwilling to take on something like the remainder of Brett Gardner's $52 million deal. Utility man/outfielder Martin Prado, however, could be a better sell at $11 million each of the next two years, and the deal could be sweetened if the Yankees package him with several prospects (corner outfielder Aaron Judge, as one example, carries good offensive value after a breakout season and a hot Arizona Fall League; Baseball America just ranked him No. 2 on its top 10 Yankees prospect list).
Despite Cueto's ace status in 2014, the Yankees could also try to negotiate his value down by pointing to the right-hander's struggles with injuries in two of the last four years as well as to his advanced stats profile, where, despite the gaudy sub-3.00 ERA numbers, his fielding independent numbers actually bring him much closer to earth—and much more to the middle of the road among starters.
Since 2011, Cueto owns the fourth-lowest ERA of all MLB starters at 2.48; but over that same time, Cueto's tied for 23rd with a 3.37 FIP and he falls to 28th in baseball at a 3.51 xFIP, via FanGraphs. McCarthy, for instance, is 27th in FIP and 22nd in xFIP since 2011.
Howie Kendrick, 2B, Los Angeles Angels
Ahead of 2015, the Angels need pitching help in their rotation behind—and to protect for—Garrett Richards, who will be returning from knee surgery, and they could add an arm in the bullpen. The Angels could dangle both David Freese and Howie Kendrick, both of whom are in the final year of club control in 2015 and whom the Halos could replace from within.
But as pointed out by Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, the Angels' better long-term internal options are at second base, potentially making it more likely that Kendrick could be the one on the block.
Per Spotrac, Kendrick is set to make $9.85 million in 2015 before hitting unrestricted free agency next winter. The Angels second baseman, who turns 32 next July, batted .293/.347/.397 with seven homers, 33 doubles, five triples, 75 RBI and 14 stolen bases.
Kendrick has totaled 4,117 plate appearances since his rookie year in 2006; among MLB second basemen who have logged at least 4,000 PA since '06, Kendrick has the highest batting average on balls in play (BABIP), the fourth-highest batting average (Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia, Placido Polanco) and the seventh-best WAR.
To get an idea of what the Angels might be asking in return, Rosenthal reported a near-trade between the two Los Angeles ballclubs in 2013: "The Angels proposed a deal that included one of the Dodgers’ top pitching prospects, Double-A right-hander Zach Lee, sources said. One source said the talks went right down to the deadline. It is unclear which team blinked."
Lee, meanwhile, was promoted to Triple-A in 2014 and really struggled; his ERA spiked from 3.22 to 5.38 with his FIP rising from 3.08 to 5.16, and he allowed more than two more hits per nine innings while his WHIP jumped from 1.17 to 1.53.
Given the previous asking price and that the Angels would be more desperate to move him one year before he could walk for nothing (as opposed to last season), the Yankees might be able to pull this off with a package of pitching prospects that could include 2013 first-rounder Ian Clarkin—the left-hander ranked No. 6 on Baseball America's 2015 top 10 list—and major league-ready (and proven) Shane Greene, who's value may never be higher after he helped buoy a decimated rotation in the Bronx in 2014.
The Yankees could also add one of Refsnyder and Pirela, both of whom are ready for major league duty in 2015, if they're not sold on their long-term impact in the Bronx.
Ian Desmond, SS, Washington Nationals
It might be hard to imagine the Nationals trading a shortstop who hit 24 homers, stole 24 bags and drove in 91 runs. But with the 29-year-old hitting free agency next season, Washington may not want to open its wallet wide enough to sign him to an extension.
Olney (subscription required) writes in a piece from Saturday:
If Washington determines Desmond will be too expensive for its taste in a long-term deal, and finds a suitable replacement for him for 2015, it could take advantage of the current need for shortstops -- the Dodgers, Yankees and Mets are all looking for solutions at the position -- and move him this winter.
At $11 million in 2015, the offensive-minded shortstop could be a much better value for the Yankees than throwing over $100 million at someone like 30-year-old Hanley Ramirez, whose defense and health are already big question marks, or jumping the gun on multiyear deals for Jed Lowrie or Asdrubal Cabrera, neither of whom hit .250 in 2014.
Only Jhonny Peralta was more valuable at shortstop last season than Desmond, via FanGraphs' WAR, and only Starlin Castro had a higher BABIP. Since Desmond's first full season in 2010, only Tulowitzki and Peralta have driven in more runs.
For the Yankees to pull off this trade, they could use Desmond's below-average defense to lower the Nationals' asking price. Only the Pirates' Pedro Alvarez committed more errors (25) than Desmond's 24 in 2014, and since 2010, the Nationals shortstop has compiled a minus-17 defensive runs saved (DRS), which is sixth-worst among shortstops over that time.
The Nationals' biggest need might be in the bullpen, where the Yankees could offer a combination of prospects—especially some successful minor league relievers from 2014 like Nick Rumbelow (2.62 ERA, 12.9 K/9) or Tyler Webb (3.80 ERA, 12.3 K/9)—and a young, proven big league reliever like Adam Warren.
Peter F. Richman is a Yankees Featured Columnist and Copy Editor for Bleacher Report: Follow @Peter_F_Richman