How the Yankees Can Turn Brett Gardner into a Key Pitching Upgrade

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistNovember 16, 2015

New York Yankees' Brett Gardner prepares to bat during the first inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels, Wednesday, July 1, 2015, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The New York Yankees need starting pitching. That's not breaking news, but it's an undeniable truth.

They can get it by spending on the open market, which would be the classic Yankee Way. Or they could get creative on the trading block, which might be the Yankee Way 2.0.

If they go the trade route, here's a name the Yanks and general manager Brian Cashman will at least consider dangling: Brett Gardner.

That's not merely idle speculation. Gardner's name began popping on the hot stove shortly after the Yankees acquired outfielder Aaron Hicks from the Minnesota Twins for catcher John Ryan Murphy on Nov. 11.

That same day, in fact, the New York Post's Joel Sherman reported that the Yankees had "discussed" Gardner with the Seattle Mariners.

"The Yankees," Sherman wrote, "are particularly looking for high-end starting pitching that they control for seven years because all of their current starters, except Luis Severino and Adam Warren, can be free agents after either the 2016 or 2017 campaign."

Whether Gardner by himself could fetch such an arm depends on your definition of "high-end."

Gardner's defense has fallen off, but his bat helped him earn an All-Star nod in 2015.
Gardner's defense has fallen off, but his bat helped him earn an All-Star nod in 2015.Julie Jacobson/Associated Press/Associated Press

The 32-year-old is coming off an All-Star campaign that saw him post a .259/.343/.399 slash line with 16 home runs and 20 stolen bases. In 2010, Gardner put up an impressive 7.3 WAR, per Baseball-Reference.com, and in 2011, he led the American League with 49 steals.

He's fallen off a bit from that peak. His defense, in particular, has eroded, with his ultimate zone rating (UZR) plummeting from 26.7 in 2011 to minus-2.7 last season, per FanGraphs. Still, he's been good for at least 3.3 WAR in four of the last five seasons, and he remains a valuable asset for any team seeking a combination of speed, savvy and pop.

And he represents far more than a rental, as he's inked through 2018 for a relatively affordable $37.5 million, with a team option of $12.5 million for 2019 with a $2 million buyout.

So what kind of pitcher might Gardner fetch in a one-for-one swap? Sherman mentioned 27-year-old Seattle left-hander James Paxton, who posted a 3.90 ERA in 13 starts in 2015 and isn't arbitration-eligible until 2017.

Here's another intriguing (and purely speculative) possibility. The San Francisco Giants have a need in left field after declining their club options on veterans Nori Aoki and Marlon Byrd. And while San Francisco is itself in the market for pitching, the Giants might consider dangling 27-year-old sinkerballer Chris Heston for the right return.

Heston threw a no-hitter in June and was in the National League Rookie of the Year conversation before fading in the second half. Again, there's no indication the Giants are actively shopping him, but as CSN Bay Area's Alex Pavlovic opined, "the trade market may provide the best option" for San Francisco to plug its hole in left.

Rookie right-hander Chris Heston threw a no-hitter for the Giants, who have a need in left field.
Rookie right-hander Chris Heston threw a no-hitter for the Giants, who have a need in left field.Gregory Bull/Associated Press

A pitcher in the Paxton or Heston mold would slot into the Yankees' plans for next season and help shore up the back end of the rotation.

To land an ace-level stud, however, New York will have to part with more. 

MLB.com's Richard Justice imagined a package of Gardner and closer Andrew Miller heading to the Washington Nationals in exchange for Stephen Strasburg. Whether the Nats would take that is an open question, but even if they would, Strasburg will be a free agent next winter. 

Instead, New York should look for pitchers with years of control remaining.

The Chicago White Sox's Chris Sale fits the bill. He's one of the game's elite left-handers, and he's locked into an exceedingly affordable contract through 2017, with team options of $12.5 and $13.5 million for 2018 and 2019.

The Sox don't have to deal Sale, though general manager Rick Hahn told CSN Chicago's Dan Hayes that he's "open-minded" and doesn't "view anyone as being 'untouchable.'" Still, it'd take a gaudy, kitchen-sink offer. 

Gardner could be included in a deal for Salethough the Yankees might be required to eat some cash—but the White Sox would also undoubtedly ask for names from the top of New York's developmental depth chart, including power-hitting outfielder Aaron Judge and speedy shortstop Jorge Mateo.

And if Sale is truly, well, for sale, others with deeper minor league systems—hello, Boston Red Sox—might well snatch him up.

If you're looking for a club with a wealth of team-controlled starting pitching and a need in the outfield, no one fits the bill better than the Cleveland Indians.

Left fielder Michael Brantley underwent shoulder surgery and could miss the first month of the season, MLB.com's Jordan Bastian noted. And the Tribe's offense, even with Brantley, is average at best.

Meanwhile, Cleveland is stocked with arms, including 2014 AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, as well as right-handers Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar, all of whom are locked up through 2018 and beyond. 

It'd likely take a package that included top prospects to pry strikeout machine Carlos Carrasco away from Cleveland.
It'd likely take a package that included top prospects to pry strikeout machine Carlos Carrasco away from Cleveland.Ron Schwane/Associated Press

Again, the Yanks would have to dangle at least a couple of top prospects for the Indians to even pick up the phone. But, as Bastian correctly pointed out, "Starting pitching is the undeniable and enviable strength of Cleveland's roster, and other clubs know the Indians are not in a position to outbid other teams for an impact bat on the free-agent market."

If the Yankees are willing to raid their farm, they could build an offer around Gardner that might pry away Carrasco, who fanned 216 hitters in 183.2 innings last year and would immediately challenge Masahiro Tanaka for the title of staff ace.

"With respect to trades, that's a very difficult question to answer," Cleveland president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti said, per Bastian. "We have to be open-minded in how we build our team."

That's the same mindset Cashman will need as he seeks to bolster a starting corps that finished 19th in baseball with a 4.25 ERA in 2015. Opening the wallet wide is always an option in the Bronx. But the Yankees exercised restraint in free agency last winter, and with so many onerous contracts still on the books, they could repeat that strategy.

If so, expect some trades. And don't be surprised if Brett Gardner is in the middle of one of them. 

All statistics and contract information current as of Nov. 15 and courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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