The Yankees need more such players, not less. But they also need controllable starting pitching, and if principal owner Hal Steinbrenner will not authorize an increase in spending, they might need to move Gardner and/or closer Andrew Miller to get it.
It’s a classic rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul scenario.
Gardner batted only .206 with a .592 OPS after the All-Star break, but .302 with an .861 OPS before that. New hitting coach Alan Cockrell, who was with the team last season in an assistant’s role, has acknowledged that playing through a wrist injury contributed to Gardner’s slide.
As for Miller, trading him would diminish the Yankees’ greatest strength — their bullpen. Such a move could be particularly unwise, considering that Dellin Betances has thrown more pitches than any reliever in the American League the past two seasons.
If such financially motivated measures seem to make little sense, the Yankees’ failure to trade potential free-agent second baseman Robinson Cano at the non-waiver deadline in 2013 season remains utterly baffling.
The team essentially was out of contention at that point, and Cano already had rejected an extension offer in spring training, before switching agents from Scott Boras to Roc Nation. The Yankees surely knew that Cano wanted a monster deal, and that they did not want to give it to him.
Cano in a trade could have brought back premium young talent at a time when the Yankees were re-focusing on their farm system. Instead, the team lost Cano and Curtis Granderson and signed Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran in free agency, failing to gain even a draft pick in the process.
Two years later, the Yankees are working under self-imposed financial restrictions, restrictions that could cost them Gardner and/or Miller.
HEYWARD: THE NEW … VAN SLYKE?
Many in the industry view Jason Heyward as a test case for how teams will value a strong defensive outfielder and baserunner who lacks middle-of-the-order power.
Well, as far back as April 1991, a player comparable to Heyward became the fourth highest-paid player in the game, according to average annual value.
Advanced metrics were not yet in vogue; teams did not have precise measures of a player’s all-around skills. But the Pirates saw enough in center fielder Andy Van Slyke to award him a three-year, $12.65 million extension to prevent him from becoming a free agent that offseason.
How similar is Heyward now to what Van Slyke was then? Consider the following chart, compiled by MLB Network’s Keith Costas:
Van Slyke, as a center fielder, played a position of greater defensive value than Heyward, who is a right fielder. Heyward, though, is four years younger than Van Slyke was then.
For that matter, Heyward also is four years younger than Jacoby Ellsbury was when the Yankees awarded him a $155 million free-agent contract in Dec. 2013, and three years younger than Carl Crawford was when the Red Sox gave him a $142 million deal in Dec. 2010.
Heyward’s relative youth, combined with salary inflation, should push him well beyond those two. Still, to become the fourth-highest paid player by average salary, he would need to surpass Alex Rodriguez at $27.5 million.
That number might be out of reach. Or maybe not.
RIFFING — AND RIPPING — ON CANO
Van Slyke, a former Mariners coach, made a number of controversial remarks in his interview with a St. Louis radio station last week. But he seemed to reserve special venom for Cano, the Mariners’ second baseman.
Among other things, Van Slyke said, “He played the worst defense I’ve ever seen at second base. I mean, I’m talking about the worst defensive second baseman ever — I’ve ever seen in 20 years in the big leagues.”
“Worst ever” seems a bit strong, but Cano certainly was one of the worst in the majors last season, according to defensive runs saved; at minus-nine, he ranked 33rd at the position.
It would never happen in the third year of Cano’s 10-year contract, but some with the M’s mused at the end of last season about moving him to first, playing Ketel Marte at second and signing free agent Ian Desmond to play short.
BULLPEN SHUFFLE COMING IN D.C.?
The Tigers, before trading for Francisco Rodriguez, made an offer to free-agent reliever Joakim Soria, according to major-league sources. They also inquired about the Nationals’ Jonathan Papelbon and Drew Storen, among other relievers.
Papelbon and Storen are likely to be moved, sources say. The Nationals reportedly are interested in free-agent reliever Darren O’Day — his wife, Elizabeth Prann, is a reporter for FOX News Channel in Washington, D.C. — and talk persists within the industry that the Nats are one of the clubs trying to land Reds closer Aroldis Chapman.
GM Mike Rizzo’s interest in Chapman would be nothing new; the Nats finished second when the pitcher signed with the Reds out of Cuba in Jan. 2010. Rizzo also tried to acquire Chapman at the non-waiver deadline in July. And new Nats manager Dusty Baker was a staunch advocate of keeping Chapman in the bullpen during his tenure with the Reds.
The Nats, though, consider a left-handed hitter to be perhaps their biggest need, and also could be in the market for a starting pitcher. The Astros are another team that is focused on Chapman, along with other late-inning relievers.
RANGERS? CESPEDES? PROBABLY NOT
The Rangers, who need a right-handed bat, inquired more than once about trading for Yoenis Cespedes when he was with the Athletics, sources said. Still, it seems unlikely that the team will spend big on Cespedes or any other hitter.
Re-signing free agent first baseman/DH Mike Napoli might be a more realistic solution for the Rangers, who already have nearly $120 million committed for 2016, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts — not including arbitration-eligible players.
At the moment, club officials are focused on trades and smaller additions. The team’s biggest priority is finding a starting pitcher to replace free-agent right-hander Yovani Gallardo.
AROUND THE HORN
● The Padres expressed interest in trading for Gallardo last offseason, before the Brewers sent him to the Rangers. Now that the Pads are about to lose Ian Kennedy, Gallardo could make sense for them again.
The expected loss of free-agent left fielder Justin Upton still would net the Padres one draft pick — the picks sacrificed for Kennedy and Gallardo, both of whom rejected qualifying offers, would cancel each other.
Gallardo, who was born in La Piedad, Mexico, would give the Padres a Mexican-American attraction. His strikeout rate last season was the ninth-worst among major-league starters, and his .729 opponents’ OPS was a career-high. Still, he has averaged 191 innings the past seven seasons, and only once has he had an ERA above 3.84, in 2013.
● The Astros are one of the teams interested in Miller, just as they were last offseason, when he was a free agent. Miller does not have a no-trade clause, and a deal to Houston likely would bother him on a certain level.
The Yankees signed Miller for four years, $36 million. The Astros offered him $44 million over the same term to play in a state with no income tax. If he was going to end up in Houston anyway, he could have gotten a lot more money.
● Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but some agents believe that the Brewers could spend on select free agents in January and February even after they trade off more veteran talent.
Owner Mark Attanasio has shown a penchant for waiting out the market — he signed Kyle Lohse in March 2013, Matt Garza in Jan. 2014 and K-Rod in March 2015. It is possible that the large number of free agents could lead to late bargains.