As advanced statistics have increased in use over the years, both by fans and front offices, increased emphasis has been placed on defense, base-running, on-base percentage, and player age. We have seen that this offseason with the high value placed on the quick and rangy Jacoby Ellsbury, the Yankees' refusal to go past seven years for Robinson Cano, and Shin-Soo Choo in much higher demand than Nelson Cruz. With 30 teams using varying goals, evaluation tools, and budgets, the free agent and trade markets are far from static. Consider the following outfields (with the average of Oliver and Steamer projections for 2014 from fangraphs.com):
LF: .262/.341/.381, 2.8 WAR
CF: .277/.336/.407, 3.6 WAR
RF: .274/.340/.469, 2.0 WAR
LF: .259/.361/.413, 3.1 WAR
CF: .252/.312/.392, 3.3 WAR
RF: .295/.362/.397, 2.8 WAR
Based solely on the projections, we have two fairly similar outfields. Team A is the Yankees trio of Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran. They will make roughly $40 million in 2014. Team B is Dexter Fowler, Peter Bourjos, and Norichika Aoki. In 2015, they will make around $10 million combined. We could quibble with the projections. If Ellsbury is healthy, he's likely to exceed his projection and Beltran may benefit from his new center fielder and smaller area to cover. Even with higher projections, the two outfields are likely somewhat close in value.
The second outfield grouping costs just a fraction of the Yankees' as all three are still under team control. Valuable players under team control are generally more difficult to obtain than free agents because teams tend to value their own, younger players very highly. As you likely know, the players above were not chosen at random. All three have been traded this offseason. Two of the teams trading for the outfielders, the Cardinals and Astros, are considered forward-thinking teams. The third is the Royals. I do not know quite what to make of that.
Cumulatively, the teams trading their outfielders received a young, well below average starter, a fourth outfielder, a young starter-turned-reliever who may be turned into an innings eater, and a 31-year old third baseman who was a non-tender candidate (and a potential bounceback candidate). They also traded away a decent, but not great outfield prospect. That hardly seems like a great return. However, given the state of the Yankees farm system, it would have been tough for them to make any of these moves.
Going off these trades, it would be pretty easy to draw the conclusion that outfielders, especially those within a year or two of free agency are not very valuable. Enter Mark Trumbo. The Angels, attempting to relieve a positional logjam, made Trumbo available. Using the same projections from above, Trumbo comes in at .251/.311/.476, with a WAR of just 2.0 because of his dreadful defense. Unlike the returns for the other outfielders, the Angels received two starting pitchers it can plug into its rotation immediately. One of them, Tyler Skaggs, still has solid upside to be a middle of the rotation starter.
Trumbo, like Bourjos, still has three years of team control, but due to his home run numbers will be considerably more expensive. It should also be noted that as part of that trade, the White Sox were able to trade the less desirable of the two pitchers the Angels received for Adam Eaton, a centerfielder with many years of control who also fits the mold of Team B above.
Which brings us to Brett Gardner. Gardner projects as a solid outfielder next year, but like the three outfielders on Team B, does not project for great power and like two of the three, is just a year away from free agency. After the Yankees brought in Beltran and Ellsbury, Gardner became an immediate trade chip. The Yankees were looking for a second baseman. The Reds wanted to dump Brandon Phillips' salary and receive Gardner. They Yankees wisely said no. They could not obtain Homer Bailey or Justin Masterson. Brian Cashman has previously said he values Gardner higher than other teams. The trades made so far this offseason show that he is right. He does value Gardner higher than most teams. Factoring baserunning and defense, he is right to do so. All-around players have not received a great return in the trade market, and it appears the Yankees have made the correct choice to keep Gardner for at least one more year.