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Could the Yankees sign an outfielder and then trade Brett Gardner?

With a lack of pitching on the free agent market, the front office could try to deal from their depth.

Wild Card Game - San Francisco Giants v New York Mets Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

These days, deciphering the Yankees’ offseason strategy is incredibly difficult. While pretty much every year in my lifetime constituted a simple explanation—“The Yankees will be in on every major free agent”—things are more complicated in 2016. Ever since ownership’s decision to try to get under the luxury tax before 2013, their refutation of that before 2014, then their relative stinginess before 2015 and 2016, there has been a constant uneasiness as to whether the Yankees will fully jump into the market. Last offseason, the Yankees did not sign a single major league free agent.

My initial guess is that this offseason resembles that of two years ago, when the Yankees signed both Chase Headley and Andrew Miller, as well as a handful of depth signings like Chris Capuano, Stephen Drew, and Chris Young.

The obvious place to spend, and a place in which I think they will spend, is in relief pitching, which I wrote about two days ago. I expect the Yankees to sign at least one of the big relief options that would run them way over Miller’s deal, which seemed like a total steal then and now.

Another option, one that was brought up by Barry Bloom, is the Yankees signing an outfielder like Yoenis Cespedes, and then dealing Brett Gardner for pitching. I don’t necessarily agree that it would be Cespedes and then the Orioles as a trade partner, but it’s certainly an interesting proposition.

The Orioles don’t have much to offer—they only have Chris Tillman, Kevin Gausman, and Dylan Bundy period—and I doubt they trade from an area of paper-thin depth for a player like Gardner, especially within the division. That doesn’t mean this scenario can’t play out.

The free agent outfielders of note on the market are Jose Bautista, Cespedes, Dexter Fowler, Mark Trumbo, Josh Reddick, and Carlos Gomez. If you’re going to trade Gardner and you actually want to upgrade, you basically need to sign Bautista, Cespedes, or Fowler, depending on your long-term view of him.

Of those, Bautista is the most realistic option; if the Yankees were to sign Cespedes, that likely precludes the Yankees from signing a reliever, which is clearly their top priority. Bautista is projected to make $51 million over three years. I personally think this is low-ball, but think about how much the Beltran deal helped the Yankees, which could be similarly priced by inflation’s standards. Right-handed power is hard to find, and Bautista, while he has injury and age concerns, is a generational hitter.

Trading Gardner is as open-ended as open-ended gets. We have been reporting on possible Gardner deals as far back as the famed Brandon Phillips deal that never was. There are some teams in contention that could really use his help despite his decline since then: the Giants, Astros, Blue Jays, and Rangers could all use an outfielder. The Blue Jays are an unlikely partner because of divisional interests, but there are a bevy of options among the others; Phil Bickford and Matt Moore of the Giants, Mike Fiers of the Astros, and Martin Perez of the Rangers.

That’s all speculation, both on teams and players, but I imagine that pitchers of league-average capabilities would be on the table. Being able to fill the back-end of the rotation, while still upgrading in the outfield, could be a way forward without quality free agents. Gardner’s contract is also agreeable to pretty much any payroll, at just two years and $23 million.

This is going to be a long offseason. Even though Brian Cashman has signaled a Brian McCann trade could be in the works, we really don’t know. This will be an offseason marked by trades similar to the ones in recent years, and maybe a few mid-level free agent signings, but nothing of the sort we’re accustomed to seeing. But if the Yankees were to head down this path—and this is but one of many paths—they might be able to upgrade in one area and bolster another. In a time of parity and a lack of free agents, Cashman and company need to try every trick in the book.