When the Yankee front office signed Jacoby Ellsbury, they dreamt about having two of the game's fastest players in both the outfielder and in the lineup. Ellsbury figured to be more than just the leadoff man, he's an insurance policy for a Brett Gardner injury, and he'll be even more important when Gardner hits free agency next offseason. Having these two players together for 2014 could be incredibly fun to watch, and terribly grating on opposing catchers and pitchers. Yet just because we can dream about the days of back-to-back 40+ stolen bases, doesn't mean it's the best course of action. The Yankees have made it abundantly clear that they are listening on offers for Gardner. As Brandon pointed out this morning, there are several reasons why the Yankees should hold on to the outfielder. While I agree with many of his points, there is one big issue this offseason that could be remedied by a Gardner trade. The free agent market has little-to-no infield depth. Stephen Drew, Omar Infante, and Juan Uribe are the top infield names left, and even though they're not too impressive, they'll be paid as the top infield agents. Uribe and Infante are currently seeking three year deals, and although I'm a fan of Drew, he doesn't have major league experience at third or second base.
If trading Gardner could net the Yankees a starting second or third baseman, the team would deal a luxury for a necessity. Of course, the return would have to be greater than what they can find on the free agent market. It's hard to tell exactly who's available, but it would seem that the Diamondback's Aaron Hill is expendable due to top prospect Chris Owings, and Mariners' second basemen Nick Franklin and Dustin Ackley are expendable thanks to some guy named Robinson Cano. Chase Headley has also been thrown around in trade rumors, and Gardner would represent a large upgrade over Cameron Maybin. These trades might not necessarily work, but they are examples of what could be available outside of settling for Infante.
In terms of value, trading Gardner might make the most sense for the Yankees. Most teams that would have interest in Gardner view him as a top defensive center fielder and leadoff man. With the Yankees, Gardner is destined to play left field, and while he maintains incredible range there, it's not a place where you necessarily need that much speed. Likewise, Ellsbury also replaces Gardner in the lineup as the leadoff hitter, and although it would be nice to have Gardner at the top of the lineup, the organization's dedication to Derek Jeter might prevent that. Gardner's on base percentage and great ability to work counts makes for an excellent leadoff man, but again it's other teams that will maximize his potential. Gardner still has good value playing with the Yankees, but as a leadoff hitting centerfielder on another team, his value could be maximized through a trade.
The Yankees already have a ton of outfielders, and they have some good and interesting depth in their farm system, but I'm not exactly comfortable with trading Gardner and then relying on Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Beltran as everyday starters. Believe it or not, the Yankees' payroll still sits just slightly below $189 million. If the Yankees do plan to trade Gardner for an infielder, it's not ridiculous to think they'd make a run at Shin-Soo Choo, who they extended an offer to earlier in the offseason. The team still has about $40 million to spend before they reach their 2013 $228 million budget, so they could still spend some money on outfielders, starting pitchers, and even relievers, but what they can't spend money on is in the infield. Their farm system isn't exactly enticing, and Gardner now represents the best trade chip they have. Unless you love Infante, the Yankees might have no choice but to trade Gardner for an infielder.