Now, the Yankees and Gardner have completed a four-year, $52 million extension that begins in 2015 and includes a fifth-year club option for $12.5 million. The deal includes a $2 million buyout for the '15 option, and Gardner would receive a $1 million assignment bonus if he's dealt.
With this extension, the possibility of a trade looks far more remote than it did a couple of months ago. And Gardner is grateful he'll get to stick with the organization that drafted and developed him.
"It's meaningful being able to play for New York, and hopefully one day I can retire and say that I didn't play for another team," Gardner said Sunday afternoon. "I think that would be awesome. It's such a historic franchise. I look forward to getting back to the playoffs this year.
"I want to stay in New York and want to be a part of this. I feel like we're going to have a special season and a special next several years. We brought in a lot of good talent this offseason, and I'm looking forward to getting out on the field in a couple of days and playing baseball."
Gardner has proven to be a versatile outfielder over his six years with the Yankees, and he bounced back last year from an injury-riddled 2012 season by hitting .273/.344/.416 with 10 triples, 81 runs scored and 24 stolen bases. Gardner had thought about hitting the free-agent market and signing elsewhere to play center field, particularly after seeing the kind of deal Ellsbury wound up with.
But the 30-year-old Gardner admitted free agency "also kind of scared" him, and the extension talks began to heat up over the past three weeks. He called it the biggest decision he's made in his life and believes having a long-term contract in place should take some of the pressure off him during what would have been his walk year.
"I don't want to be anywhere else. There's no better place to play baseball than in New York," Gardner said. "It's definitely different than other places. There's definitely a lot more media to deal with on a daily basis, and it seems like a lot more on the line day in and day out, but it's something that I enjoy and it's something that I take a lot of pride in. I love putting on these pinstripes every day."
With Ellsbury in center, Gardner will be the Yankees' primary left fielder. He's volunteered to play anywhere manager Joe Girardi puts him, and Cashman said the combination of the two fleet-footed outfielders "creates an exciting dynamic" both offensively and defensively.
"He would be a leadoff hitter and playing center field for most organizations because most organizations don't have multiple center-field options," Cashman said. "There are certain places that need a center fielder and would love to have a leadoff hitter. He fit that criteria, and you have to pay him that way."
Some of those teams in need of a center fielder or leadoff man reached out to the Yankees after they signed Ellsbury. Cashman said the Yankees rejected any offer that didn't make sense, viewing him as "part of the solution" in New York. Gardner won't have a no-trade clause in his new contract but didn't seem worried about a similar situation occurring in the future.
"I feel like if I stay on the field and I stay healthy and treat people the way they're supposed to be treated and go about my business the right way and do things on the field to help the team win, I'm not concerned about it," Gardner said.
The Yankees don't generally negotiate contract extensions with their players, but they've deviated from that policy on occasion, extending Robinson Cano in 2008 and more recently attempting to do so with Russell Martin. For instance, Cashman said he hasn't had any conversations with reliever David Robertson's camp about a possible extension.
But Cashman was willing to make an exception for Gardner.
"It's a demonstration from our end," Cashman said. "We don't typically do this, but it shows the level of confidence, belief and trust in the type of person and player he is, and we're excited to know he's going to be part of this thing going forward.
"It's someone that was drafted, developed and has been a positive influence in this place, becoming a leader, too, as he matures in that clubhouse and we lose veterans. I'm a big Gardy fan. ... This shows you even more how much this franchise thinks of him."