And so suddenly, the Yankees found themselves again with a reason to spend.
But if the club does have designs on making one last splash before the Hot Stove season ends, it is not saying. As quickly as such rumors surfaced on Tuesday, general manager Brian Cashman squashed the whispers that his team is in the running for top free-agent outfielders Matt Holliday and Jason Bay.
"I will continue to look at any remaining piece, but it won't be a big piece," Cashman said during a conference call announcing the Vazquez trade. "So any speculation about some high-end player, with big ability and dollars attached on a large scale, would be inappropriate."
That does not, however, mean discussion regarding any free-agent outfielder would be incorrect. Though he denied interest in acquiring a top-flight player, Cashman denied nothing regarding free-agent left fielder Johnny Damon. A deal to bring Damon back to New York, all but out of the question earlier this week, now appears to have become a distinct possibility.
Cashman did not discuss Damon specifically, but he did leave the door wide open for a left-field acquisition.
"Left field is an evolving situation," he said. "So I guess stay tuned."
Damon's chances of returning to the Bronx took a significant hit when the Yankees traded for All-Star center fielder Curtis Granderson earlier this month, then lessened still when the team reportedly agreed on a one-year deal with designated hitter Nick Johnson. But the departure of Cabrera leaves reserve player Brett Gardner perched on top of the left-field depth chart.
Now, if the Yankees desire, they can again pursue Damon to fill that role. Though the team also could have pursued Holliday or Bay, either of whom should command a contract of at least five years, Cashman's denials on Tuesday made a deal for Damon seem all the more likely.
At one point, Damon had reportedly been willing to accept a two-year deal worth approximately $20 million from the Yankees, who countered with a $14 million pact at the same length. But by that time, the Yankees' talks had already warmed with Johnson on the $5.5 million agreement that has yet to be finalized.
The Yankees have also shown some level of interest in free agent Mark DeRosa, a New Jersey native who offers the flexibility of playing both outfield and infield positions.
Either way, Damon would fit more snugly than Holliday or Bay into what Cashman has described as a hard budget. Though he would not reveal the specifics of his budget, Cashman did say it will be less than the $201 million payroll the team carried on Opening Day last season.
"I do have a number that we're working under," Cashman said. "We will be at that number, and it will be less than last year. It's as simple as that."
Last winter, the Yankees shelled out $423.5 million for free agents CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira, signing the latter only after the team's spending spree appeared complete. But they did so only after more than $80 million in expiring contracts came off the books, prompting Cashman on Tuesday to call that a "once-in-a-lifetime" sort of spending spree.
Even so, it is always within the Yankees' capability to sign a marquee free agent, even when they do not appear interested.
"Your job is to constantly try to improve, because every day your competition is doing that," Cashman said. "This thing will take place and evolve all the way through the first [Trade] Deadline, which is July 31."
If the Yankees are indeed in the market for a big-ticket outfielder, however, they may have to battle their trading partner, the Braves. Now with Vazquez's $11.5 million salary off the books and still in need of a big bat, the Braves could pursue Damon, Bay or even Holliday on the open market.
In that sense, perhaps Tuesday's biggest winners were those three players. Suddenly, Damon, Bay and Holliday all have two additional suitors in the Yankees and Braves, neither of whom was likely to shell out serious money for an outfielder before Tuesday's five-player swap.
Nearly as intriguing, though, is what effect the Vazquez trade will have on the Yankees' own staff. The top of the rotation is now set with Sabathia, Burnett, Vazquez and Andy Pettitte. And that leaves only one open spot for Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, Alfredo Aceves, Sergio Mitre and Chad Gaudin.
Cashman said on Tuesday that all five of those players will be treated as starters in Spring Training, but that four of them will ultimately end up either in the bullpen or at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
For Chamberlain and Hughes, both of whom are starters by nature but who have found significant success out of the bullpen, that may signal a long-anticipated resolution.
"Somebody," Cashman said, "is going to wind up the odd man out of the rotation."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less