With the start of Spring Training approaching, anticipation is building for the 2014 season. MLB.com is going around the horn to break down each area of the Yankees' roster, continuing with this look at the outfield and designated hitter spots.
NEW YORK -- Had the Yankees qualified for postseason play, Brett Gardner expected to be ready to return from an oblique injury and reclaim his spot in center field. It seemed like a safe bet that Gardner would be there to begin 2014, too.
So you can imagine Gardner's shock when the Yankees, unable to make progress in their negotiations with Robinson Cano, instead pushed that cash in Jacoby Ellsbury's direction. They landed the free agent with a seven-year, $153 million pact in December, a move that sent a ripple through their outfield alignment.
"I was surprised at first. I didn't really see that coming," Gardner said. "But listen, he's a great player. You put him on our team and any other team across baseball, he makes them better. I look forward to playing beside him and really learning from him."
Once Cano came off the board by signing with the Mariners, the Yanks swiftly made another outfield upgrade. That same day, they circled back and agreed to offer a third year to veteran Carlos Beltran, who has long desired to put the pinstripes on.
"Which player doesn't want to play in this city and this organization?" Beltran said. "Every year, they're always going to find a way to put a good team out there. As a player, you want to be part of that."
Manager Joe Girardi can now plan on an Opening Day outfield that has Gardner in left field, Ellsbury in center field and Beltran in right field. Alfonso Soriano will likely serve as the designated hitter, and Ichiro Suzuki could be bumped to a reserve role.
"I'm going to try to move it around, because Sori wants to play the outfield as well," Girardi said. "That's something I'm going to have to balance."
Introducing Ellsbury at Yankee Stadium in December, Girardi said that he was pleased that the 30-year-old is "no longer a thorn in my side." Over seven years with the Red Sox, Ellsbury established himself as an exciting performer on both sides of the ball, wrapping up his time in Boston with a World Series ring.
Two years removed from an outstanding 2011 season in which he slugged a career-high 32 homers, Ellsbury batted .298 with nine homers, 53 RBIs and a Major League-leading 52 stolen bases in 134 games last season. Ellsbury said he was impressed by how aggressively the Yankees pursued him.
"The biggest thing I've always enjoyed is the expectation of winning," Ellsbury said. "We had that in Boston, you have it in New York, and the fans expect you to win. That drives me to push my game and compete at a high level each and every night. That was something that I loved about Boston, and I know I'm going to enjoy it about New York."
The big contract does carry risk, as Ellsbury has missed 264 games over the last four seasons. Those mostly came as the result of two on-field injuries: Ellsbury fractured five ribs in an April 2010 collision with Adrian Beltre, and he suffered a right shoulder subluxation (separation) after colliding with the Rays' Reid Brignac in April 2012 while attempting to steal second base.
Managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner said that he would be more concerned if Ellsbury's injuries were of the chronic variety, and so he believes the deal will be worth the gamble.
"You can't have enough grinders, can't have enough guys that work hard," Steinbrenner said. "Dynamic is a perfect word for him. He's great in the clubhouse, a good leader and tough. You just can't have enough of those guys."
Beltran needs no introduction to New York, as he played seven years with the Mets beginning in 2005. At the time, Beltran had tried to personally work a deal out with George Steinbrenner in Tampa, Fla., but the Yanks had Bernie Williams roaming center field and Steinbrenner wanted to pursue pitching instead.
"Having the opportunity to come back again as a Yankee really means a lot to me," Beltran said.
After three knee procedures, Beltran may have lost a step in the field and on the basepaths, but he is still a capable corner defender and a force at the plate. Beltran batted .296 with 24 home runs and 84 RBIs in 145 games for the Cardinals last year, playing in his first World Series.
"If you look at my last two years, they were pretty good, so I think I can continue to perform at a very high level," Beltran said. "I'm a person that, I take my job seriously, and I have pride in what I do. I'm just going to go out there and continue to do what I do best, which is play baseball."
In the postseason, Beltran has been a productive .333 hitter (60-for-180), with 16 home runs and 40 RBIs in 51 games. His 15 RBIs in last year's postseason were the most among all participants.
"Our lineup has gotten so much deeper, with guys who hit the ball out of the ballpark, get on base, hit for average, grind out at-bats," Girardi said.
With Curtis Granderson moving across town to join the Mets and Vernon Wells released, the holdovers from last year are Gardner, Soriano and Ichiro.
Gardner enjoyed the best all-around year of his career in 2013, becoming the first Yankee since Snuffy Stirnweiss in 1945 to collect at least 30 doubles, 10 triples and 20 stolen bases in a single season.
"Brett's tremendous. He's tremendous out there," Ellsbury said. "He's a very good outfielder. I'm excited to play with him. We're going to cover a lot of ground out in the outfield. Not a lot of balls are going to be falling."
The Yankees hope that Soriano can continue the level of production he enjoyed after being acquired in a July 26 trade with the Cubs. Sparked by the change in scenery, Soriano led the Majors with 17 homers and 50 RBIs over the next 58 games.
The 38-year-old's best stretch was a torrid 14-RBI showing over three games in August, going 10-for-14 with four homers. Girardi often played Soriano in the outfield instead of Granderson down the stretch, as Soriano believed it helped him at the plate.
"Joe will be able to pick and choose who is playing the field and who is DHing," general manager Brian Cashman said. "Throughout that process, I think the DH spots will be more divided up between the Beltran and Soriano side, but there will be no exclusive DH."
Ichiro's chase for his 4,000th hit between Japan and the Majors was a highlight of the 2013 campaign, but the Yanks seem uncertain how they will use the 40-year-old this year. They would likely entertain trade offers for Ichiro, who is due $6.5 million in the final year of his contract.
Otherwise, Ichiro could help the Yankees as a reserve outfielder, coming off the bench late in games or pinch-running. Those reduced tasks could present a challenge for Ichiro, who has been accustomed to playing a starring role over the last two decades.
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.