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As usual, Yankees’ priority is to improve their pitching staff

Chicago Cubs pitcher Aroldis Chapman throws in the

Chicago Cubs pitcher Aroldis Chapman throws in the bottom of the seventh inning in Game 6 of the World Series against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field in Cleveland on Nov. 1, 2016. Photo Credit: EPA / David Maxwell

Dealing Brian McCann to the Astros last month put the Yankees in the market for a bat.

A player quite familiar to them, and in whom they had some interest, came off that market Saturday afternoon when Carlos Beltran agreed to a one-year deal with the Astros for $16 million, according to various reports.

The Yankees never reached the point of offering a contract to Beltran, whom they dealt to the Rangers before the Aug. 1 trade deadline, but they were not against a reunion.

Their pursuit of a hitter will very much be on the table during the annual winter meetings this week at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland. Free agents Edwin Encarnacion and Mike Napoli are options, though the former’s age (33) and price tag could prove prohibitive.

Still, that isn’t the Yankees’ priority.

As general manager Brian Cashman says just about every offseason, it’s “pitching, pitching, pitching,” something especially germane this time around as questions pockmark the staff.

Closer Aroldis Chapman, whom the Yankees traded to the Cubs before the trade deadline, remains their top free-agent target. The lefthander’s price — which could reach the $100-million plateau, given that he has drawn interest from several teams — might cause the Yankees to look elsewhere, though.

Cashman, who does have some money to work with this offseason with the salaries of McCann and the retired Mark Teixeira off the books, made contact early this offseason with the agents for Chapman and top-tier free-agent closers Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon.

But even with Cashman saying during November’s general managers’ meetings that Dellin Betances and Tyler Clippard are the only ones with guaranteed bullpen spots, bolstering the rotation is paramount.

Cashman has said that only three pitchers — Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia — are “locked” into their spots.

“Then you’ve got a whole bunch of young guys that are going to compete,” Cashman said, mentioning Adam Warren, Bryan Mitchell, Luis Cessa, Chad Green and Luis Severino.

Those five have shown various degrees of promise, but they’re far from big league-proven.

“We certainly would like to add to it or certainly would like to be in a position to feel that you can put some more certainty in there or more competition in there,” Cashman said. “It’s probably a thin starting pitching market. There’s a number of different relievers in the market. Certainly more relievers in this free agency than there are starters of quality. And the trade route’s obviously an area we’ll see what develops over time.”

Using the word “certainty” was appropriate, and it’s not just because of the unproven young arms. Tanaka was among the best in the American League last season — he went 14-4 with a 3.07 ERA — but he is followed by question marks. Pineda (6-12, 4.82) was wildly inconsistent, and although Sabathia made it through the season healthy and had a strong second half to finish 9-12 with a 3.91 ERA, the lefthander nonetheless has a recent track record of injuries and will turn 37 in July.

Cashman has been creative in the past in securing pitching — he packaged David Phelps and Martin Prado in a deal for hard-throwing Nathan Eovaldi (who was released Monday after undergoing Tommy John surgery) two offseasons ago — and probably will have to be that again.

The free-agent market is extremely weak — the Yankees are interested in lefthander Rich Hill, who reportedly was close to re-signing with the Dodgers — but the trade route probably is more realistic.

Cashman seems ready to deal now that there’s a new collective-bargaining agreement, though he has told other GMs and agents to give him a few more days to digest all of the details.

“I said, ‘Listen, give me at least 24, 48 more hours to see what sort of information we can get from baseball,’ ” Cashman said Friday morning at an event in Stamford, Connecticut. “So hopefully, we’ll be able to hit the ground running Monday at the latest.”


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