Last winter, following a disappointing season in which they missed the playoffs, the New York Yankees signed free agent outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven year $148 million contract. It was expected that the Yankees would make a big free agent splash last off-season as part of an effort to make it back to the playoffs in 2014; and Ellsbury was one of the biggest names available on the free agent market.
Nonetheless, signing Ellsbury had the feel of a move the Yankees made because they could, rather than for any strategic imperative. Ellsbury was a valuable player going into last off-season. At that time, he was 29 years old coming off of a three years stretch where he posted an OPS+ 122, with a .356 on base percentage while averaging 22 steals a year. However, the Yankees had another player who had posted a .346 OBP over the last three seasons while averaging 25 stolen bases a season. Much of the difference between these two speedy outfielders was due to Ellsbury's 2011 power surge when he hit 32 home runs. As that season was clearly an aberration, by last winter the two were very similar players. Speedy outfielders who get on base and steal bases are valuable, but a team like the Yankees that plays in a hitters park only can really use one player like that because the other outfield spots are better used by players who have genuine power.
Signing Ellsbury did not seem like a bad move for the Yankees, just a redundant one. It was not clear why the Yankees needed Ellsbury if they already had Brett Gardner. After Ellsbury signed with the Yankees, Gardner was reportedly briefly on the trading block, but before the season started he signed a four year $48 million dollar extension, a contract of roughly a third of the value of the one Ellsbury had signed a few months earlier.
While some might characterize Ellsbury's 2014 season as a disappointment, he has done more or less what might be expected of him, or at least what might be expected by the post 2011 version of him. His .340 OBP and 108 OPS+ are almost the same as his career average. Ellsbury has also been very good on the bases as he has stolen 29 bases in 34 attempts and has played solid, if unspectacular defense.
Ellsbury's season has been overshadowed by Gardner's play. Gardner has been the Yankees best player this year hitting .283/.361/.463 for a team leading 4.2 WAR. In addition to his usual great defense, base running and strong ability to get on base, Gardner has hit for more power than at any time in his career. With the season not quite 75% over, Gardner already has hit seven more home runs than in any of his previous seasons. Gardner, one of the few good hitters the Yankees have developed and kept in the last decade, is in the context of the generally overpaid Yankees also financial bargain. His 2014 salary is only the 10th highest on the team this year.
Gardner's progression and the realization that 2011 truly was an aberration for Ellsbury means that the Yankees are stuck with two very similar players, and that the cheaper one is probably slightly better. This creates something of a quandary for the team as keeping two leadoff type hitters in their outfield is probably not a great strategy given the lack of power the team is getting from several other positions.
Ellsbury's contract, like that of many of his teammates, makes him very difficult to trade. Not too many teams would be very interested in a good 30 year old leadoff hitter with six years and more than $120 million left on his contract, as that is what Ellsbury will be after this season. Gardner, on the other hand, has tremendous trade value. He is the best player on the team, and one of the most valuable outfielders in the AL. Gardner's contract is also very team friendly and, given the payroll flexibility the Yankees enjoy, keeping Ellsbury instead of the more cost effective Gardner is not a problem for them.
During an off-season when the Yankees seemed to be signing a veteran free agent every week, Garnder's contract extension was almost an afterthought, but it was probably the best signing of last off-season, with the exception of Masahiro Tanaka who, when healthy, is one of the game's best pitchers. Despite having some good seasons in recent years, the Yankees have rarely had anybody with significant trade value. Many of their best players were either old or locked in to very player friendly contracts. The exception to this was Robinson Cano in 2012 and 2013, but the Yankees decided to try, albeit not very hard, to resign him rather than turn him into prospects. After this season, Gardner will present the Yankees another opportunity to partially restock a depleted farm system. However, if recent Yankee history is any guide, they will probably sign a few more aging free agents and criticize Gardner for not hustling or some similar nonsense.