Jacoby Ellsbury is not a terrible ballplayer, but he is an extremely overpaid one. He is useful as a fourth or fifth outfielder who is no longer the offensive threat he once was, but who can still field reasonably well, has some speed left and is a left-handed bat on a team that tilts heavily to the right side. He would be a good player to sign in spring training to a one or two year deal for two or three, or even five, million dollars per year. Unfortunately, the Yankees owe him more than $21 million per year from 2018-2020.
Ellsbury is not worth the money the Yankees are paying him, but he is also a reminder of the bad old days of the first part of the decade when the Yankees were perpetually deluding themselves and trying to squeeze one more championship out of an aging talent base. Ellsbury was also signed by the Yankees in the 2013-4 offseason as it was becoming clear that Robinson Cano, a much more talented and valuable player, was going to leave the Yankees and sign a huge contract with the Mariners. Ellsbury was signed in no small part to assuage the anger of a Yankee fan base that was upset to see the Yankees make no meaningful effort to sign Cano. Moreover, Ellsbury was redundant from the moment he signed the contract because the Yankees already had Brett Gardner, a player of similar abilities and a similar skill set, but who cost a lot less money. Even when they were both contributing to the Yankees, like in 2014, the Yankees didn’t need two leadoff hitter types in the same outfield.
This background contributes to a rancor that many Yankee fans feel towards Ellsbury, one that is exacerbated by his apparent unwillingness to waive his no trade clause. The Yankees have not given up on moving Ellsbury, but finding a taker for him, and for his contract, will not be easy. It is likely that if the Yankees trade him they will have to absorb most of his contract, which will count towards the luxury tax, or that they will have to include a more valuable player to make Ellsbury more palatable to wherever they send him.
Both of these approaches could be mistakes, but the second one would be a bigger one. There is a danger of over-reacting to the Ellsbury problem. This is a fourth outfielder who can play center and bats left-handed. He may be blocking a better player, like Clint Frazier, but if any of the starting outfielder/DH types are out for more than a few days, or if Hicks begins to slump badly, it is likely that Frazier will be called up anyway. Moreover, it is very unlikely that unless he has big comeback this season, Ellsbury will be on any postseason rosters. Thus, Ellsbury is no longer very good, but he is not in a position to do much damage. It is unlikely that the Yankees will lose the division because their fourth outfielder, while at least average for that role, is overpaid, but much more likely that, for example, trading one of their relievers, to make a salary dump of Ellsbury more attractive to another team, could come back to hurt the team.
The Yankees would have a real problem if they were expecting Ellsbury to play every day in centerfield and bat leadoff, but that is no longer his role. As bad as Ellsbury’s contract is, a player who can still play center adequately, get on base 35% of the time and steal bases at an extremely high success rate, all things Ellsbury did last year, is still valuable-not worth $21 million a year, but useful nonetheless. If Aaron Hicks slumps or needs a rest, there are worse fourth outfielder options than Ellsbury.
I never liked the Ellsbury signing when it happened for the same reasons most people didn’t, but that bell cannot be unrung. Continuing to be sufficiently upset about it that the team makes a rash decision would compound that initial mistake. The Yankees should, and probably are, listening to anybody who wants to trade for Ellsbury, although there may not be any team that fits into that category.
The Yankees face a decision regarding Ellsbury. They can either become obsessed with his bad contract and package him and probably other more valuable players in an elaborate salary dump, or recognize that he is an overpaid, but decent fourth outfielder. Many teams have won championships with fourth outfielders who are worse than Ellsbury. Additionally, many teams have benefited from experienced players like Ellsbury supplementing a younger core. Ellsbury is overpaid, a reminder of an unpleasant period in Yankee history and no longer the player he once was. The Yankees and their fans can focus on that, or accept that they have a player on the bench with some interesting tools who might steal a big base, start a rally or make a nice play in center in a big game before 2018 is over.
Photo: cc/Keith Allison