Per everywhere, the Yankees have signed center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, 30, to a mammoth 7-year, $153 million contract. Much like the 5-year, $85 million deal New York gave to Brian McCann, I don’t dislike the acquisition because of how much money is involved; I dislike it because the Yankees are seemingly going against everything they’ve been preaching over the last couple of years. That being to save money, to let the ridiculous contracts they’ve already committed expire. By investing $238 million to two players on the wrong side of 30, combined by the king’s ransom they are likely to pay Robinson Cano — who is also on the wrong side of 30 — the Yankees look to be doing the same thing all over again.
So, even though New York signed one of their rival’s most talented players, it’s the Red Sox who are smiling right now.
In spite of a litany of injuries, when healthy, Ellsbury has been one of baseball’s most productive outfielders since 2007, ranking 12th in MLB amongst OFs in Wins Above Replacement (+23.7 fWAR). However, not counting his rookie season where he played in only 33 games, over the last 6 years Ellsbury has missed 290 games, or about 30% of the maximum allotment. The Yankees will be paying Jacoby roughly $22 million per year between 2014 and 2020 — his age-31 through age-37 seasons — in hopes that his body breaks down less than it did when he was in the youthful prime of his career. Based on historical evidence suggesting that even healthy players decline in health and production once they reach their early-30’s, the financial investment in Ellsbury, more than most players his age, carries an excessive amount of risk.
Namely, mostly all of Jacoby Ellsbury’s skill set is predicated by his ability to run, whether he’s roaming the outfield chasing down fly balls or stealing bases. Since 2008 he’s averaged 38.7 stolen bases per season, which is elite, and his aggregate Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) has been almost 50 runs better than the average center fielder in that time. Make no mistake: This is an elite, or very close to elite, player when he’s on the field.
The problem, as you can imagine, is that the Yankees are paying Ellsbury to be that player moving forward, which he isn’t. At some point over the next few years he’s going to lose a step (or two) on the base-paths, in the outfield, and his value will consequently diminish. That makes it paramount to the Yankees that Jacoby Ellsbury remains productive during the first 2-3 years of the contract, because by year-4 — his age-35 season — he will very likely be a corner outfielder, lacking the plus-speed necessary to remain in center field, while lacking the power necessary to keep up with other corner outfielders in baseball.
If he’s only going to be league average over the final 3 years of the contract, then the Yankees are going to need to see a major return over the first 4 years. At $22 million AAV, New York is essentially paying Jacoby to be an All Star-caliber 4-Win player, but whether it be injuries continuing to plague him or general age-related decline, it’s going to be extremely difficult for the terms of the contract to be justified.
The Yankees have some severe holes to fill this offseason, both in the starting rotation and in the field, which is why their initial signings of McCann and Ellsbury reek of some sort of sad desperation to appeal to the old-school New York fans. If the process of about a decade ago led the Yankees into the quagmire they’ve been in over the last handful of years, I see no reason why it won’t repeat itself.
At least based on what I’ve seen so far this winter.