First, I agree with what Brad Carroll wrote in his column: If this is the Yankees’ big move this winter, it wasn’t the right one. If there’s more to come, Ellsbury could be a nice complimentary piece. I don’t necessarily believe the Yankees have to get Robinson Cano, but if they don’t, there better be a really good replacement on the way, because Ellsbury isn’t it.
If you read my State of the Red Sox reports this year, you’ll know how many times I said I hope the Red Sox aren’t the team that gives Ellsbury $100 million this winter. Well, I was half right. The Sox didn’t give him $100 million. In fact, no one did. The Yankees gave him $153 million.
Don’t get me wrong, Ellsbury is a good player. Really good. He’s a good hitter with a little pop. He’s had some good success in the postseason and won’t be scared of the big stage in New York. He’s a wonderful defensive outfielder who will take away some extra-base hits and probably rob some homers.
On the surface, he’s a great signing for a team which won’t care about overpaying a player. If you dig deeper, however, this deal makes no sense.
First, Ellsbury is already 30, a number which seems crazy for a guy who grew up in Boston and doesn’t seem old yet, and is a terrifying number for someone whose game is built on speed. He’ll be 37 at the end of the deal and it’s likely his range in the outfield and speed on the bases will be diminished. Now, there are older guys who can still run, so it’s not impossible that Ellsbury keeps his legs, but at more than $20 million a year, it’s a big risk.
Secondly, Ellsbury’s 2011 season would put him among the game’s best and most valuable players. The problem is, those numbers haven’t been seen before or since. Ellsbury hit 32 homers in 2011, but has 13 since.
The ballpark will help his production, as will the lineup he’s now at the top of. His runs should go up with the middle of the Yankees order being healthier this season, though having so many power hitters behind him might make the Yankees want to curtail his basestealing a bit. When he’s on the field, he will be a big help to the Yankees. Fans who can put aside his Red Sox roots and the money he makes will enjoy watching him play.
Therein lies the big problem. The Yankees need him to be on the field to get those things from him, which is not always easy. In 2010, Ellsbury played 18 games. In 2012, he played just 74. In Boston, he earned a reputation for not only being brittle, but for failing to want to rush back from injury. For a team with Derek Jeter, that might not fly. Ellsbury was also said to have some clubhouse issues, though I think that’s less of a problem in New York, which isn’t exactly known for its peace and harmony every day.
If the Yankees’ medical staff can keep him on the field and their fans don’t think they’re getting the player from 2011, Ellsbury can be an important piece of the next few years. There’s a good chance his contract turns ugly five or six years from now, but the Yankees will worry about that then. In the short term, the biggest problem the Yankees have is building around Ellsbury. If Ellsbury is your third or fourth best player, like he was on the 2013 Red Sox, then you have a good team.
If A-Rod is suspended, the Yankees can bring back Cano without blowing up their budget, and if they have to go over the magic $189 million number they can, they’re the Yankees. I think they’re hardballing Cano because they know he wants to stay in New York for marketing reasons. And if he does leave, the Yankees will get another star. They always do. To me, the budget isn’t the reason the Ellsbury deal is crazy. There are many others, however.