The general response to signing Jacoby Ellsbury fans has been pretty harsh.
"7 years and 153M is terrible!" Or the enthusiastic, "who cares if it’s way too much, it’s not my money, this is awesome!"
"Ellsbury isn’t that even that good!"
"We already have Gardner!"
"Why won’t they just overspend on Cano?"
"I’m pissed that they avoided improving the team last offseason for the 189M plan and are now throwing it out the window!"
These criticisms are either seriously underestimating Ellsbury or missing the larger context. Like any long-term deal, it’s a bit crazy, but as bad as it might be later, this deal makes the 2014 team much better. Yankee fans should embrace this deal and enjoy taking away one of Boston’s best players.
7 years, $153M plus an option for an 8th year, seems awful steep. Except that Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors predicted 7 years and $150M. Former Jim Bowden wrote for ESPN that Ellsbury would end up with 6 years and $120M although he also wrote that one team would go 7 years. (I admit though, I thought it would only take $140M) The Yankees probably did not want to offer seven years, but with the Mariners desperate to spend money, they probably felt they must.
Does that mean Ellsbury is $153M good? Perhaps not. But that doesn’t mean Ellsbury wasn’t the best outfielder and best non-Cano free agent available. Ellsbury is elite on the bases and in center. When healthy, he has hit better than average (113RC+ in 2013, 109 RC+ career), something rare for such a good fielder. He can do more than Shin-Soo Choo, Curtis Granderson and Carlos Beltran, all of whom come with their own injury concerns. Steamer projects Ellsbury for 3.9WAR next season (twice their projection for Beltran) and that projection comes with heavy regressions to his defensive value, value on the bases and his batting average with balls in play, placing all below his career averages. He’s not 36 yet, it’s not hard to image a 5-6 WAR season even if he doesn’t find the short porch frequently. If he does take advantage of the short porch on occasion, Ellsbury will be an MVP candidate again.
Despite being a very good, sometimes elite player, many fans are confused why the Yankees invested in him since Ellsbury shares so many strengths with Brett Gardner. Didn’t the Red Sox just show that having elite defensive in multiple outfield positions is helpful? This probably has more to do with the idea that corner outfielders need to hit home runs and focusing on a player’s type, rather than ability. Nelson Cruz has power, but he’s not very good at anything else. Ichiro’s problem last season wasn’t that he was a slap hitting outfielder, it was that that his on base percentage was under .300. Gardner and Ellsbury can provide more value taking away doubles, stealing bases and getting on base than Gardner plus an available slugger who can smash home runs.
What Ellsbury isn’t likely to do is replace Cano. A legitimate concern is that signing Ellsbury means not signing Cano. But this concern misses the larger context. This year’s free agent market is very eager. The impact players are basically Cano, Ellsbury, Tanaka, McCann, Choo and maybe Kuroda. There aren’t a lot of even average players available. The Yankees have so many holes that management needed to sign multiple players to make the team a playoff contender. Waiting for Cano to drop his asking price and for Masahiro Tanaka to post would court total disaster. If a team offered Cano, Pujols money they’d either have to match or let him go without having alternatives to spend the money on. Either one would be awful. Likewise, many teams were interested in Tanaka and the posting rules are uncertain. It just isn’t an offseason were the Yankees can afford to be patient. When you can’t afford to be patient, you pay a premium.
Now, the Yankees have significantly raised next year’s floor and have money remaining to add a couple of starters and some depth pieces. If Rodriguez is suspended for the whole season, they can either get under the tax line as a fringe playoff team (even without Cano) or sign Cano with a typical 210-215M budget. Smile Yankee fans, the future looks brighter than it did on Monday.