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What if signing Jacoby Ellsbury was a smart move?

What it would take for Ellsbury’s deal to be a better value than Cano’s

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MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Philadelphia Phillies Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

At this point most Yankee fans look back upon 2013-2014 offseason with regret. Coming off a 2013 season in which the team missed the playoffs for the first time in five years and only the second time since 1995, the team elected to let its best player, Robinson Cano, leave for the Mariners via free agency on a 10-year, $240 million deal with little to no resistance in a supposed effort to cut payroll. However, the Yankees quickly reversed course and gave large free agent deals to several players, including a 7-year, $153 million pact with former Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury. At the time, while it certainly hurt to see Cano walk out the door for nothing, it wasn’t impossible to imagine a world where Ellsbury’s shorter, cheaper deal would turn out to be a better value than Cano’s mega-contract. Does that world still exist? Can I go there for spring break? How can we get there?

What have they done so far?

When Cano left New York he was coming off a string of four seasons in which he produced 5+ fWAR, won the Silver Slugger, and finished in the top-6 of AL MVP voting. At the time, many thought the contract would prove to be an overpay raising concerns that Cano’s left-handed power would not translate to the larger Safeco Field, and that, like almost every enormous, long contract given to aging sluggers, Robbie’s would prove to be a major albatross on the back end. The first of those concerns seemed to be proven true in Cano’s 2014 debut season in Seattle where he hit only 14 home runs and his ISO dropped from .202 to .139. Yet even without his former power, Cano still hit .314 with a 137 WRC+ and produced a star-level 5.2 fWAR.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Seattle Mariners
Cano in Seattle
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Cano’s 2015 season got off to a terrible start and remained terrible for quite some time. The second baseman battled a stomach parasite and produced an Aaron Hicks esque 71 WRC+ through July 1st, offering roughly zero production at $24 million a year. This led to numerous early obituaries on Cano’s career and Dave Cameron proclaiming Cano to be the least valuable trade asset in all of baseball. Those death sentences soon proved to be premature as Cano’s bat returned to the tune of a 157 WRC+ and .209 ISO after July 1st, ultimately finishing the season with a roughly average 2.1 fWAR. In 2016, Cano picked up where he left off, crushing a career-high 39 home runs while hitting roughly .300, putting up an even 6.0 fWAR and once again rating as one of the very best non-Trout players in the American League. So much for his power being a product of Yankee Stadium.

So how much value has Cano produced in Seattle so far? If we assume that a win in 2014 cost roughly $8 million and inflation rate of 5% each year, here is what Cano has produced so far in dollar value:

Cano in Seattle

This means that if Cano were to quit baseball to come write for Pinstripe Alley he will have provided roughly 47¢ on the dollar of his $240 million contract or about $40 million in surplus value over his first three years. So how has our friend Jacoby faired over the same period?

When Ellsbury made the move to New York, part of the hope was that he would be able to tap into more power and put up numbers closer to his 32-homer MVP quality 2011 season. That never happened but Ellsbury did have a quality first season in pinstripes posting an above average 109 WRC+ to go along with strong defense and baserunning en route to a 4.1 fWAR season. That’s about where the good new ends as the outfielder dealt with injuries, age, and not being good at baseball in 2015, tallying just 0.9 fWAR over 111 games. He combined a career-high 17.2% strikeout rate with a career-low .088 ISO. Both of those are bad. Last year Ellsbury rebounded to a certain degree playing 148 games, hitting slightly better, and notching an average 2.0 fWAR. Using the same assumption as earlier, let’s see how Ellsbury’s production stacks up:

Ellsbury in the Bronx

Now if Jacoby were to join our pal A-Rod at Fox he will have provided the Yanks with about 38¢ on the dollar or $58 million of his $153 million pact or around negative $7.5 million in surplus value over his first three years.

How can Ellsbury Catch Up?

Scenario 1: Ellsbury Returns to Form

It’s undeniable that Cano’s deal looks better than Ellsbury’s at this point, but fear not, with four years on his deal there may yet be time for Jacoby to catch up. If Cano were to put up another 6-win season Ellsbury would be toast, but ZiPS and Steamer project Cano for around 3.7 WAR this season so we’ll use that as a starting point. Using the same assumptions as earlier and a 0.5 WAR/season aging curve, this is what we could expect from Cano over the next five years:

Cano’s Projected Production

Assuming no production over the final two years of his deal, Cano projects for an additional $136.8 million bringing him to about $248.5 million over the duration of his deal. A $240 million bargain! With Cano slightly outperforming his deal, Ellsbury would need to do the same to match him. With $58 million banked Ellsbury would need to produce roughly $100 million in value over the next four years. Let’s make it happen!

Ellsbury’s Path to $100 Million

Simple. All Ellsbury has to do is get good again and follow a standard aging curve and he’ll actually be worth his money and we can all forget about Cano in pinstripes. He’s already off to a hot start hitting .348 over his first seven games, well on his way to the 3.3 fWAR he needs to stay on schedule.

Scenario 2: Ellsbury Convinces Cano to Quit Baseball

Now we get to a slightly depressing part this investigation: what Ellsbury actually projects to produce. ZiPS forecasts Ellsbury for 1.6 fWAR which is, to say the least, concerning for a 33 year old player with four more years under contract. Here’s what the Yankees should expect based on that forecast:

Ellsbury’s Projected Decline

This puts Ellsbury on track to be worth just $90 of the $153 million he’ll make, or roughly 60% of what he’s owed. If Cano produces as expected this year he’ll have provided about $145 million of value on the $240 million he’s owed, also around 60%. Now the obvious problem for Ellsbury here is that Cano would have six more years to accrue positive value; luckily, I have a simple solution. All Ellsbury would need to do is convince Cano to stop playing baseball while still collecting checks from the Mariners. Perhaps as his speed has declined Ellsbury’s persuasive abilities have increased to mind-controlling levels.

So there you have it, Ellsbury’s deal is not off to a great start but there’s still time for him to justify signing him and letting Cano walk. All he has to do is double his projected production or convince Cano to quit baseball. Your move, Jacoby.

Data Courtesy of FanGraphs