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Jacoby Ellsbury will inevitably be buried under the Yankees’ depth

Even if he does nab the center field job, it can’t possibly be for long.

MLB: New York Yankees at Texas Rangers Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

There are two prominent storylines each and every spring training: which players are in the Best Shape of Their Lives, and which are vying for starting spots. The former will abound and won’t interest most fans. That’s because it’s almost impossible to discern new information based on fitness alone; we know for a fact that performance is more complicated than that. The latter, though, not only gives us a horse race to watch, but also provides new information on how an organization ranks their depth chart in real-time.

This year the Yankees have a fascinating situation in the outfield. Not only do they have the combination of Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, but a number of other players that will mix into their depth. There’s Aaron Hicks, who had the official center field spot last year; Brett Gardner, likely to be the front-runner for left field as usual; and Clint Frazier, who is trying to squeeze his way into a more prominent role.

The odd man out in all of this is Jacoby Ellsbury, signed to a seven-year, $153 million deal over four years ago. He now has three years and $63.3 million remaining on his contract, and he has tabulated a whopping 4.5 fWAR over his last three seasons.

Brian Cashman was asked of Ellsbury’s chances at center field, and said to the New York Times that, “We think he’s an everyday player, but the way the playoffs went, he was appearing as our D.H. so right now it would be disingenuous to publicly state he’s the starter when he wasn’t last October, but that doesn’t deny him the opportunity to take it back.”

This means it is Hicks’ job to lose, and Ellsbury will have to dig out of a mighty hole to get anything other than a fourth outfielder spot. The reasons for this are obvious. First among them is his bat, which has sunk to a status of mediocrity since 2014:

That last jump is important, though, and it could be his final chance. After returning from injury in the second half, he hit .263/.359.419 (107 wRC+), or about the production that would justify his roster spot.

I think we can all agree that considering his age, it is nearly impossible for him to be a true talent 100+ wRC+ hitter anymore. Heck, he never even had a 110+ wRC+ season as a Yankee. It’s not even like his defense is that great at this point, as his Catch Probability statistics via Statcast indicate he is merely a percentage point better than average, likely trending to average or below that in this season or next.

This means that the problem with Ellsbury is much more a long-term, structural issue than a shorter roster-vying situation, making this debate all the more interesting. Judge and Stanton are here for the remainder of Ellsbury’s contract, so there are two competitors for at the corner outfield or designated hitter spot as he ages. Gardner has this season and an option year before free agency, so we can assume that he will always have the edge in performance in that time.

That leaves Frazier, who very well could be hit-or-miss, and Estevan Florial, who is expected to make his debut within Ellsbury’s remaining tenure. Florial, who could be the more dangerous threat of the two, was just described by VP of Baseball Operations Tim Naehring as “one of the more exciting players I’ve seen in my (front office) career as far as dreaming on all aspects of his game.”

Which is all to say that not even just today, but for the next few years, Ellsbury is likely to be on the outside looking in with respect to outfield depth. That doesn’t mean he has no role to play—we always know that injury can strike at any moment—but I would likely bet against him lasting the three years without a trade or the Yankees just deciding to eat his money a la Alex Rodriguez. Considering their financial flexibility moving forward, they may deem the roster spot more necessary. For what could be one of the worst Yankees contracts in the modern era, this could be the beginning of his swan song.