The end of Jacoby Ellsbury’s tenure with the Yankees has been nothing short of a nightmare. Injuries have ravaged Ellsbury’s career, keeping him from even getting on the field since 2017. His maladies have ranged from concussions, to oblique strains, to plantar fasciitis, to the eventual hip surgery that derailed his entire 2018 season. It certainly was a frustrating roller coaster ride for team and player.
The completion of this saga, which came with Ellsbury’s release this week to free up space on the 40-man roster, got me thinking about another Yankee outfielder that signed a seven-year contract; Aaron Hicks. Though Hicks signed on for less money, both he and Ellsbury’s long-term deals run for seven years, and both have had their fair share if of injuries. Hicks, of course, recently had surgery on his elbow and is out for at least half of 2020.
Now, before you get up in arms, I will backpedal and give each player their due credit. Ellsbury was an MVP candidate with the Red Sox in 2011, and did have a couple decent years with the Yankees, but he was never the impact player that they were hoping to steal from their rival. Hicks is an impressively well-rounded player, and a tremendously disciplined switch-hitting bat that has played like a star at times for Yankees, but he’s struggled to stay on the field. Since the beginning of 2018, the two have played a combined 196 games.
While Ellsbury’s time in New York is over, Hicks still has plenty of time to come back and help the team. Even so, I think there’s an interesting parallel between Ellsbury and Hicks, in that with each player, the Yankees made a long-term commitment to a player with question marks, while bypassing more talented options. Before signing Aaron Hicks ahead of the 2019 season, the Yankees could have taken multiple different paths. Obviously, they passed on Bryce Harper before 2019. Harper wasn’t great in 2019, but is still just 27 and in his prime. On top of Harper, the Yankees also didn’t consider short-term options like Michael Brantley.
With Ellsbury, the situation was a little different. There weren’t necessarily any better outfielders available in 2014 market than Ellsbury. However, there was one clear elite player that the Yankees passed over to sign Ellsbury; Robinson Cano. Cano had a trying 2019 with the Mets, but was tremendous with the Mariners, racking up nearly 25 WAR while Ellsbury sat on the sidelines. The Yankees showed they were willing to make significant commitments to top players by signing Ellsbury for over $150 million that winter, but in targeting Ellbsury and not Cano, they chose a lesser player to save money, and paid the price on the field.
This is just some food for thought, and obviously, there’s a long way to go before Hicks meets any fate that resembles Ellsbury’s. But in each case, the Yankees chose good, but not great, players with injury histories over elite, expensive, durable options. They saved money in both cases, but very well may have cost themselves wins. Let’s hope that if their commitment to Hicks proves to be a sunk cost like Ellsbury, they won’t wait six years before clearing the roster spot and moving on.