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Trey Sweeney might be a Yankee because of the Jacoby Ellsbury grievance

Ellsbury’s saga with the Yankees is over, and it may have allowed the club to draft their most recent first-rounder.

2021 Major Leauge Baseball Draft Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Jon Heyman of the New York Post recently reported that the Yankees and Jacoby Ellsbury settled their grievance without the need for a trial. The grievance stemmed from the Yankees’ November 2019 release of Ellsbury, after which they withheld Ellsbury’s 2020 salary because the outfielder allegedly used an outside facility to rehab from injury. The two parties agreed on a settlement agreement, but the full details have not been reported.

We can only speculate on just how much money the Yankees had to pay their former center fielder. However, there’s a lot more to this story than simply the end of what had become a long and dragged-out dispute.

Ellsbury was due to receive $21 million for the 2020 season, as well as $5 million from the buyout of a team option for the 2021 campaign. It was reported that Ellsbury received less than the full $26 million guaranteed between those two campaigns. This saved Yankees ownership money, but there’s a more important ramification to be discussed.

Had Ellsbury received the full sum he was owed, the Yankees would have been left in a precarious situation as it pertains to the 2020 luxury tax. The Yankees exceeded the first luxury tax threshold in 2020, but had the club been obligated to pay the full amount of Ellsbury’s contract, then it would have gone $40+ million above the luxury tax (prorated for a full 162-game season).

The rules of the previous CBA meant that any club which went $40 million or more above the luxury tax would see their first-round pick drop down 10 slots in the following year’s First-Year Player Draft, unless that club was picking in the top six, in which case the same penalty would apply to their second-highest pick. The Yankees held the 21st pick in the first round of the 2021 Draft, and had this settlement not occurred, they would’ve dropped to the end of the first round.

Brain Cashman ultimately selected shortstop Trey Sweeney. The lefty-hitting infielder out of the University of Eastern Illinois was a bit of a surprise pick at the time. One could argue that he might’ve been available at the 31st spot, but that’s hardly more than an educated guess. Sweeney could have survived another ten spots, but it’s also very possible that another club would have had him near the top of their board by the end of the first round.

Sweeney is one of many when it comes to promising shortstops in the Yankees system. Ultimately, he is likely to move off the shortstop position, as he was drafted for his bat. That bat has immediately impressed in professional ball, as Sweeney managed a .261/.384/.548 slash line in 2021, and is currently in possession of an .865 OPS so far in 2022.

We’ll never know for sure what would have happened had the Yankees paid Ellsbury in full and saw their pick fall, but in this world, the Yankees kept their selection and found themselves another intriguing infield prospect. It goes to show how seemingly unimportant factors can come together, and lead to something significant. It’s reminiscent of the Yankees’ selection of Aaron Judge, with a compensation pick they received when Nick Swisher signed with Cleveland. Any number of variables could have coalesced in a way that kept the Yankees from picking Judge; what if Swisher had accepted the club’s qualifying offer? What if said QO had scared teams away from signing Swisher, keeping the Yankees from their comp pick?

In the end, the Yankees of course got their hands on Judge. And they now have Sweeney, in part due to the fact that Jacoby Ellsbury got creative with his injury rehabilitation.