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Yankees sign Jacoby Ellsbury: Was he the best outfielder available?

Jacoby Ellsbury is the youngest of the free agent outfielders and he's coming off the best season between himself, Carlos Beltran, and Shin-Soo Choo, but is the newest Yankee the best bet to provide production over the life of his contract?

Johnny Damon: redux
Johnny Damon: redux

The Yankees signed Jacoby Ellsbury to a massive contract, expecting big production out of the former Red Sox player. All of the free agent outfield options will come with risk. Carlos Beltran is old. He can no longer play Gold Glove defense. He is an injury risk. Shin-Soo Choo is younger, but had his worst year on defense, requires a longer contract and can no longer hit lefties. Jacoby Ellsbury is slightly younger than Choo, is coming off the best year of the three, and has speed which ages pretty well, but he requires the biggest financial outlay, has an injury history of his own, and duplicates the only position player under contract for next year who actually performed well last year. All would be major upgrades for the Yankees offense in the near term. Ellsbury's youth, speed, and recent performance make him seem like the best bet, but the price, injuries, and aging curves show significant risk.

Jacoby Ellsbury has had two excellent seasons, two average seasons, and two seasons shortened by injury since being called up for good in 2008. Fortunately for him, one of his excellent seasons happened this past year at age 30. He hit .298/.355/.426 for a wRC+ of 113 to go along with 52 steals and excellent defense in centerfield. His fWAR was 5.8. Last year, at age 30, Choo had the best offensive season of his career. He hit .285/.423./.462 and had a wRC+ of 151. His defense left something to be desired, although he was miscast as a center fielder and still ended up with an fWAR of 5.2. Beltran had another solid season with the bat, hitting .296/.339/.491 with a wRC+ of 132. His defensive numbers were significantly worse than the year prior. Curiously, both Beltran and Jon Jay, the Cardinals' center fielder, saw their defensive numbers plummet. Beltran ended up with an fWAR of 2, right around the average player. His defensive numbers were so bad, if he had just been a designated hitter all year, his WAR would have been about half a win higher.

Projection typically emphasize two things: recent performance and age. Choo and Ellsbury have both age and an edge in recent performance on their side. Because fWAR and bWAR provide slightly different numbers, and defensive statistics are more accurate when used over a larger sample size, I made some adjustments. First, I averaged the current season and the season prior defensively to adjust both versions of WAR. After making that adjustment, I then averaged the two adjusted WARs. What you see below is the cumulative adjusted WAR of each player beginning in 2009.

As you can see, Choo has been the most consistent performer of the three. Ellsbury has been the most inconsistent, but also has the best individual seasons. Beltran lags behind. At first glance, this graph shows why Beltran should be avoided. However, a closer look provides a differing viewpoint. The reason: the graph above shows Ellsbury and Choo in their primes while it only shows Beltran's decline phase.

Aging curves are linear. Players decline at roughly the same rate after they reach their peak. Despite Ellsbury's limited experience, he has likely already played his best baseball. Admittedly, the same holds true for Choo as well as Beltran. The reason Beltran gains the advantage is because he has come somewhat close to matching the other two during his decline.

Ellsbury may have one more really good season in him, maybe two, but how long will it take for him to be right where Beltran is now? Beltran played at a Hall of Fame level for many years during his prime, and he has held up fairly well. Ellsbury in his prime is not on the same level as Beltran in his prime. The question is when does Ellsbury hit where Beltran is now? Is it year three, when the Yankees will still have 4 years and $22 million per year to go? Year four, after which the Yankees will have three years and $66 million to go? Even if it does not happen until year five, the Yankees will still be on the hook for two more years and $44 million, essentially what Beltran wanted over three years.

Contracts like Ellsbury's are signed with the expectation that the player will overperform toward the beginning of the contract to make up for the decline at the end. In order for Ellsbury to overperform, he's going to have to stay healthy and have very good seasons, something he's only managed to do twice out of six years. All of the available outfielders come with risks, but Ellsbury comes with the most. This deal could work out well for the Yankees, but I'm skeptical the team will be pleased the end results.