Jacoby Ellsbury's contract isn't a huge disaster yet... but probably will be. I'm not defending the contract, but merely providing a glimmer of hope for Yankee fans to show that not all hope is lost, and Ellsbury's contract isn't a completely lost cause yet.
Like many fans, I often get nauseous thinking of having a 37-year-old Jacoby Ellsbury running around the outfield. If there was an option to go back in time, I'm sure Cashman would go back and not offer him the contract, and we'd all be fine with that. The main concerns with Ellsbury are the fact that long term contracts rarely work out, his injury history, and his poor second half last season.
However, if you really break Ellsbury down, there's plenty of reason to believe he can still be a productive ballplayer for at least this season and possibly a couple more. Injuries can slow him down, but you can't predict injuries. Sure, he's spent a lot of time on the disabled list, but in five of his eight seasons he's played at least 134 games, so it's not as if he's never on the field.
The main case for Ellsbury is that when is on the field, he's been very good. His numbers with the Red Sox, and then the Yankees are as follows.
|2015- 1st half||42||193||2||10||14||.318||.399||.376||.349||120||1.2|
|2015- 2nd half||68||308||5||23||7||.220||.266||.326||.259||59||
There's obviously an anomaly here, and that is Ellsbury's second half last year. Pick any stat you want: AVG, OBP, SLG, wOBA, wRC+, they were all much worse in the second half of 2015 when compared to his career numbers. When you compare over 8,000 plate appearances to 308 that were following an injury, it's easy to know what is a better representative of him as a player.
The odd thing is it seems that there's an overwhelming sentiment that Ellsbury just hasn't been good as a Yankee. However, up until his knee injury this past May, it'd be hard to argue with the results he was providing. In 2014, he stayed healthy up until the end of the season, and was productive all year until he faltered in September. He showed some pop with 16 home runs, was aggressive on the base paths with 39 stolen bases, and rated as a positive defender who showed a lot of range and made multiple highlight catches. He was probably the Yankees' best overall player and it resulted in a very nice 4.0 fWAR. Given his 21.1 million dollar salary that year, it shakes out that the Yankees paid about $5.3 million per win with Ellsbury. FanGraphs has projected that 1 win is worth around $6 million, so Ellsbury actually provided some value that season.
In 2015, it seemed like his productive play would continue. He wasn't providing much power, but he was playing very well overall. In his 37 games before injuring his knee, he had a slash of .324/.412/.372, a 124 wRC+, was showing great patience at the plate, was stealing bases, and was spraying line drives all over the field. He had even gained some chatter as an early MVP candidate.
After spraining his knee on May 19th against the Nationals, he missed almost two months and when he came back, he was awful. During the second half, he had the fifth worst wOBA, fourth worst wRC+, and ninth worst WAR in baseball. There could be a lot of reasons for his unproductive second half. One obvious possibility is that he was coming off the knee injury and wasn't fully recovered. Another is that his BABIP was unusually low. His career BABIP is .319, but was just .258 in the second half. That is a clear anomaly, and his BABIP is near sure bet to regress back towards his career average. Or, it also could have been just a bad half of baseball for Ellsbury. Players go through slumps, sometimes prolonged ones, but it doesn't mean this is the player Ellsbury will be for the future.
Regardless of the reason for his ineptitude, it's still a small sample size of just one half baseball. Those 308 plate appearances make up just 0.07% of his career, so you really can't put too much stock into it. It is possible, of course, that Ellsbury is declining, but it wouldn't happen that fast. He's still just 32, so he has a couple seasons left in what should be his prime. He'll likely never replicate that incredible 2011 season when he hit 32 home runs with a 9.4 WAR(!), but it's very probable he can return to his career averages.
Additionally, while many agree that Ellsbury is productive when healthy, the main knock on him is that he's injury prone. However, most of his major injuries have just been the results of bad luck, not recurring issues. He played just 18 games in 2010, but his injuries were caused by a collision with Adrian Beltre. In 2012, he played just 74 games, but his missed time was due to Reid Brignac falling on his shoulder while Ellsbury was trying to break up a double play. Lastly, in 2013, he missed time at the end of the season because he fouled a ball off his right foot. All three injuries were results of freaky, unpredictable events. His sprained knee last season was the first injury that caused him to miss significant time that wasn't caused by external sources.
So while Ellsbury is an easy target and we like to criticize him, I myself am guilty, when you really break it down there's hope that Ellsbury's contract won't be this huge albatross we fear it is. It boils down to not overreacting to one bad half of baseball, and remembering that when healthy, he's an all-around productive player, and when injured, it's often been due to strange happenings.