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Is the Yankees outfield the most valuable in baseball?

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A combination of great production and cost control put the outfield among the top class in baseball

MLB: Chicago White Sox at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Hicks has been back for about a week after a long DL stint. Aaron Judge will finish 2017 in the top two of MVP votes (calm down, Jose Altuve). Brett Gardner has been terrific, and even the maligned Jacoby Ellsbury has managed to post positive value in 2017. All in all, this season has been a boon for New York’s outfield corps, but just how much of a boon? Is the Yankee group the best outfield deployment in baseball? Let’s find out.

If you group outfields by players with more than 100 plate appearances while marked on the lineup card as an outfielder, the Yankees do set the pace for the rest of baseball. Their five main outfielders—Judge, Hicks, Ellsbury, Gardner and Clint Frazier— have combined to post 11.6 fWAR, the best in baseball by nearly a full win. Analysis by surplus value is slightly different, however.

Surplus value is a great way to see how much a player or group of players is worth to the front office. By looking at the difference in cost of the player and cost of the wins they provide, we can better understand how efficient a franchise is spending their finite resources. For this analysis, I used the $9,000,000/win mark, as the more common $8M/win is a little outdated with inflation, while getting salary information from the incredibly useful Cot’s Contracts run by Baseball Prospectus.

The surplus value distribution of all of baseball is as follows:

Surprise, surprise, the Dodgers lead the league in something. Near-MVP seasons from Chris Taylor and Cody Bellinger have given LA a ridiculous $89,405,000 in surplus value, for those who don’t realize how historically great this Dodgers team is.

After LA, there’s a gulf of more than $20,000,000, with the Tampa Bay Rays ranking second in surplus value at $69,339,300. Most of this value comes from Steven Souza Jr’s 3.5-win season while being pre-arbitration eligible, but overall the Rays can generate such surplus value because of their incredibly low payroll. They’ve committed the fourth-fewest dollars in the American League to their outfield, meaning they only need one or two big seasons to hit a surplus value jackpot.

The Yankees rank third in surplus value, just under the Rays at $68,907,143. While this is nothing to sneeze at, it highlights the disastrous sunk cost Jacoby Ellsbury’s contract has become. The center fielder’s 0.5 fWAR season means he’s produced a staggering -$16,642,857.15 of surplus value, one of the worst single marks in baseball.

For the record, the single least surplus value in the game belongs to Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez. CarGo has cost Colorado -$36,200,000 this season by being nearly two full wins BELOW replacement level while earning a $20,000,000 salary.

So while we know how valuable the outfield has been in 2017, what does this mean for 2018? A lot of that has to do with the playing time allotted to Ellsbury and Clint Frazier. As a pre-arb player, Frazier makes virtual peanuts while having the potential to be one of the real stars of the game.

Although he was exactly replacement level in his first taste of MLB action, everyone accepts the right fielder has far more potential than what he showed in his debut season. His contribution in 2018 should boost the Yankee surplus value while covering for the fact that it will be difficult for Aaron Judge to be a seven win player every year.

Ellsbury is a different matter. With his bat all but gone in his age-34 season, his value is almost completely tied up in defense. At a certain point that defense is going to slip and it won’t be surprising to see Ellsbury join the Carlos Gonzalez Club. Reducing his playing time is becoming more and more critical for the Yankees moving forward.

The high surplus value banked this season, and expected for next season, has also helped the Yankees compensate for a lack of value in the infield. The corner infielders, combining injury and general incompetence, have struggled to produce at a league average rate, and Starlin Castro’s injury problems have left Didi Gregorius as the only regular, above-average infielder.

If Greg Bird comes back to productive play, and Chase Headley can continue his solid hitting at the bottom of the order, the infield may make gains on the outfield, but for now, the OF corps for the Yankees is and probably will be the key to their playoff hopes.