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Could the Yankees trade Jacoby Ellsbury instead of Brett Gardner?

Brett Gardner has been the trade rumor darling this fall, but could the Yankees try and move Ellsbury's larger contract instead? Their search could focus on a familiar face.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

For a few years, the Yankees have been counting the days until some unattractive contracts held by older players expire. After 2016, they'll free up $38 million in Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran money, and a year later they'll be free of over $50 million in AAV when Alex Rodriguez's and CC Sabathia's deals are done. The problem is that for all their talk about avoiding those kinds of commitments in the future, they already have another albatross on their hands with five more years to go. Jacoby Ellsbury, now 32, is owed nearly $111 million between now and 2020. After a lackluster and injury-addled 2015, it may be time for a new countdown.

Ellsbury, who the Yankees paid $153 million two off-seasons ago, has declined in just about every way you can decline since arriving in the Bronx. His Yankee OPS is .710, a steep dive from the .789 mark he managed over seven seasons in Boston, and his wRC+ is down from 109 to 97. Ellsbury's defense in center has dipped, too, from an 8.0 UZR/150 with the Red Sox to -1.9 in New York. As a base runner, he's gone from stealing a bag once every 4.6 times on base to every 6.1. To be fair, his numbers took a hit after returning from a knee injury last year, and his Boston stats are inflated by an outlying MVP-like 2011. There was no good reason for the Yankees to expect a quick drop when they signed him at age 30. Their extremely high valuation of his skills, though? That part's still a head-scratcher.

With the Yankees reportedly needing to subtract salary in order to make moves, most rumors have centered on Brett Gardner. Could they trade Ellsbury instead? Sure, it would be complicated, but in baseball, literally anyone can be moved. Over the past couple of winters we've seen some mammoth contracts change hands - from Prince Fielder, who took his $168 million remaining guarantee from Detroit to Texas post-2013, to Josh Hamilton, who Arte Moreno took an $80 million loss on to get rid of a year ago. In 2004, in what can only be described as an out and out mugging, the Yankees got A-Rod, arguably the best player in the game at the time, while convincing the Rangers to pay a third of his salary for four years.

The Yankees really hate paying guys to play elsewhere, so it's hard to believe they'd do that to move Ellsbury, even to save Gardner's Yankeedom. He's not the only well-paid player in the game, though, so a contract-for-contract swap could be possible. Ellsbury's one of twelve position players with $100 million or more left on their present deals. He ranks tenth on that list, although he should be passed by two or three of this year's free agent outfielders in the next few weeks.

Player Team Years Left $ Remaining
Giancarlo Stanton Marlins 12 $316,000,000
Miguel Cabrera Tigers 8 $248,000,000
Joey Votto Reds 8 $199,000,000
Robinson Cano Mariners 8 $192,000,000
Albert Pujols Angels 6 $165,000,000
Mike Trout Angels 5 $138,400,000
Buster Posey Giants 6 $130,000,000
Prince Fielder Rangers 5 $120,000,000
Freddie Freeman Braves 6 $118,500,000
Jacoby Ellsbury Yankees 5 $110,714,285
Elvis Andrus Rangers 7 $103,000,000
Ryan Braun Brewers 5 $100,000,000

Most members of the $100 million position player club are franchise icons still performing at a high level; they are going nowhere. Of those who aren't, the Yankees wouldn't touch Albert Pujols with Teixeira and A-Rod in house. Robinson Cano might be another story if we're to believe the reports that surfaced yesterday, that he's sick of sipping lattes and visiting Kurt Cobain's birthplace in Seattle, and longs for a return to New York. The Mariners new GM, Jerry Dipoto, isn't the one who signed Cano for ten years and $240 million, so he might be obliged to try and move the disgruntled star. The Yankees, in a sense, chose Ellsbury over Cano in 2013 when they signed him for only 12.5 percent less than their best offer to their longtime second baseman. By reversing that switch now, they wouldn't be adding much in AAV, which matters for luxury tax purposes. If Seattle would pick up half of the $72 million due from 2021-2023 when Cano's still getting paid and Ellsbury isn't , then a reunion might not be as crazy as it sounds.

Just below Ellsbury on the $100 million list sits Elvis Andrus who somehow managed to get himself an eight-year, $118 million deal despite never having a wRC+ better than 97. Andrus has regressed offensively since then, posting OPS's in the .600's in each of the last three years. He remains a top defensive player, so moving him to second and becoming elite up the middle might interest the Yankees, and his lower AAV could help the Yankees' payroll situation. But even being five years Andrus' senior, Ellsbury has a better chance to bounce back and justify the money he's due. Of pitchers with big dollars remaining, every one who's signed through 2019 or beyond is still very valuable, except possibly for Justin Verlander, but his $28 million per year price tag might be more onerous than Ellsbury's. James Shields' three years and $65 million owed is a contract the Padres would like to get out from under, but that's still $40 million less than what Ellsbury gets, and for the Yankees, he'd be a second veteran arm blocking someone more deserving. Owed $87 million over four years, Matt Kemp is another pricey Padre. He's become one of the worst defensive players in baseball and pairing him with Beltran in the Yankee Stadium corners would be...less than ideal.

Maybe the biggest obstacle to Ellsbury going anywhere - besides finding an improbable player and dollar fit - is that his contract comes equipped with a full no-trade clause. We can dream about a Cano comeback all we want, but would Ellsbury accept a deal to the Mariners, a team that's been mostly a bottom feeder for more than a decade? If nothing else, he's no stranger to the Pacific northwest. Born and raised in Madras, Oregon, Ellsbury played his college ball at Oregon State. We'll file this whole thing on the unlikely scale somewhere between Teixeira going back to gluten and a Joe Girardi nickname that doesn't end in "Y". If it's somehow an option, though, New York, to borrow a phrase from an even wealthier Oregonian, should just do it.