Too many years and too much money and too much decline: This is the almost inevitable outcome of high-priced free agency.
Why is sustainable success in baseball built through the farm system rather than open-market bidding wars for players who have earned the right to test those free agent waters? Right now, Jacoby Ellsbury serves as the poster boy for the answer.
This is not a slight against Ellsbury, whose discomfort as a self-promoter and guarded nature when speaking to the media have contributed in many ways to some considerable misunderstandings about him.
He will forever be labeled as soft, even though the only significant stretches he missed with the Red Sox resulted from taking a human wrecking ball to the ribs and another to the shoulder. It’s easily forgotten that he raced back from a still-healing broken foot to spearhead the Red Sox lineup through its 2013 championship run. It’s easily forgotten that he played through a lot of strains and sprains and twisted ankles without complaint or visible on-field impact.
Still, the fact that Ellsbury was out of the starting lineup for the Yankees’ wild card loss to the Astros against Houston ace lefthander Dallas Keuchel speaks volumes. There’s the matter of his platoon splits, of course, but there’s also the idea that his overall impact has diminished in the second season of his seven-year, $153 million contract.
After a great start, Ellsbury faded dramatically after landing on the disabled list with a hamstring injury, finishing the year with a .257/.318/.345 line. His OPS+ matched a career-low at 84. His impact on the bases took a hit, as he stole 21 bases with a career-worst 70 percent success rate.
Once a Gold Glove center fielder, Ellsbury graded at average (according to Baseball Information Solutions) or below (according to Fangraphs’ UZR) on defense.
Ellsbury, who turned 32 in September, looks like a player in decline, at a time when the Yankees still have five years and more than $100 million remaining on his deal.
Perhaps Ellsbury will bounce back, but from the ages of 32 through 36, there’s a good chance that more injuries will enter the fray and cost him both time on the field and the athletic gifts that made him a multidimensional impact player.
There may come a time when he’s no longer a center fielder and or an impact base stealer, at which point he’ll be a somewhat miscast left fielder without the prototypical production associated with the position.
That time may not be for a few years, but when they made their commitment to Ellsbury, the Yankees bought into the idea that they would acquire an elite center fielder in the short term in exchange for someone whose role and impact would diminish considerably over time.
It’s worth restating: For a time this year, Ellsbury was performing at a tremendous level. He’s not without value. He was worth 1.9 Wins Above Replacement in 111 games. Of course, that was a far cry from the 6.0 WAR that Mookie Betts posted, and falls short of the 2.2 WAR of Jackie Bradley Jr. — at a time when the two Red Sox outfielders are making little more than the league minimum, and when they both appear to be rising toward their primes rather than retreating from them.
Ellsbury’s absence in Boston in 2014 — at a time when Bradley wasn’t ready to replace him — proved devastating to the Sox. But it was not the undoing for the Sox in 2015 (unless one assumes that the departure of his salary was the impetus for the signing of either Pablo Sandoval or Hanley Ramirez or both — the Sox’ own free agent disasters). Indeed, the Sox are likely to enjoy better production from their center fielder than the Yankees will from Ellsbury for years to come.
Joel Sherman of the New York Post writes that Ellsbury represents the Yankees’ worst contract.