The Ellsbury Deal

These huge, later-career deals never turn out great. The best you can hope for when you sign a 30-something baseball player to a hugely expensive long-term deal is that he will have a couple of good years on the front end to boost up his value, have a nice rebound year somewhere in the middle, and not be utterly useless and difficult to deal with at the end.

You can go down the list of players signed longterm after the age of 30 – Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Hamilton, Alfonso Soriano, Vernon Wells, Ryan Howard, Jason Giambi, Ken Griffey Jr., Mike Piazza, on and on — and you will find, over and over, deals that teams regretted t some point or other.

So the Yankees will inevitably regret signing Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year, $153 million deal — the real question is when. If they don’t regret the deal until 2018 or 2019 — when Ellsbury is a 35-year old coming to the end of his deal, struggling to stay in center field, constantly battling some nagging injuries — then you would have to say that they should feel pretty good about things. The trouble with these deals is that the regret often happens much earlier than you expect. I’m sure the Angels KNEW they were going to regret the Josh Hamilton deal at some point. I just don’t think they expected it to be the first year.

Ellsbury, when healthy, is a fabulous baseball player. I’ve seen him compared pretty often with Carl Crawford, and Crawford was pretty great as a young player. But I think Ellsbury is an even better player than Crawford was in Tampa Bay. For one thing, he plays centerfield while Crawford played left. They were both superior defenders, but a superb center fielder is quite a bit more valuable than a superb left fielder. Ellsbury also gets on base more and might even be a more potent base stealer (last year, Ellsbury stole 52 bases and was caught just four times all year — Crawford led the league in steals annually but would get thrown out a bit more).

Also, Crawford never had a season like Ellsbury’s 2011, when he hit .321/.376/.552 with 32 homers, 105 runs scored, 119 RBIs and 39 stolen bases (though that year he was caught a lot — 15 times).

Then again Crawford was also much more durable than Ellsbury. From 2003 to 2010, Crawford played 140-plus games every year but one, and even in the year he was hampered by injuries he played 109 games. Ellsbury meanwhile has had two of the last four seasons destroyed by injuries — he played just 18 games in 2010, just 74 games in 2012. Nobody can say if those injuries project anything for the future but they are part of his history.

The Yankees have so much money — and so much money on the line — they figure he’s worth the risk. I can see their point. If the Royals or Mariners or Brewers or some team like that had given Jacoby Ellsbury a seven-year, $153 million deal, you could say without any hesitation that they had lost their minds. That’s exactly the sort of deal that can paralyze a smaller franchise for a half-decade.

But the Yankees are a different category. The Yankees in that too-big-to-fail category — they have money on top of money, and they are constantly aware that if they put a losing and uninteresting team on the field, everything crashes. Nobody buys their absurdly high-priced tickets. Fewer people watch their cash cow Yes Network. The back page of the Post and Daily News looks elsewhere. The Yankees brand — the most lucrative in America — starts to devalue a little bit and then a little bit more and … they just can’t let that happen. Money, they have. Wins, they need.

And so the Yankees are playing a different game. If they get even one superstar year and maybe a couple of good years from Ellsbury, they will probably be pretty happy.

How good a bet is Ellsbury to have one more season like he did in 2011? I’m not sure. That was an unusual power surge from a player who has never hit double-digit homers any other year. Then again, that’s a very short porch in right field at New Yankee Stadium.

Truth is, we can spend a lot of time trying to compare Ellsbury to other players — his Baseball Reference comps of Phil Bradley, Tony Gonzalez and Roberto Kelly do not strike an encouraging note — but it’s hard to find many players like Ellsbury in baseball history. He stole 70 bases in a season. He hit 30 home runs in a season. There’s only one other player in baseball history who pulled off those two feats in a career, Eric Davis. And he had a rebirth in his mid-30s, even while battling colon cancer.

My gut instinct is that it will work out for the Yankees. But I say this in part because things always seem to work out for the Yankees.

I can say this with more confidence: If the Mariners sign Robinson Cano … that won’t work out.

20 thoughts on “The Ellsbury Deal

  1. Cathead

    Somehow I don’t think the Yankees will ever live within their self-imposed budget. Can you say “luxury tax?”

    Reply
  2. John

    I can’t believe anyone was surprised at this deal. People saying he would get a 4-5 year deal aren’t living in the real world. Guy is a perennial all star when healthy and was a 30-30 CF not 2 years ago.

    I would be surprised if this deal turned out bad for the Yankees. He’s a very talented player who is remarkably consistent when healthy. It’s too high for the Red Sox, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad deal.

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  3. largebill

    Cano’s agent is at this point just looking for a dollar figure that allows them to save face. $300 million originally desired never reached the point of being laughed at let alone considered. With NYY committing $$$ to Ellsbury they will have to pull back a little from whatever they were “budgeting” for Cano. No one will come out and say it, but no other team was bidding in that range and the teams he was using for leverage are places he likely doesn’t really want to go. Free agency becomes a sort of game of musical chairs. You hold out for a better chair and suddenly there are no chairs. Obviously, there will be a chair for Cano, but it might end up being an uncomfortable chair (either wrong team or wrong length contract). Similar game of musical chairs going on with free agent outfielders.

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    1. bellweather22

      But if Joe is right about the Yankees, they HAVE to do the Cano deal to keep the lemmings, errrrr fans, packing in Yankee Stadium. They may not pay $300M, but they will over pay.

      Reply
  4. Dave Harrold

    Great explanation of why the Yankees do such seemingly stupid deals. Like you say, Joe, they are playing a different game.

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    1. bellweather22

      Kenny Lofton….. 7 years $157M. I’m just letting that thought sink in for a minute and imagining I’m a Yankee fan. Must control the iron fist of death from flying through my computer screen!

      Reply
  5. Dan Shea

    The figures I’ve seen (for example here: http://www.pinstripealley.com/yankees-analysis-sabermetrics/2013/12/4/5174240/yankees-sign-jacoby-ellsbury-analysis-free-agent-evaluation?ref=fangraphs) indicate that Ellsbury would have to amass about 25 WAR over the next 7 years to justify the contract.

    Interestingly, Lofton had 25.3 cumulative WAR through from age 30 through 36 (per B-R).

    Which, I think, means it would be a good thing if the Yankees got Lofton-like production out of Ellsbury over the course of the contract.

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  6. Mark Daniel

    This is a huge amount of money for a guy whose value is significantly tied up in his legs. Once he loses speed, he becomes somewhat less valuable, unless he gains a bit more plate discipline and/or hits a lot more HRs.

    That said, ARod is still on the books through year 4 of Ellsbury’s contract, and depending on how much money Cano gets from the Yanks (assuming that’s where he goes), and seeing as how there are currently 3 other players on the Yankees besides ARod (not who make more than Ellsbury will, Ellsbury’s deal might not yield much negative sentiment so long as he’s not a total train wreck.

    Then again, he will be the new guy…

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    1. SB M

      I used to think like this too but I’ve seen pretty convincing analysis that shows that fast guys age well, not poorly. Burly sluggers age much worse than speedy players.

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  7. Anon

    I’d discount the 30HR because 2011 seems like an obvious fluke year. His k%, BB%, BABIP, contact rates and pretty much all of his numbers were relatively in line with his career numbers except that for one season, he had about 3x as many of his fly balls leave the park.

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  8. Pumpkino

    I think the Yankees feel the need to have a “franchise Yankee” in their lineup – meaning a (more or less) homegrown player who plays (more or less) his whole career there. I.e. Jeter. It’s part of the image of the team, the monuments, and in that that way they’re a little different than other teams. Unless he’s truly finished and foolishly continues to play elsewhere, David Ortiz with the Bosox is another good example. With Jeter presumably running on fumes, the Yankees have nobody but Cano who is of “possible hall-of-fame as a career Yankee” caliber. I think that they are liable to overpay him a fair amount on that basis – but that’s “overpay” compared to his output, not what he brings in through long-term revenues. Joe states this clearly – money, they have. Wins, they need. They don’t live in the same universe as hardly any other team.

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    1. frightwig

      Pumpkino: of course David Ortiz will be remembered as a Red Sox legend after he retires, but you are aware that he played 455 games over 6 seasons with the Twins before Boston found him on the free agent scrap heap, right? He’s hardly a “(more or less) homegrown player” who played “(more or less) his whole career” in Boston.

      Plenty of Yankees legends, too, have come to New York as veteran free agents. Particularly since George bought the team, I’d say that it’s their identity–a team largely made up of expensive veterans poached from organizations with smaller budgets. It’s one of the big reasons most fans hate the Yankees, right?

      Reply
  9. Kris

    The Ellsbury deal reminds me of when they signed Johnny Damon and Boston had to search for a lead-off hitter for awhile. Ellsbury got a Jasyon Werth deal for a little more money.

    Reply
  10. KB

    Why on earth do you let Curtis Granderson walk away to sign with a cross town rivel for 4/$60M to make this deal with Ellsbury?

    Reply

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