Ellsbury improves the Yankees, but is an overpay

Ellsbury is switching sides in the rivarly.

In what may go down as the busiest day of the offseason, the Yankees made the most expensive move. Jacoby Ellsbury is the latest addition in an offseason spending spree that certainly wasn’t anticipated a few months ago. Formerly of the Red Sox, Ellsbury will be paid $153M over seven years, with an eighth year club option increasing the contract to $169M. The speedy centerfielder is sure to be penciled in to the top of the Yankees’ lineup for years to come.

Ellsbury isn’t the player he was in 2011, in which he hit 32 homers and accumulated 9.1 WAR, but he is certainly an elite centerfielder. In 2013, he batted .298/.355/.426 (113 wRC+) with just 9 dingers while swiping a remarkable 52 bases in 56 attempts. All of that, plus superb defense in center, was good for an excellent 5.8 WAR.

In 2014, Steamer and ZiPS project Ellsbury for 3.8 and 4.0 WAR respectively. Using the ZiPS forecast as a starting point, and projecting a conservative 20% decline each season, Ellsbury will net nearly 16 WAR in seven seasons. Or, if we subtract .5 WAR per year, he’ll post 17.5 WAR over that same span. At $6M per win, that’s between $95M and $105M in value, far short of his $153M salary. For what it’s worth, the Fangraphs crowd pegged him for $112M over six seasons. All in all, it’s looking like an overpay. Yes, the marginal win for the Yankees’ is more valuable considering where the club is on the win curve, but this contract still doesn’t look great.

The Yankees can look forward to Ellsbury’s speed being an asset for the next few seasons. It allows him to cover vast space in centerfield, while being arguably the game’s best basestealer. Offensively, he’s a good contact hitter (12.8% career K rate) who doesn’t walk much (6.9% career). If things break right in 2014, Ellsbury could steal 50 bases while batting .300 with a .350 on base percentage. Perhaps he could slug above .450, assuming that the lefty swinging Ellsbury will capitalize on the friendly confines of Yankee Stadium. That might be a stretch, though, considering half the balls he puts in play are on the ground.

A common concern for any speed-first player like Ellsbury is an accelerated decline. I have previously subscribed to this theory, which basically worries that once the player’s legs go, his entire game goes. However, Fangraph’s Dave Cameron has partially quelled my concern with an article he penned recently over at Fangraphs. He further analyzed this topic in a reaction to the Ellsbury signing. I’m not sure if I’m completely sold yet, but I certainly feel better about the way Ellsbury is anticipated to age than before.

Health is the greatest downside pertaining to Ellsbury. He’s missed 264 games in the last four seasons, with most of that time missed in 2010 (18 games played) and 2012 (74 games played). He’s dealt with a plethora of injuries all over the place; his rib, shoulder, and foot to name a few. The Yankees will certainly be scrutinizing every last detail of his physical before making the deal official. If there’s any solace to take, it’s that some of these injuries have been freaky – a foul ball off his foot and an outfield collision are of note.

At nearly $22M AAV, Ellsbury’s deal makes a serious dent into the $189M budget plan. His salary, along with Brian McCann‘s ($17M AAV), Kelly Johnson‘s ($3M AAV), and Brendan Ryan‘s ($1.67M AAV), have added nearly $45M to the payroll this offseason. I don’t think signing Ellsbury makes sense if the Yankees don’t plan to keep Robinson Cano, which would make it next to impossible to fill out the rotation while remaining below $189M. Could this mean the end of the austerity budget? The implications of these signings on the budget will be discussed in an article in the next day or two.

As a side effect, Ellsbury’s addition might mean the end of Brett Gardner in pinstripes. I discussed this earlier in the offseason, and now that they have a centerfielder, Gardner could be dangled for perhaps a starter or an infielder. Should the Yankees retain Gardner, expect an outfield alignment of Gardner in left, Ellsbury in center, and Alfonso Soriano in right. This would relegate Ichiro Suzuki to a bench role, which is where he belongs nonetheless.

All things considered, I am not a fan of this deal. I think Ellsbury is a very good player, but he’s not going to come close to living up to his $150M contract. Are the Yankees a better team than they were yesterday? Absolutely. But the Yankees have a similar, albeit lesser, player already on the roster in Gardner at a small fraction of the cost. The club is better in the short-term, but the money could have been better allocated elsewhere.

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