Seeking a destination for Jacoby Ellsbury: Detroit Tigers

The marriage between Jacoby Ellsbury and the Yankees has not worked out. It’s not that Ellsbury has been a poor performer, but he hasn’t provided value commensurate to his pay during his three years in pinstripes. That’s not Ellsbury’s fault, of course, but rather the Yankees’ for blowing the rest of the market out of the water. It makes sense for the franchise to move on from Ellsbury, especially with a very similar Brett Gardner already on the roster, but to do so would be a challenge. Ostensibly, the Yankees will see if there are any takers for Ellsbury before shopping Gardner instead. Today, I’m beginning a series of posts analyzing potential fits for Ellsbury. To preface, the ideas I’m proposing are not rumors, but merely speculative. These proposals are incredibly unlikely, but do provide some offseason entertainment during a lull of Yankees news. Take ’em with a grain of salt, please.

The hypothetical trade

Yankees acquire: RHP Jordan Zimmermann (4 years, $92M remaining on deal)

Tigers acquire: CF Jacoby Ellsbury (4 years, $89.6M remaining on deal, which includes a $5M 2021 club option buyout. 2021 option calls for $21M salary)

Both players have a no-trade clause, so approvals would be needed to facilitate the deal.

Why would the Tigers be interested?

The practically offsetting salaries and years remaining would probably prevent Tigers’ general manager Al Avila from hanging up immediately, at least. With less than a $3M difference in salaries owed through 2020, the trade seems reasonable from a financial perspective. Throwing a wrench in this idea are the no-trade clauses, which many players require some sort of compensation to waive. More on that forthcoming.

From a roster viewpoint, Having Zimmermann in the rotation might not be a necessity going forward. With the resurgence of Justin Verlander and emergence of Michael Fulmer, Detroit is set at the top of the staff next year. Daniel Norris finished 2016 strong and appears ready for a greater role going forward. The other spots could be filled out with Matt Boyd, Anibal Sanchez, and Mike Pelfrey. Admittedly, those latter three don’t inspire much confidence, if any. The front of the rotation looks fine, at least. Perhaps that provides enough comfort to consider this trade.

Moreover, Zimmermann was very disappointing after a strong April, ending his season with a 4.87 ERA in 105.1 innings. There were a couple of injuries, to his neck and lat, that forced him to miss time and presumably hindered his performance. Poor statistics aside, perhaps the Tigers would be willing to move him under the assumption that these issues are precursors to future health problems.

Contemplating Detroit’s needs, it’s plausible that center field is an area its front office will seek an upgrade. Yes, Cameron Maybin played well there in a bit more than half the season which could be a deterrent (as I note in the next section) to acquiring Ellsbury. However, Maybin has had his share of injury concerns. He had various maladies this past season, although the broken hand out of spring training was a fluke injury (hit by pitch). Nonetheless, 2015 was the only year since 2012 that Maybin was healthy for a full season. Other than Maybin, JaCoby Jones is the next best bet for the position Ellsbury would assume. However, Jones is due for a bit more seasoning in the minors, as his Triple-A performance and cup of coffee in the majors didn’t fare well.

Why wouldn’t the Tigers be interested?

Ellsbury has no ties to Detroit that I’m aware of, so there might need to be some sort of kicker to entice him to waive his trade veto ability. This is the worry I hinted at in the opening of the previous section. What kind of inducement might be required? Guaranteeing the 2021 club option. Effectively, that’s an additional $16M of salary that would create an imbalance the contracts swapped. Getting the Tigers interested in the deal is one thing, but if the 2021 option becomes a point of contention, the hurdles to complete this trade are probably to difficult to overcome.

Ignoring Ellsbury’s option, there are on-field reasons for Detroit to say pass. For one, Zimmermann’s deal just started, and although the first year was not up to par, it might be too soon to move on. This is in stark contrast from where the Yankees are with Ellsbury, who’s been in the Bronx for three years and has fallen short. It’s one thing to anticipate a rebound from Zimmermann after one down year plagued by injuries, but it’s a much larger leap to hope for Ellsbury returning to his Bostonian form after three years of mostly average play.

Furthermore, do the Tigers actually have a need in center field? I did highlight some of the questions about Maybin and Jones before, but it’s not necessarily an urgent need for the team. Compared to Ellsbury, Maybin is a far more affordable choice. His club option calls for $9M in 2017, making him far cheaper and without a long-term commitment. Even with an array of injuries in 2016, Maybin flashed his talent, amassing 2.0 fWAR in 94 games. Ellsbury delivered the same value in 54 more games. I’m not sure if Maybin is a better player going forward, but even if he’s not, the difference probably isn’t drastic. It’s hard to project what Jones would do with significant time next season, but at least he’s another option.

The verdict

My process in coming up with this hypothetical trade (and future ones to come) was to find matches to Ellsbury’s contract. Zimmermann was an easy match, and not only because the amount due to him over the next four seasons is close to what’s owed to Ellsbury. From the Yankees’ standpoint, Zimmermann would be quite useful in the Yankees’ questionable rotation, even if he’s a far cry from his days in Washington.

While this would be a fun challenge trade, it seems incredibly unlikely to me. Aside from the fact that I’m some random person on the internet proposing this swap, there’s too much weighing negatively from Detroit’s perspective. In particular, convincing Ellsbury to waive his no-trade to go to Detroit seems like an impossible outcome, especially without locking in his 2021 salary. And, if it came to the point of guaranteeing the extra year, why bother? It destroys the premise of the deal in its entirety.

By writing the first of this series about potential Ellsbury trade matches, I’ve come to the realization that the club option probably will be a major roadblock in any potential trade considering Ellsbury’s right to veto any move. That means the Yankees would likely have to find a team with a player that’s due more than Ellsbury, approximately around $105M or so over the next five years. That is, unless, the Yankees are willing to eat some of Ellsbury’s contract or sweeten the pot in another way.

Ultimately, seeking a taker for Ellsbury will reek of desperation. Such is the result of a haphazardly signed deal well above market value. Fortunately, there are other bad contracts on the other 29 teams that might increase the odds of a trade from 1% to 2%. I’ll continue to explore such possibilities, but for now, don’t get your hopes up.

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