It was safe to say that at the end of the 2017 season, Jacoby Ellsbury had become the major league’s all-time highest paid 4th outfielder. The emergence of Aaron Hicks, who finally began to fulfill the promise that made him a first-round draft choice of the Twins, the MVP caliber season of Aaron Judge and the continued steady play of Brett Gardner had relegated Ellsbury to the bench. During the magical playoff run, Ellsbury became little more than an afterthought.
Still, Ellsbury did make some important contributions with his legs down the stretch, so you could sort of understand his refusal to waive his no-trade clause. Better to be on a potential World Series winner, even in a bench role, than starting for a team going nowhere.
Then, the Yankees did the most Yankee thing of all: they traded for the
NL MVP. Just like that, Ellsbury went from the 4th outfielder to a player without any clear role. A very well paid player without any role, who still insists on not waiving his no-trade clause. And…I do mean no role. I suppose he would be useful as a pinch runner in the late innings. But really, how often are the Yankees going to find themselves with Greg Bird or Gary Sanchez standing on second in a tie game in the 8th or 9th inning?
Let’s face it, as fans we all feared Ellsbury’s decline at the end of that massive contract he signed prior to the 2014 season. We just had no idea how quickly that decline would come, or how dramatic it would be. Over the past three seasons, he has struggled to an 89 OPS+, while injuries have held him out of 114 games. Even what was once his best asset, an ability to swipe bases seemingly at will has slipped. He’s totaled only 63 steals and watched his steal percentage drop from 85% to 74%. Defensively, he’s lost some range but can still be a serviceable center fielder. He would probably be better suited to left, because of his throwing issues. We don’t know because he’s refused to even try playing there.
At the same time, his presence on the roster is making it impossible for the Yankees to get an extended look at several of their top outfield prospects, kids like Clint Frazier and Billy McKinney. In other words, Ellsbury has become a luxury item that you might have found a spot for on a National League team in the 1970’s. But not an American League team in the 2010’s.
I think it’s fair to say that Ellsbury has reached Mark Teixeira/Alex Rodriguez territory: an overpriced, aging player that the Yankees will pay to make go away. Already there are reports that Yankees are willing to eat a substantial amount of the money owed him, as much as $40 million of the $68.5 million on his contract. If I were Ellsbury, I would be on the phone with my agent daily, finding me a place to play. Because while Ellsbury can probably force his way onto the 2018 roster by means of his contract, I doubt he’ll be in the Bronx past that. In fact, he would be the best paid unemployed man in America next offseason. And he shouldn’t be under any illusions about this. After all, the Yankees paid A-Rod $42 million to go home – and Ellsbury isn’t half the player he was.
…should be to dump Jacoby Ellsbury and as much of the $68.5 million he’s owed, for whatever they can get. A big of peanuts would be acceptable. And then after that? Nothing.
This might sound like something of a letdown to my fellow Yankee fans. After all, the stated goal is to win the World Series. But that’s the stated goal every year, and by doing nothing else this offseason, the team would be primed for a five or six year run. The type of run reminiscent of the 1996-2001 team.
Let’s review: this past season, the Yankees rode a home-run happy offense, a strong starting rotation and dominant bullpen to within one game of the fall classic. Youngsters Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, Aaron Hicks, Didi Gregorius and Clint Frazier powered the offense. Jordan Montgomery, Sonny Gray, Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka and Chad Green anchored the pitching staff. Those 11 players, all under 28 years old, provide a strong core to build around for both the present and the future. Now, this offseason, the Yankees stunned the world by acquiring the NL MVP, Giancarlo Stanton (age 28) and his 59 home runs in exchange for Starlin Castro.
Before that move, the favorites in the American League were the Yankees and the Houston Astros and that remains the case now. Yes, the Red Sox and Indians remain strong contenders, but both of those teams have enough questions that they do not appear ready to challenge the top two teams. Given that dynamic, I can understand the Yankees fan desire to maybe grab a third baseman and another starting pitcher. If one falls into their laps, okay – but here’s why I wouldn’t go crazy looking right now.
With an eye to the present and the future, the Yankees have a trio of rookies they can try at second and third in Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andujar and Tyler Wade. While it would be atypical of the “Yankee Way,” I would play Torres and Andujar on opening day and let Wade fill a super utility role. Based on their minor league careers and pedigrees, it’s a little hard to imagine all three turning into major league pumpkins. Since they would likely hit at the bottom of the order, any offensive struggles wouldn’t impair the juggernaut the Yankees have assembled throughout the rest of the lineup. If they can excel, then the Yankees have found some diamonds and next offseason can be spent on luxury items (Bryce Harper? Clayton Kershaw?). If they look as lost as lambs, then the Yankees can use their payroll flexibility to go after necessities (say, Manny Machado and DJ LeMahieu). If they’re simply better than average players, they can be spun for value in trades for other pieces, while going after superstar talent to replace them.
Therein lies the biggest reason for dumping Ellsbury. Whether the Yankees go into next offseason looking for extra goodies or to address vital needs, they’ll probably look to add somewhere north of $50 million in AAV. When you add in the salaries for their existing core, there really is no room to pay a 5th outfielder $23 million, while retaining enough flexibility to make further moves as the years go by. Again, this isn’t just about winning in 2018. It’s about winning in 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 – and so on.
As far as 2018 goes, the Yankees lineup (even with two rookies starting daily) is every bit as potent as Houston’s, and decidedly better than Boston or Cleveland’s. The starting staff, including the minor league depth, lines up favorably with Boston and Cleveland and is a step above Houston’s. The key is to maintain that position this year and see how far we can go, while setting up to get a talent base that eclipses everyone else by 2019.
The other day, I posted some thoughts on potential Yankees front office changes (and only got half my projections right!). But before the hot stove season can really begin, first you need to clean out the oven. So here we go: which of these players, all free agents or potential trade candidates, do you keep for 2018? And which ones would you say good-bye to? Keep in mind, you need to get the team’s payroll under the luxury tax threshold of $189 million. Ready?
Masahiro Tanaka, Starting pitcher (13-12, 4.79 ERA, 178 1/3 IP)
Verdict: Let Him Walk Away
Tanaka is an unusual case. For starters, he’s not actually a free agent – yet. His contract does allow him to opt out, though, and most everyone expects him to, despite 2017 easily being his worst MLB season. Although he struck out more batters per inning than at any point in his career, he allowed more baserunners and home runs than at any point in his career, too. Then there is the well-known matter of his damaged UCL. It’s held up well over the past 2 1/2 years, but he is only one awkward pitch from needing Tommy John surgery. Tanaka proved during September and the Yankees postseason run that he can still be a dominating pitcher. But should he opt out, that means he’s looking for a raise on the $67 million he would get over the next three seasons. With youngsters Chance Adams, Justus Sheffield, Domingo Acevedo and the like ready, or nearly ready, for their time in pinstripes, the verdict on this is easy.
CC Sabathia, Starting Pitcher (14-5, 3.69 ERA, 148 2/3IP)
Verdict: 1 year, $15 million contract
Since coming to the Yankees in 2009, Sabathia has successfully transformed himself from fireballing lefty to crafty lefty. Injuries and Father Time have taken their toll, but his 9 years in Pinstripes have been memorable. Perhaps more important than his pitching acumen, however, is the respect he garners in the clubhouse and the mentoring role he’s taken on with the younger pitchers. I think CC can match his Yankees career averages in wins (13) and ERA+ (114). Combine the on field production with the off the field intangibles, and resigning him makes sense. Helpful in this case are that CC has said he wants to play one more year, wants to finish his career in the Bronx and isn’t looking for a giant payday, and this makes even more sense.
Michael Pineda, Starting Pitcher (8-4, 4.39 ERA, 96 1/3 IP)
Verdict: Wave Good-bye!
Pineda’s Yankee career can best be described as an enigma wrapped in a riddle. Few pitchers in the last 20 years have matched his stuff, along with his ability to limit walks and strike out opposing hitters, yet get hit as hard and as often as him. When the Yankees acquired him for Jesus Montero (remember him), it looked like a blockbuster trade. Instead, both Seattle and the Yankees got burned by this one. But last season looked like Pineda had finally turned the corner. He was pitching well, and then *BOOM* his elbow gave way. Ordinarily, a pitcher with his type of injury and talent might be offered a two year, “make good” contract. But this Yankees team has enough pitching depth in the minors that blocking any of them for a questionable player is, well, stupid.
Jaime Garcia, Starting/Relief Pitcher (5-10, 4.41 ERA, 157IP overall; 0-3, 4.82 ERA, 37 IP w/ Yankees)
Verdict: Don’t let the door hit you…
The Yankees acquired Garcia primarily because they wanted a pitcher to absorb innings at the back of the rotation. Coming down the stretch last year, surprising rookie Jordan Montgomery was approaching his innings limit and the brass figured Garcia could help out in that department. The epitome of a journeyman (the Yankees were his third team in a week), Garcia failed to live up to even the modest expectations the brass had for him. He averaged less than 5 innings per start and wound up taxing the bullpen; those extra innings pitched by Yankee relievers down the stretch might well have been part of the reason they ran out of gas in the LCS. This one is a no-brainer.
Todd Frazier, 3B/1B, (.213/.344/.428, 27 HR, 76 RBI overall; .222/.365/.423, 11 HR, 32 RBI with Yankees)
Verdict: Parting is such sweet sorrow
Of all the Yankees free agents, this one may be the hardest decision. I think the Toddfather won over Yankee fans with his enthusiasm, solid glove work, clutch hits and leadership. Acquiring him was one of the best deadline moves the Yankees have made in a long time, and it’s doubtful they would have made the playoff run they did without him. The problem is, he plays a position where the Yanks have depth and youngsters who profile as a serious offensive threats in Miguel Andujar and Greg Bird. Further, Frazier’s high strikeout tendencies make him a lousy bench option – and the Yankees already have a player with a similar profile already under contract in Chase Headley. It’s conceivable the Yankees might leave Andujar in the minors for another season, which would open a spot for Frazier. But would he take a one-year deal when he’s already 32? Probably not, especially when next year he would be faced with entering the free agent market with Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado ahead of him.
Matt Holliday, DH/OF, (.231/.316/.432, 19 HR, 64 RBI)
Verdict: Thanks, but good-bye
The 37 year old veteran gave the Yankees a serious boost in the first half of the season, but then age and injuries caught up with him and Holliday was a non-factor in the second half. He’s a had a good career, but Holliday is looking at the end of the road. I can’t see the Yankees retaining his services, not when he can’t play a position in the field anymore and the DH spot will likely be used as partial days off for the other players.
Jacoby Ellsbury, Outfield (.264/.348/.402, 7 HR, 22SB) Signed through 2020; $68 million owed
Verdict: Trade him. Please.
Arguably the worst free agent signing the Yankees have made in the last 20 years, it is time for the Yankees to move Ellsbury. Once, his speed and defense made up for his below average hitting, but 2017 saw his his ability to track down fly balls regress to league average, and teams ran at will on his weak throwing arm. There’s still some speed and on-base ability, tools which might be of interest to some teams who can use him as a DH and occasional center fielder. The contract is onerous, as it gives Ellsbury a guaranteed payday until he’s 38. But the Yankees should willingly eat some it to make room for up-and-coming young outfielders like Aaron Hicks, Clint Frazier and Estevan Florial.
Brett Gardner, Outfield (.264/.350/.423, 21 HR, 63 RBI, 23 SB) Signed through 2018; $13.5 million owed
Verdict: Career Yankee!
Every year, Brett Gardner’s name boils up on the hot stove. And every year, Yankee brass does the smart thing and doesn’t trade him. Yes, Gardy is entering his age 34 season, the same as Jacoby Ellsbury. Yes, he isn’t the flat-out speed demon he was 8 years ago. If Gardner’s entire game was built around speed, that would be problematic. Fortunately for the Yankees, his game is multi-faceted. Beyond that, Gardner’s intangibles – his hustle, leadership and gritty play – are irreplaceable on a team that will feature a lot of youth.
Chase Headley, 3B/1B (.273/.352/.406, 12 HR, 61 RBI) Signed through 2018, $13 million owed
Verdict: One last hurrah
When you look in the dictionary for the definition of “league average,” Chase Headley’s picture pops up. Now entering his age 34 season, Headley is no longer truly a starting corner infielder, but he’s serviceable enough that he can serve as a back-up at either corner. Odds are the Yankees will break camp with Headley starting at 3B, but by midseason he looks to resume the role he filled this past season during the second half as Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres should be in the Bronx by then. Every successful team needs players like Headley: experienced role players who can fill in when needed, don’t grouse about their role and can be an effective bat off the bench. Also in his favor is that his contract is league average, too. He would be a hard player to replace.
Starlin Castro, 2B (.300/.338/.453, 16 HR, 63 RBI) Signed through 2019, $23 million owed
Verdict: Trade bait
Starlin Castro is only entering his age 28 season, is a lifetime .282 hitter and has already accumulated 1,280 career hits. So why dangle him as trade bait? Two words: Gleyber Torres. It’s not that Castro is a bad player, in fact, the Yankees should be able to get a decent return for him. But Torres almost made it to the Bronx lost year. Only a freak injury derailed him. If he doesn’t break camp with the big club, he will certainly be in Pinstripes by June.
Ok, that’s my take. I’d love to see your thoughts in the comments section!