Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Jacoby Ellsbury: Your New Center-fielder

by: Ben Embry

In a day that saw plenty of trades and free agent signings, the Yankees trumped all other transactions when they signed former Red Sox center-fielder Jacoby Ellsbury to a 7 year, $153 million contract.  There had been rumors that New York was talking to Ellsbury's agent Scott Boras and that an offer had been given, but that's the kind of thing that holds as much weight as wet toilet tissue.  So when news broke last night that an agreement was in place, it elicited plenty of genuine surprise.  My twitter feed had a wide range of reactions, mostly positive.  Count me on the negative side...

Jacoby Ellsbury has been one of the league's elite CF / lead-off hitters since he broke in for Boston in 2007.  His best year was unquestionably 2011, when he hit .321/.376/.552 with an outstanding 9.1 WAR.  The truly incredible number from that season was the 32 HR from a lead-off, speed-first CF.  He probably should have won the MVP that year, ( it went to Justin Verlander), and had Boston not collapsed so mightily he might have got it.  This past season was another strong year for Jacoby: .298/.355/.426 with a healthy 5.8 WAR.

Unfortunately for Jacoby and the Yankees, it is almost impossible he has another season like 2011 and in my opinion the 2013 output is probably his ceiling.  And Ellsbury has been wildly inconsistent due in large part to injuries.  His WAR each season breaks down like this:

2007: 1.3 WAR (33 gms)
2008: 4.1 WAR (145 gms)
2009: 2.1 WAR (153 gms)
2010: -.2 WAR (18 gms)
2011: 9.1 WAR (158 gms)
2012: 1.4 WAR (74 gms)
2013: 5.8 WAR (134 gms)

That's an average of 3.4 WAR in 102 gms played.  Now let's throw out 2007 because he was a midseason call-up.  Ok, that's an average of 3.7 WAR in 114 gms.  Regression analysis shows that if he averages 114 gms per season that he should have a WAR of 3.9 each season.  That's assuming two things: his average gms played doesn't slide as he gets older (unlikely) and his quality of play doesn't slide, (also unlikely).  So you're paying almost $22 million per season for less than 4 wins, (and probably less in years 5-6-7).

He'll be just 30 for almost all of next year but this is generally the downhill slide for speed-based ball players.  The contract Carl Crawford signed prior to the 2011 season is the most used comp and I think it's a pretty fair one.  Both were 30 years old when they signed and were All-Star caliber OF with a speed-first game but also with some pop.  Maybe give Ellsbury a premium because he's been and will be a CF and also a little for inflation.  So just based on this comp, it's a fair deal.  The problem is, Crawford's contract is one of the worst in baseball history.  Remember that 3.9 WAR I mentioned as a reasonable expectation for Ellsbury?  Crawford's WAR over the past 3 seasons since his deal has been -.2, .3, and 2.9.  What happened to the guy Boston signed?  Injuries and regression.  Boston traded Crawford to the benevolent Dodgers and for the $30 million they paid him got close to 0 wins above replacement.

Another issue I have is that Ellsbury is a redundant player for the Yankees, or maybe a slightly better version of their current CF Brett Gardner.  They're both speed-first lefty-hitting CF, good on-base, Ellsbury has more pop.  And now you can move Gardner back to LF where he has spent a lot of time playing and theoretically have an excellent defense in the OF if Ichiro still mans RF, (though I wonder if that's where Soriano ends up, in which case the defense goes down quite a bit). But for a team that has plenty of holes, (they need a 3B, 2B, 3 starters, and a closer), they spent $153 million on adding something they basically already had.  Oh, and let's not forget the Yankees have not been keen on base stealing in the Joe Girardi era.  That's mostly due to them being a HR driven team, (with the exception of 2013 anyways), but does he send Gardner, a comparably skilled base stealer, a lot?  Ichiro?  Granderson?  Not really.

My guess is the Yankees are not done tinkering with the line-up.  They have 5 OF on the roster between Ellsbury, Gardner, Soriano, Wells, and Ichiro.  I would not be surprised if they take Gardner and trade him for pitching.  And also don't be surprised if they still sign Beltran or re-sign Granderson, in which case they would probably dump Wells or Ichiro.  I'm not predicting that necessarily and in fact I would bet against it if I had to bet, especially Granderson.  I think he's as good as gone now.

My biggest and final complaint is more of a personal preference than anything.  The Ellsbury signing is proof that New York is not going to keep with it's stated mission of reducing payroll.  They're going to go back to the big spending ways that they had kinda gotten away from the past couple offseasons, (remember when they let valued C Russell Martin leave for $17M in Pittsburgh?). That means they won't build from the farm system up, which is a method I prefer.  And though the Yankees have what is believed to be unlimited resources, I personably feel their spending habits are unsustainable and they will eventually have to pay the piper.  I was prepared for that to happen now...for them to course correct their previous spending and build their future on their farm system but I won't be getting what I wanted apparently.

The one caveat to this would be if the Yankees are stocking up this year on FA with the plan on going back on a big money FA diet for the next couple years in order to retrain their first round draft picks.  I do endorse this plan with the idea that with each additional QFA they sign this year, the pick they lose gets lower and lower and way less valuable than ones they might have to forfeit in the future.  So with that in mind, I suggest they just keep going and restock the team so we don't come back next year thinking they need another QFA.

Ok, I'll sign off for now, or at least until the next major signing.

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