As we continue discussing the Yankees’ free agent interests this offseason, we reach the Yankees third and final outfield target this winter, Jacoby Ellsbury. Though the team vocally prefers Carlos Beltran and Shin-Soo Choo to the 30 year old Ellsbury, it’s possible that the Red Sox center fielder receives the most attention overall, and subsequently the largest contract.
The left-handed hitter owns a career .297/.350/.439 slash and a 109 wRC+ in his career. 2011 was undoubtedly his best season, where he hit 32 home runs with a .321/.376/.552 slash in 732 plate appearances. Ellsbury came in second place in the AL MVP voting that season, behind Justin Verlander, but he has since been a victim of a handful of bizarre injuries and mediocre offensives performances. After a major shoulder injury in the beginning of 2012, Ellsbury has missed time with left and right wrist soreness, a groin strain, and a fracture in his foot from a foul ball. He saw 959 regular season plate appearances of the last two years, and hit .289/.341/.407 during that time with just 13 home runs. His 104 OPS+ has him just slightly above average offensively, and there’s a serious concern that his power will never return.
A lot of Ellsbury’s value is in his legs. He’s one of the best defensive center fielders in the game, and in 2013 UZR/150 had him at 12.9, DRS at 13 runs saved above average, and RZR at .929. In each of these defensive metrics, over both 2013 and his entire career, Ellsbury excelled at saving runs with his range. Though his arm strength is poor, he also creates runs on the bases with his speed. In 2013, he led baseball with 52 bases stolen, 28 more than Brett Gardner.
As I continue to mention, the Yankees are looking at left-handed outfielders to replace Curtis Granderson this season. Perhaps the right field porch will help Ellsbury regain some of that power he lost over the last couple of years, but it’s hard to see him improve that drastically. With that said, Ellsbury has shown some splits that can be easily improved by the New York environment. His .246/.323/.318 slash against left-handed pitchers is a deterrent for most teams, but hitting coach Kevin Long has a history of fixing left-handed swings against southpaws. In New York, Ellsbury would fit best in left field, with Brett Gardner in center field, but then there’s some worry about how his arm strength will translate in the corner.
His agent stated that he’s looking for a deal larger than $100 million, and MLB Trade Rumors predicts that he’ll receive 7 years $150 million. From my point of view, that’s far too high for an injury-prone 30 year old that now relies on his legs. Perhaps it’s the fact that Ellsbury played in one of the biggest media markets in baseball, or that his agent is the notorious Scott Boras, but Ellsbury’s value is undoubtedly over-hyped. Carl Crawford is a great example of the risks involved with outfielders that rely on speed. Injuries and quickly declining BABIP’s catch up to these players fast as age and collisions slow down their legs. If Ellsbury ever returned to his 2011 offensive prowess, any contract would be well worth it, but gambling with $100+ million is unwise for a team looking to cut down on their budget.