After negotiations with Robinson Cano turned bleak following the Mariners’ hefty offer, the Yankees hastily targeted Jacoby Ellsbury before his price skyrocket. Not only was Ellsbury stepping in at a position where the Yankees already had an great player, but the decision to sign Ellsbury over Cano neglected the middle infield in a shallow free agent market. Like-wise, Ellsbury’s bat had little chance to replace Cano’s offense.
In the end, the Yankees saved a guaranteed $87 million by choosing Ellsbury over Cano, and that extra money helped them sign Carlos Beltran and may have impacted their ability to outbid other teams on Masahiro Tanaka. Through the first quarter of 2014, Ellsbury and Cano have similarly disappointed offensively. Ellsbury currently owns a .756 OPS, while Cano’s OPS has fallen to .772. Of course, Cano is playing in a much more difficult environment in Seattle, one that’s now held him to just one home run.
There had to be some hope in the minds of the Yankee front office that Ellsbury would find the power stroke he displayed in 2011. But in the following two injury-plagued seasons, the center fielder hit just 13 home runs for the Red Sox. Without that power, Ellsbury offered the Yankees great defense in center field, a leadoff hitter with a great on base percentage, and one of the fastest base runners in the game. The odd part of the decision to pay him over $21 million a year was that they already had this player in Brett Gardner, who was earning just a fraction of the money. When Gardner received an extension, the Yankees and his agent decided on a salary that was nearly $10 million less than Ellsbury’s average annual salary and for three fewer seasons.
So far, Gardner has outhit Ellsbury with a .789 OPS with ten stolen bases and three home runs. Gardner has now emerged as the leadoff hitter, and his defense has earned much higher praise from defensive statistics this season. While the debate between Gardner and Ellsbury will continue over the next few seasons, the big difference between the two players is Ellsbury’s power potential, which we’re all waiting for.
Power could still show up at some point, though I’m not counting on it. Ellsbury’s defensive statistics should also improve by the end of the season. Though he’s looked very good in the outfield, statistics like UZR and DRS are highly flawed, especially in such a small sample size. At the moment, his defensive WAR is -3.3, which is silly for those that have seen him play such a great center field thus far.
But the bigger question about Ellsbury is why they chose him over Shin-Soo Choo. With Gardner offering the same skill set as Ellsbury, the Yankees could have used more power, more on base percentage, and a more explosive arm in the corner outfield. The Yankees even made an offer to Choo, but their negotiation method this winter was to sign players that responded the quickest, and Choo’s offer was only on the table for less than 24 hours. The left-fielder ultimately settled for less money with the Rangers, and he’s now batting .311/.435/.474 in his first 168 plate appearances.
While I have enjoyed watching Ellsbury play, I’m still curious as to why the Yankees decided to sign Ellsbury over Choo. A month’s worth of data hasn’t necessarily impacted my thoughts behind their choice, but we have thus far witnessed exactly why most Yankee fans favored Choo. If Ellsbury ever finds his power, the Yankees will have made the right decision, but if this is truly why the organization rolled the dice on him over Choo, we might be waiting a long time.