Right Field

Making Sense of the Ellsbury Deal

As you know, superagent Scott Boras and the Yankees front office reached an agreement on the services of client Jacoby Ellsbury: seven years totaling $153 million. (Ellsbury will be paid $148 million for his first seven seasons; the club has an option to keep him for an eighth season at $21 million or buy out his contract for $5 million. The contract includes a no-trade clause.)

Fangraphs’ Dave Cameron endorses the acquisition and scoffs at comparisons to another outfielder beneficiary of a lucrative, long-term contract:

You’re going to hear Carl Crawford‘s name a lot over the next 24 hours. Carl Crawford was a speed-and-defense outfielder heading into his 30s and the Red Sox gave him $142 million over seven years, only to see the deal become an albatross almost immediately. Everyone who was skeptical of aging speed-and-defense outfielders was instantly vindicated. Everyone who is still skeptical of aging speed-and-defense outfielders is going to instantly point to the Carl Crawford deal when they hear that the Yankees have agreed to pay Jacoby Ellsbury $153 million over the next seven years.

Crawford is a data point in their favor, absolutely. He was a similar player to Ellsbury, and he got a similar contract to Ellsbury, and it didn’t turn out to be a very good idea. Crawford is absolutely evidence that this contract could be a big mistake. Crawford is a reminder that big free agent deals often turn out badly. But if you’re going to use Carl Crawford as the sole data point in your belief that players like Ellsbury are bad investments, you’re simply ignoring the fact that history doesn’t actually agree with you. . . .

Carl Crawford’s production is not Jacoby Ellsbury’s fait accompli; it’s one possible path of many. Every player’s future is a probability distribution, bottoming out at completely and utterly useless. Every single player could turn into a total dud tomorrow. And every single player could actually play better in the future than they have in the past. There is no single example that represents the expected outcome for any other player, no matter how similar they might appear to be. . . .

The Yankees paid a lot of money for a very good player. That very good player is probably going to remain a very good player for the next few years, and then, like nearly every free agent, he’ll be an overpaid albatross in the last few years of the deal. For the price, the Yankees probably overpaid relative to the going market rate of wins. But because they’re the Yankees, the fact that they overpaid by $20 or $30 million doesn’t matter all that much.

Rob Neyer of Baseball Nation remains unconvinced, citing the center fielder’s injury history:

Sure, if he’s healthy. Ellsbury just turned 30, and figures to have another two or three outstanding seasons in him. If he’s healthy.

But this isn’t a two- or three-season deal. It’s a seven-season deal. And before you say it doesn’t matter because after two or three seasons the Yankees will just find someone else to produce all those runs and play center field, just consider how difficult it’s been for the Yankees to just cut Alex Rodriguez loose. Or Mark Teixeira. Even in this era of wine and roses for practically everybody associated with professional baseball, it’s difficult to bench, let alone flat-out release, anybody who’s making $22 million per season. What’s more likely is that by 2017 or ‘18, Ellsbury’s sucking up a lot of dollars (who cares) and a lot of valuable plate appearances (whoops).

(It is worth noting that both major injuries Ellsbury have suffered — ribs and collarbone — were the result of on-field collisions and ought not affect his play going forward.)

And Ken Davidoff of the New York Post believes that this deal makes it more likely that Robinson Cano will seek safety in Safeco:

For with Ellsbury set to arrive in New York on Wednesday for his physical, after essentially agreeing to bolt the Red Sox for a stunning, seven-year, $153-million contract with the Yankees, Cano departing The Bronx for the Pacific Northwest seems like more of a possibility than it did 24 hours ago.

After all, if there’s one subject on which we’re most certain the Yankees aren’t bluffing, it’s that they intend to get their 2014 payroll under $189 million. And with Ellsbury set to draw such a huge paycheck and the Yankees still in need of two starting pitchers, their threat to stick at seven years and $170-ish million for Cano seems more legitimate.

So if the Mariners, profoundly desperate for offensive production, offered, say, eight years and $214 million for Cano? Another $44 million guaranteed, when Jay Z is trying to establish himself as a force in athlete representation?

It wouldn’t be anywhere as good as getting that sort of figure from the Yankees. But it might be better than getting well under $200 million from the Yankees.

More here, here, and here.

Jason Epstein is the president of Southfive Strategies, LLC. He was a public-relations consultant for the Turkish embassy in Washington from 2002 to 2007.

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