TAMPA, Fla. -- The New York Yankees are seriously contemplating dropping the $153 Million Man, Jacoby Ellsbury, to the bottom of the batting order this season. Since Ellsbury has been a Yankee, he has nearly always hit in the first three spots of the lineup, despite being barely an average player. It seems as if his seven-year deal could go down as the worst free-agent signing in franchise history.
Ellsbury’s potential fall in stature continues a downward slope to his Yankees career, which leaves it hard to imagine a happy ending with four more seasons remaining and Ellsbury's 34th birthday arriving in September.
This season, the Yankees are paying Alex Rodriguez $21 million not to play, per the terms of his final 10-year, $275 million contract. Owner Hal Steinbrenner has shown the team will eat money if there is no better option.
Ellsbury's time with the Yankees has been downright boring, with few memorable highlights and benchings in pivotal games. He has built no equity with the team.
The Yankees have played in just one playoff game in Ellsbury’s three years in the Bronx, and Ellsbury, with a lefty on the mound, didn't start it. Last September, when the Yankees were still contending for a playoff spot, Ellsbury sat in some big games against lefties as manager Joe Girardi favored another left-handed hitter, Brett Gardner. Now, Gardner -- with similar skills, but a contract for three fewer seasons and nearly $100 million less -- might be the guy at the top of the order, with Ellsbury near the bottom, likely in the seventh spot.
Last year, Gardner had a .351 on-base percentage compared to Ellsbury’s .330 as they batted in the first two spots in the Yankees' order. Gardner also saw more pitches per at-bat (4.1 to 3.7). Girardi has floated the idea of splitting the two apart in the lineup, which usually in his tempered media parlance means he is going to do it. It's hard to come up with a compelling reason why Ellsbury would beat out Gardner for a spot at the top of the lineup card.
"We are going to evaluate as we move forward," said Girardi, leaving open the possibility of keeping Ellsbury and Gardner atop the order.
This spring, the Yankees have a plethora of outfield prospects and no historical loyalty to Ellsbury. If Ellsbury doesn't pick up his game -- and with Aaron Judge and Clint Frazier knocking on the Yankee Stadium door -- Ellsbury’s next demotion could be to the bench. Age, clearly, is not on his side.
“I don’t even let that enter my mind,” Ellsbury said. “I still have speed. I still have explosiveness. That’s how I view it. I try not to look at age, just how the body is feeling and the body feels good.”
The Yankees and Ellsbury had better hope there is some spark in that body, because he has yet to provide even one season commensurate with his nearly $22 million yearly wage.
“I still think that there is more in the tank with Jacoby Ellsbury for us,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said.
Ellsbury’s seven-year, $153 million contract is vying for the worst in Yankees history. Its shear enormousness, an overreaction to the impending loss of Robinson Cano in the winter of 2013, will likely give it the edge over Ed Whitson's, Carl Pavano's and Kei Igawa's in Yankees free-agent infamy. (Not that anyone should feel bad for Ellsbury; who wouldn’t want to be overpaid?)
Two days after Christmas in 1984, Whitson signed a five-year, $4.5 million deal. He went 15-10 with a whopping 5.38 ERA in a season-plus -- and went to war with both his skipper, Billy Martin, and angry Yankees fans -- before getting shipped back to San Diego in July 1986 for veteran reliever Tim Stoddard. In 2004, Pavano signed for four years and nearly $40 million, then was branded “American Idle” by the New York Post after making just 26 starts in three seasons (and not many good starts, either, as he posted a 5.00 ERA in pinstripes). Igawa was signed for five years and $20 million -- not including an additional $26 million posting fee they paid to the Japanese pitcher's former team, the Hanshin Tigers -- in what turned out to be a foolish response to the Red Sox winning the Daisuke Matsuzaka bid in 2006. Igawa threw a total of 71⅔ major league innings, with a 2-4 record along with a very unpleasant-looking 6.66 ERA.
The three are among the worthy contenders, but Ellsbury’s utterly average production and flareless play give him the inside track because of the value and length of his contract.
In his three seasons in the Bronx, he has hit .264 with a .326 on-base percentage -- far below his career totals of .297 and .439 coming into the contract. He has stolen just 80 bases -- 10 more than he stole in a single season, 2009, with the Boston Red Sox. He has hit 32 homers in three seasons as a Yankee, which is the same amount he swatted in 2011 in Boston, the one year that seemed to justify his big-bucks signing. Ellsbury chases balls down in center field, but he throws worse than a New York Jets quarterback.
On top of this, Ellsbury brings no buzz to the team. He is as invisible in the clubhouse as he is on the field. He is not a leader, typically the role of higher-paid players. When things went wrong, Derek Jeter was almost always there to answer the tough questions. It is part of the job for the top crop of Yankees to communicate to the fans. Ellsbury is rarely in the clubhouse, especially when the big-time players are being held accountable.
Even Hal Steinbrenner has put Ellsbury slightly on blast, though in a much tamer way than his old man would have with such a contract.
“Jacoby is a great player,” Steinbrenner said. “He comes to play every day. He’s been great with the young kids. The stats are what the stats are. But I’ve enjoyed having him on the club.”
Will Steinbrenner enjoy having Ellsbury on the club for another four years? If he is demoted in the batting order, the next logical step is out of the starting lineup entirely, then the bench and then ...