Gardner and Ellsbury Living Up To New Contracts

When the Yankees signed Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury to contracts this winter it represented a pretty big change for them and it has paid huge dividends so far.

The Yankees invested big money in two outfielders who are known for their speed, defense and contact hitting. Brian Cashman has never been one to hide his love for "big hairy monsters" who hit home runs, so the fact that he signed two non-power outfielders in one offseason was pretty surprising.

Also, when the Yankees gave Gardner a new four-year, $52 million contract it represented another change in philosophy. The Yankees never gave out contract extensions to players before their current deals expired, and it might have cost them Robinson Cano. Most other MLB teams have been locking up their young players early for years now, while the Yankees were lagging behind, so it was big of them to see what they were doing wrong and adjust.

The Gardner signing was an easy call, and the Yankees got a great value. According to FanGraphs, Gardner was worth an average of $20.7 million over his last three healthy seasons in 2010, 2011 and 2013.

He has gotten off to a great start this season, as he has hit .295/.367/.386/.754 with a 117 wRC+ and a .340 wOBA. Gardner's biggest problem still seems to be an issue though, which is his lack of aggressiveness stealing bases. He only has attempted two stolen bases in the first 13 games of the season, which is far too few for a guy with his speed and who has been on base as much as him.

Gardner has often not been aggressive enough at the plate either throughout the years, as he seemed to get down 0-2 in the count by looking at the first two pitches way too often. However, this year Gardner has swung at 57.8 percent of pitches in the strike zone, compared to 50 percent for his career.

Gardner will continue to be one of the most underappreciated players in MLB with his elite defense and underrated hitting skills.

Ellsbury’s seven-year, $153 million contract was much less of a slam dunk than Gardner’s deal. The biggest risk was Ellsbury’s injury history, as he has only played in at least 140 games three times in his career.

One thing that didn’t make sense was that the Yankees already had a similar player to Ellsbury in Gardner, who was getting paid a fraction of the cost, and still is even after his extension. Did they really want both of them in the same outfield?

Another thing that seemed puzzling was that the Yankees signed Ellsbury to that seven-year, $153 miilion contract, yet only offered Cano a seven-year, $175 million deal. Cano was a homegrown Yankee, was much more durable, the better player and played a more premium position.

However, the Yankees appear to be right about Ellsbury so far, as he is off to a marvelous start. He is hitting .362/.423/.447/.870 on the season with a 150 wRC+ and a .387 w/OBA. It would seem unlikely that he could keep those numbers up the whole season, although he did in 2011 when he finished second in the MVP voting.

Ellsbury seems to be the kind of player who you have to watch every day to get a true appreciation of his skills. Although, it is weird that Boston Red Sox fans and beat reporters do not seem to share the appreciation that I have gotten for him over his first two weeks in pinstripes. This nonsense tweet by The Boston Globe’s Pete Abraham from Sunday’s game is an example of that.

Ellsbury has shown great versatility in being able to bat third for the Yankees since Mark Teixeira went on the disabled list. The Yankees are still better off with him setting the table and leading off, but he has proved to be a capable third hitter.

Ellsbury has yet to hit a home run, so power has been the only thing yet to come around for him. Some were predicting that he could hit 20 home runs with the short porch at Yankee Stadium, and that is still a possibility for him.

Stolen bases haven’t been an issue for Ellsbury and they never are. He leads the American League with six stolen bases and has been aggressive on the base paths. That aggressiveness didn’t pay off for him Sunday when he made an awful out at third base to take away a run, but it is nice to see the Yankees have a player who can go from first to third on a hit with ease.

Gardner and Ellsbury have helped the Yankees achieve the balance in their offense that they were looking for. They are third in the AL in wRC+ (114), third in wOBA (.335), fifth in home runs (13), second in batting average (.273), third in OPS (.762) and first in stolen bases (11).

The Yankees are still fifth in the home run department even after getting off to a slow start in that area. It seems like a good possibility that the Yankees can finish in the top three in the AL in stolen bases and home runs, which would be a great thing.

A theory to the Yankees’ struggles in the postseason over the last decade has been that they were relying too much on the long ball to score runs. That is tough to prove since the postseason is always a small sample size. If the Yankees are fortunate enough to get to the playoffs this season, we will see if having a more balanced offense with Ellsbury and Gardner leading the way will change things.