It is well known that the Yankees are in a bind this off-season with regards to making space on the 40-man roster. The Yankees have compiled some very interesting talent in the minor league system, but the current 40-man roster situation dictates that the Yankees will be forced to allow some of this talent to be exposed to the Rule 5 draft later this off-season. That calculation does not even factor in the guys that the Yankees will need to designate for assignment if they intend to sign any Free Agents, including re-signing some of their own players. Add in the fact that the Yankees also have high-end minor league talent, like Deivi Garcia, that needs to be added to the 40-man roster this winter, and the Yankees do not have any room to hang on to players who are not likely to contribute to the 2020 team as part of a World Series effort.
This reality has some interesting implications for multiple players on the Yankees’ 40-man roster, like Greg Bird. Still other decisions should be far easier. With that in mind, one player has become the elephant in the room that few are talking about: Jacoby Ellsbury.
Ellsbury has become persona non grata among Yankee fans. At this point, Jacoby Ellsbury has not played in an MLB game in 2+ years, yet he continues to hold onto a spot on the roster. This is not to say that I am blaming Ellsbury for the fact that his body broke down; far from it. Yankee fans remain angry about what Jacoby Ellsbury’s signing represented: a last-ditch effort to save face when it became clear that Robinson Cano was going to leave the Yankees in Free Agency. Hindsight is always 20/20, but many people had reservations about signing Jacoby Ellsbury to a high-priced, long-term contract at the time of the signing. Those people turned out to be right, but it is unfair to blame Ellsbury for what happened. By all reports, Ellsbury has worked hard to get back, but his hips just won’t allow him to play at the caliber necessary at the Major League level. I really feel for the guy.
That said, the Yankees have kept him on the roster for one reason: money. The Yankees are paying Ellsbury the remainder of his original 7-year, $148 million (plus a team option for an 8th year at $21 million, or a $5 million buyout) whether he plays for the team, or whether he is released from the team. More importantly, Ellsbury will count towards the Luxury Tax Threshold no matter what happens.
The flip side is that Ellsbury can very easily be placed on the 60-day Injured List as soon as the season starts, thus giving the Yankees an extra spot on the 40-man roster at that time. Additionally, and probably most importantly to Yankee management and ownership, if Ellsbury is unable to fulfill his on-the-field duties, the Yankees are able to collect insurance money to help subsidize Ellsbury’s sunk cost. This does nothing to help the Yankees’ Luxury Tax situation, but it does help the Steinbrenners’ pockets.
The real question is whether there is still any on-the-field value to keeping Ellsbury. It is hard to remember or recognize now, but Ellsbury was still a roughly average player when he initially went on the Injured List. While he was a slightly below-average offensive player, his contributions were still above-average relative to other center fielders. While his defense was in decline, Ellsbury was still a roughly average defender, albeit with a weak arm. Ellsbury maintained solid walk and strikeout rates, was capable of stealing bases, and remained able to play CF. The Yankees are certainly not in a position to overlook potential CF possibilities now that Aaron Hicks will miss a large chunk of the 2020 season due to Tommy John Surgery.
Despite the positive performance in 2017, it is highly unlikely that Ellsbury will every be a useful Major League player ever again, even if his health returns. Ellsbury’s last action came in his age-33 season. The standard aging curve for a CF who relied on his legs would not have been kind for Ellsbury even if he remained healthy. Now, Ellsbury would return to playing with a compromised lower half, even if he miraculously returns to health. I would highly doubt that Ellsbury would be able to cover CF. I also doubt that Ellsbury would remain a net positive on the basepaths, from whence he derived much of his offensive value. In short, there are few indications that Ellsbury is capable of being even a small part of a championship roster in his age-36 season.
Certainly, an 8-figure sum of money is nothing to sneeze at, which is likely what the Yankees can receive in insurance money if they keep Ellsbury on the roster. That said, that money should not outweigh the Yankees’ push to build a team that would be World Series favorites. Based on the current roster situation, the Yankees would be far better served to drop Ellsbury, and use his spot on one of the Rule 5 bubble players or a yet-to-be-determined Free Agent. If the Yankees are serious about the idea that their highest priority is to win the World Series, finally giving Ellsbury his release is the right thing to do this off-season. I doubt Ellsbury will be dropped, and it is a shame that the Ellsbury signing failed as badly as it did, but keeping Ellsbury on the roster serves no baseball purpose at this stage.