Former Red Sox star Jacoby Ellsbury was a disaster signing for Yankees
By Sean Penney
The New York Yankees have released Jacoby Ellsbury, proving the Boston Red Sox made a wise decision to let him go in free agency.
The Boston Red Sox have been criticized for their fair share of questionable free agent signings over the years but we tend not to give them enough credit for the ones they don’t make. Six years ago, the New York Yankees were giddy about stealing a star player from their bitter rival in free agency but the plan backfired when Jacoby Ellsbury turned out to be a massive bust.
Ellsbury spent the first seven years of his career in Boston where he established himself as one of the brightest young outfielders in the game. He hit .297/.350/.417 in 715 games with the Red Sox. Ellsbury shattered the single-season franchise record with 70 stolen bases in 2009. Two years later, he set career-highs with 32 home runs, 105 RBI and a .928 OPS to finish as the runner-up for the AL MVP award. His final season with the organization ended with the Red Sox celebrating a World Series championship in 2013.
Those accolades set Ellsbury up for a lucrative payday. The Yankees, always eager to stick it to their rivals, swooped in with a 7-year, $153 million deal to lure Ellsbury to the Bronx. Red Sox fans were terrorized by flashbacks of Johnny Damon‘s betrayal years earlier. Once again, a star center fielder was ditching Boston to take the money offered by the Evil Empire.
The Red Sox balked at matching the expensive long-term deal for a 30-year old outfielder, letting Ellsbury walk and turning his position over to a young Jackie Bradley Jr. We may not have realized it at the time but this turned out to be a brilliant decision.
Ellsbury’s first season in New York was worse than any prior season in which he appeared in 75+ games. He hit .271 with a .747 OPS and his 16 homers were only half of his career-high total set a few years earlier. That disappointing campaign would turn out to be his best in the Bronx!
Not only did the former All-Star drastically underachieve in pinstripes, a variety of injuries including oblique, back, and hip issues have kept him off the field for the last two seasons. Ellsbury hasn’t appeared in a game since severing as a pinch-runner in Game 4 of the 2017 ALCS. That would end up being Ellsbury’s final game with New York.
The Yankees announced that they have released Ellsbury in order to clear a spot on their 40-man roster. They still owe him more than $26 million, including $21.1 million in 2020 plus a $5 million buyout for his 2021 club option. New York is willing to eat the remainder of his contract, essentially paying to send him packing so that they can fill his roster spot with a useful player.
Ellsbury’s tenure in New York ends with only 520 games played in six years. He hit .264/.330/.386 over that span. The power surge of 2011 proved to be a fluke as he topped double-digit home runs in only one other season and tallied only 39 in the four seasons he actually played for the Yankees. His speed remained an asset with 20+ steals in each of his final three healthy seasons but Ellsbury was a far cry from the league-leading stolen base threat of his prime years.
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The Yankees have already paid Ellsbury nearly $127 million for six years over which time he’s produced 9.9 WAR. Bradley has produced 15.3 WAR in six seasons since taking over as the primary center fielder for the Red Sox while making just north of $20 million. Ellsbury made more money in one season with the Yankees than JBJ had made in his entire career!
Bradley has made one All-Star team and won a Gold Glove, same as Ellsbury. While he can’t come close to the MVP-caliber performance Ellsbury had in 2011, Bradley has provided similar value to the 21.3 WAR that Ellsbury produced in seven seasons with the Red Sox.
Boston clearly made the right choice to let Ellsbury go but they’ll soon be faced with a similar dilemma with his replacement. Bradley is starting to get more expensive, projected to earn $11 million next season before hitting free agency. He’ll be 30 when he hits the market next winter, same as Ellsbury was when he got his deal from the Yankees, with his best years possibly behind him.
Payroll concerns may force the Red Sox to trade Bradley this offseason and will almost certainly lead to his exit in free agency even if he stays one more year. History may repeat itself with the Red Sox letting a former All-Star leave in favor of a younger, cheaper solution.
Ellsbury is among the worst contracts ever handed out by a Yankees organization that once made overspending a habit. Losing a popular player is always tough and it stings more when it’s your fiercest competitor stealing them away but hamstringing the team’s finances with a terrible contract for an underperforming player will always hurt more.