Jacoby Ellsbury's transition to a part-time player for the Yankees arrived earlier than even his most fervent detractors predicted when he signed a seven-year, $153 million contract before the 2014 season. Ellsbury's season is not going exactly as he or the Yankees expected, but at the moment, things are working out, making his hefty contract feel slightly less burdensome.
Despite starting the season as New York's starting center fielder, a concussion forced him out of the lineup for nearly a month. When he fell into a bad slump upon his return and saw the emergence of Aaron Hicks and Clint Frazier, he saw his role reduced.
The soon-to-be-34-year-old outfielder took it in stride and is beginning to click as the playoffs near. From Aug. 26 to Sept. 4 (nine games, seven starts), Ellsbury has been scorching hot, hitting .423 with a 1.175 OPS in 29 plate appearances. Ellsbury has four extra-base hits among his 11 knocks and has driven in seven runs during the span.
His recent excellent performance is better than his numbers at the start of the season, when he hit .281/.349/.422 with a 107 wRC+ through 38 games as of May 23. He was running well with eight stolen bases in 10 attempts, and proved that the Yankees' plan entering Opening Day seemed to be paying off.
When the season began, Ellsbury was one of two Yankees that figured to get a bulk of the plate appearances as the club's starting center fielder. The Yankees envisioned Hicks maneuvering around the outfield, potentially making a weekly start at each position in an effort to keep Ellsbury and Brett Gardner fresh and to alleviate any rookie pressure that Aaron Judge could feel.
On May 24, Ellsbury suffered a concussion that forced him to miss 29 games when he crashed into the center-field wall while making a dazzling catch. By the time he returned, Gardner was playing well, Judge was destroying baseballs at a record pace and Hicks had taken off with full-time at bats, which seemed to indicate Hicks would steal more time from Ellsbury than anyone else.
Then, Hicks suffered a strained right oblique, which allowed Ellsbury to slot back into the starting lineup. Only in a two-month stint since returning from his concussion, Ellsbury hit just .186 with a .289 on-base percentage and .297 slugging percentage in 41 games, which led to the promotion of Frazier, ranked among the top prospects in the majors entering the year. When Frazier began outperforming Ellsbury, the veteran saw his playing time reduced.
But Ellsbury never sulked as he saw a 22-year-old Frazier take reps in the outfield. When Frazier suffered an oblique injury of his own, Hicks slid back into the batting order, seemingly leaving Ellsbury on the bench.
When Hicks hit the disabled list with another oblique strain, this time to his left side, Ellsbury has begun to get hot. Though the right-handed Frazier is set to begin a rehab assignment this week, the left-handed Ellsbury should still maintain a lion's share of the time in the outfield if he continues to be productive at the plate.
Ellsbury is still owed more than $68 million over the next three seasons and has a $5 million buyout for a 2021 option. The Yankees could look to trade him in the offseason, but they would likely have to fork over a sizable sum of cash to another team and receive Ellsbury's consent given he has a full no-trade clause. I.e., the Yankees cannot expect to get fully out from his massive contract.
However, instead of washing it away, the Yankees might believe that since Ellsbury has figured out how to stay fresh and competitive without daily at-bats, he could continue to allow them to allow them to absorb some of the deal. This is plausible considering the inexpensive nature of the future presumable focal points of the outfield in Judge, Hicks and Frazier. Keeping Ellsbury around and letting the younger players carry the load could necessitate a trade of Gardner, but that's for another discussion.
Ellsbury's contract will surely be viewed as a large mistake when all is said and done, but his ability to acclimate to a sporadic role could make it a little easier for the Yankees to swallow.