When the Yankees made the knee-jerk reaction to sign Jacoby Ellsbury following the departure of Robinson Cano, there were plenty in the industry that suggested the contract wouldn't age well. They were right, except even they might not have believed it would happen well before the midpoint of the pact.
Baseball organizations make long-term deals with the understanding that they should be rewarded with upfront production, maximizing value early in the contract, all the while being ready to concede that the final year or two of the deal will result in below-average production. The Yankees never believed Ellsbury would have one solid season in New York before completely falling apart, but should they have?
Ellsbury - through the genius of his agent Scott Boras and New York's "We're the mighty Yankees" mentality - benefitted from his career season with the Red Sox two years prior, and his aiding Boston to the 2013 World Series title. He already displayed an up and down production history (equal full seasons of below and above-average OPS+ marks), combined with injuries keeping him out of 144 games in 2010, and 88 games in 2012.
Ellsbury was very good - not exceptional - in his first year in pinstripes, turning in a 111 OPS+, which gave some hope for the deal. Unfortunately, he has been a shell of a player worth over $21 million per season. In the last three seasons, Ellsbury has averaged 124 games played with an 89 OPS+ in over 1,500 plate appearances. His legs were part of his calling card and those have deteriorated as well, with the 34-year-old averaging 21 stolen bases (with a poor 75.9 percent rate) in the three-year span.
As Ellsbury enters his fifth season with the Yankees, many fans have grown tired of his presence on the roster, and the club has been forced to find a spot for him as a reserve. No matter what the Yankees choose, Ellsbury will never equate to the value he is being paid. To make matters worse, he has demonstrated that he's a consistently fragile player (he is currently missing time with a strained oblique). The Yankees cannot even rely on Ellsbury as a reserve player at this point.
According to reports, the Yankees shopped Ellsbury for the entire offseason. Word also leaked out that the Yankees would be willing to eat slightly more than half of the remaining $68+ million on Ellsbury's contract to make a trade happen. Not surprisingly, that was not enough to entice much of any traction. Ellsbury maintains a full no-trade clause (another Yankee mistake), which makes a trade even more difficult than trying to convince another club there is something left in his tank.
The Yankees could point to the time that Ellsbury was contributing last season before suffering a concussion, but the high points with the center fielder have been invariably met with equivalent lows throughout his tenure with the club. For every positive another team might glean from scouring Ellsbury's statistical line, there is a negative that sounds alarms. Make that loud alarms -- the type that the Yankees should have heard in the distance while Boras waxed poetic about his "superstar" bringing more rings to the Bronx.
To say the Yankees are stuck is a bit of an understatement. Teams in the league are already pushing aside players in their mid-30s that have zero commitment attached to them. Even if the Yankees took on $50 million, an acquiring team would have to invest $18 million in Ellsbury over the next three years. Why would any club make that move for a below-replacement level player with a proven inability to stay on the field?
It seems the Yankees will eventually have to bite the bullet of this contract, or take on virtually the whole cost in a trade. I'm not certain the Yankees will do it this season, but with a glut of outfielders on the roster and a slew of younger (and arguably better) options waiting in the wings, it may not be far from coming.
The Yankees have no other choice.