The New York Yankees made a big splash during the early stages of free agency by signing free-agent center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year deal worth $153 million. It was a deal that was first reported by the New York Daily News' Mark Feinsand with the financial information later confirmed by Feinsand.
Ellsbury is a good player, but he is unlikely to be productive enough to give the Yankees a good return on their investment over the course of the entire contract. Ellsbury is being paid like he is a $20 million-a-year player, but his production over his career doesn't warrant that type of investment.
The Ellsbury signing is made all the more curious due to the fact that the Yankees already had a comparable player on their roster in Brett Gardner. While Gardner may not be the exact equal of Ellsbury, the gap between the two players is not vast. New York is going to pay a ridiculous premium for a slight player upgrade, more than five times more than the player it already had under team control.
The 30-year-old Gardner is only 18 days older than Ellsbury. Both players are used to playing in the competitive AL East. Gardner's career slash line of .268/.352/.381 is not too far off from Ellsbury's line of .297/.350/.439, as Ellsbury's higher slugging numbers are somewhat inflated by his near-MVP season in 2011 when he hit 32 home runs.
On the basepaths, Gardner has an 80 percent success rate stealing bases while Ellsbury is closer to 84 percent. Defensively, according to Fangraphs, Gardner has a career UZR/150 of 23.0, while Ellsbury sits at 10.2.
Ellsbury is scheduled to make $21.1 million in 2014, the first season of his new seven-year deal. Gardner is projected to make $4 million by MLB Trade Rumors' Tim Dierkes next season. Ellsbury had a 5.8 WAR last season while Gardner had only a 4.2 WAR. But Gardner actually has a higher WAR over the past four years, coming in at 15.7 over Ellsbury's 14.8.
Injuries have obviously had a big impact on Ellsbury's career numbers with the Boston Red Sox and injury concerns can't be discounted moving forward. Ellsbury has shown that he is a tough player, but he has played in only 59 percent (384-648) of Boston's schedule over the past four years.
The numbers for both players are very comparable across the board and that's the problem: New York reached for a player when it didn't need to.
In retrospect, the Yankees would have been better served looking at extending Gardner to a contract that would have paid far less than what New York just spent on Ellsbury. New York could have then taken the money that the team just spent on Ellsbury and improved other areas of the roster, specifically the pitching staff and infield.
Ellsbury was the shiny new toy this winter, and New York has struggled recently when it comes to signing the right big-name free agents. It has repeatedly placed name recognition over value in its decision-making process. Gardner is a good enough player to have provided New York with the production it needed short-term and long-term.
The Yankees wanted Ellsbury, but he didn't fill an immediate need on their roster. For a team looking to get back on top, spending big money on the wrong player is a surefire way for the Yankees' long-term struggles to continue.
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