In most years, money is of no object to the New York Yankees. Acquiring top-tier talent on the free-agent market is a right of passage in the Bronx.
Last offseason, however, every dollar spent was met with eyebrows raised toward a self-mandated goal of staying under baseball's $189 million luxury tax.
That—combined with allowing second baseman Robinson Cano to depart to Seattle—had baseball fans in a tizzy when the Yankees allotted $153 million to former Boston Red Sox star Jacoby Ellsbury. The signing instantly upgraded New York's outfield, but also put the team and player up to long-term scrutiny together.
Thus far, both the Yankees and Ellsbury look smart for joining forces.
Through 16 games in pinstripes, New York's new center fielder has been worth every penny of his $21.1 million salary for the 2014 season.
When the contract was signed, one thing became certain: Payroll concerns were not above winning in New York. For the 2014 season, the Yankees went all-in to win with Ellsbury as the most prominent position player to arrive in a $503 million spending spree.
On the surface, the price tag made little sense. Despite immense talent and five-tool ability, the 30-year-old Ellsbury had struggled to piece together consistent excellence since becoming a full-time player in Boston during the 2008 season.
Outside of an MVP-caliber year in 2011 (146 OPS+, 32 HR, 39 SB, 8.1 WAR), the left-handed star battled injuries, failed to regain that power stroke and became a player known more for natural ability than eye-popping statistics.
Concerns aside, the Yankees bet big on Ellsbury's ability to stay healthy, transform the lineup, recharge their baserunning attack and play excellent defense in center field.
It's early, but Ellsbury has done that and more.
After a 10-2 victory on Thursday night in Tampa—sparked by Ellsbury's two-hit night—the dynamic offensive threat owns a .364/.419/.491 slash line. Combined with a league-leading seven stolen bases, Ellsbury has been the most consistent and well-rounded player in New York's new-look attack.
Overreacting in mid-April can be a fool's errand, but early-season returns suggest that New York's center fielder is on the path to a special offensive season.
Over the last 20 years—dating back to the 1995 campaign—only five players have registered seasons with 40-plus stolen bases, an on-base percentage of .400 and slugging percentage of .450.
|All-Around Impact: 40 SB/.400 OBP/.450 SLG (1995-2013)|
The rare ability to reach base, hit for power and steal bases sets Ellsbury apart from most players. It's likely part of the reason Yankees skipper Joe Girardi was comfortable batting his first-year player in the No. 3 hole eight times over the past few weeks.
Despite profiling and arriving to the Yankees as a great top-of-the-lineup threat, Ellsbury was able to handle the transition and lengthen the order with first baseman Mark Teixeira on the disabled list.
In eight starts as the No. 3 hitter, Ellsbury produced an .846 OPS. To put that in perspective, ESPN.com indicates that the average No. 3 hitter has posted a .797 OPS this season. Despite leaving his comfort zone, Ellsbury has thrived.
That type of ability and success hasn't been lost on teammates. Relief pitcher Adam Warren explained how difficult of an out his new teammate can be when speaking with Kevin Kernan of the New York Post:
He can hit for average, he can hit for power, he is just a big time threat offensively. I remember pitching to him and you are thinking, ‘Well, he can get a home run, he can get a base hit, if he gets a base hit he is probably going to steal.’ He puts a lot of stuff in your head. He’s a big weapon.
Offensive prowess and versatility are valuable, but all-around excellence is what the Yankees projected when cutting a $153 million check. As infielder Dean Anna explained to Kernan, Ellsbury's control of the game extends into the outfield.
"He’s unbelievable," Anna told Kernan. "That’s a guy, he is just in control all the time. He’s in control of every at-bat. He’s in control out in the field."
If Ellsbury were providing nothing more than a sparkling 161 wRC+ (weighted runs created plus)—a number exceeded by only three hitters last season: Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout and Chris Davis—the Yankees would be getting bang for their buck.
The same can be said for game-changing speed on the bases or gap-to-gap coverage in the expansive center field at Yankee Stadium.
Right now, the Yankees are getting the best of Ellsbury's total game. Time will tell if health and attrition set in and cause substantial regression or missed games, but it's hard to argue with Ellsbury's MVP-caliber performance in April.
Lucrative, long-term contracts are generally poor investments, especially to players with checkered medical records.
Proclaiming Ellsbury's deal a bargain or brilliant move right now is hyperbole, but recognizing the impact it's had on the 2014 Yankees is only fair.
Over 1,100 regular-season games remain on the biggest contract the Yankees ever awarded an outfielder. With every star-caliber performance, the team recoups more value to justify the risk taken on the free-agent market.
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