This past offseason, the New York Yankees spent millions of dollars to lock up a player who's best described as both a top-notch defensive center fielder and a speedy, on-base savvy leadoff hitter. Guy who goes by the name of Brett Gardner.
What, you were expecting Jacoby Ellsbury?
While the seven-year, $153 million splurge on Ellsbury as a free agent made all the headlines this past winter, the Yankees also quietly hammered out an extension that pays Gardner $52 million over four years starting in 2015.
Ellsbury was and is seen as a star player, thanks to a resume that includes a third-place finish in the 2008 AL Rookie of the Year voting, as well as an All-Star appearance, Gold Glove and near-MVP win—all in his incredible 2011. Plus, he played a key role in two championships with the Boston Red Sox in 2007 and last season.
As for Gardner? Well, he can say he was part of the Yankees' 2009 World Series-winning team, but he was a backup back then who made all of 14 trips to the plate that entire October. Otherwise, Gardner's received next to nada in the individual-efforts recognition department.
To a certain extent, that's why Ellsbury got P-A-I-D (in capital letters) while Gardner got paid.
And yet, has Ellsbury really been that much better, that much more valuable than Gardner in their respective careers? What if Ellsbury turns out to be "merely" Gardner 2.0 with the Yankees? And is that such a bad thing?
This is all about perception versus production.
To that point, take a look at just how darn similar the two outfielders' stat lines are so far in 2014 (through Wednesday, May 28):
|G||PA||BA/OBP/SLG||R||XBH (HR)||RBI||SB (CS)||K:BB|
|Ellsbury||50||216||.268/.340/.384||27||16 (2)||21||14 (2)||39:21|
|Gardner||50||210||.281/.353/.384||30||11 (3)||22||11 (1)||49:19|
They're practically the same player! Heck, Ellsbury and Gardner were even born—get this—barely two weeks apart in 1983!
Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs
Ellsbury debuted in 2007, and Gardner first reached the majors in 2008, so the former has almost 100 games on the latter. And for what it's worth, neither has been the pillar of health.
That said, despite the extra three-fifths of a season over which to compile WAR—a cumulative metric that takes into account all phases of the game, from offense to defense to baserunning—Ellsbury hasn't been that much more valuable on the whole. Sure, the 4.9 fWAR gap is pretty sizable, but the bWAR disparity is merely 0.7. Again, these two players just aren't all that different.
That might make some Yankees fans cringe, especially given the $153 million that was recently forked over to Ellsbury. Except this isn't necessarily a bad thing from a performance standpoint—both players are very, very good.
The bottom line in all this is that Ellsbury and Gardner are closer in both skill set and value than their respective contracts make them appear. The fact that one of them got paid about three times as much as the other this past offseason? That's due in part to Ellsbury having reached free agency, while Gardner still had one more year of team control.
Of course, it's also about perception. After all, does anyone really believe Gardner would have landed a nine-figure contract anywhere near Ellsbury's had he played out this season and hit the open market in November? Didn't think so.
Is Jacoby Ellsbury better than Brett Gardner?
Ultimately, Gardner has the potential to be a big-time bargain for New York if he simply stays healthy and plays like he has in recent seasons over the next four years. Ellsbury, on the other hand, more or less has to be something close to the 2011 or 2013 version of himself while also proving his injury-prone past is behind him in order for his big-money deal not to be a massive overpay by the Yankees.
And that Ellsbury who somehow smashed 83 extra-base hits, including 32 homers, on his way to slugging .552 back in 2011? That guy's not coming back.
Maybe the best way to look at it from the Yankees' perspective isn't as separate contracts for each player, but rather as a package deal for Ellsbury and Gardner that will pay them a combined $33 million per season going forward.
That way, $16.5 million per player isn't quite so outlandish. Or perhaps Ellsbury's take is $17 million to Gardner's $16 million per—if perception is really that important.
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