Jacoby Ellsbury Has Gone from $153M Bust to Critical Yankees Playoff Race Spark

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterSeptember 18, 2017

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 13:  Jacoby Ellsbury #22 of the New York Yankees follows through on an eighth inning double against the Tampa Bay Rays at Citi Field on September 13, 2017 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. The two teams were scheduled to play in St. Petersburg, Florida but due to the weather emergency caused by Hurricane Irma, the game was moved to New York, but with Tampa Bay remaining the 'home' team.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

There was a time, not all that long ago, when Joe Girardi kept getting asked how he could afford to keep Jacoby Ellsbury in the New York Yankees lineup. There was a time, not long after that, when Ellsbury was sitting more than he was playing.

If you want to understand how far Ellsbury has come in the past couple of months, all you need to know is this: Sunday, everybody wanted to know why he wasn't in the Yankees lineup.

Just a day off, Girardi explained to reporters.

"I don't want to wear him down physically where his bat and his legs are not alive," the Yankees manager said, per MLB.com's Bryan Hoch via Twitter.

In other words, the Yankees need Ellsbury these final two weeks of the season if they are going to have any chance of catching the Boston Red Sox in the American League East. They need Ellsbury in October if they are going to have any chance of winning a postseason game for the first time since 2012.

He wasn't good enough to play in August. He's too important to risk wearing down in September.

Go ahead and bring up his contract if you want. Go ahead and wonder what the Yankees are going to do with him in the years to come, when they owe him more than $21 million per year for each season through 2020 (the year he turns 37).

That will be more than relevant again at some point. It's totally irrelevant now because the Yankees are trying to win something, and Ellsbury's revival has given them a better chance of doing it.

Even Sunday, when Ellsbury was supposed to be getting a rest, he came on as a pinch hitter and later had a ninth-inning double that gave the Yankees a chance against Baltimore Orioles closer Zach Britton. New York lost, but it was another example of what Ellsbury has been doing for nearly a month.

The postseason is nothing new for Ellsbury, who was an important part of two championship teams in Boston.
The postseason is nothing new for Ellsbury, who was an important part of two championship teams in Boston.Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

He got back in the lineup Aug. 26 against the Seattle Mariners, after starting just one of the five previous games. At the time, he was hitting .237 for the season and just .186 since spending a month on the concussion disabled list.

Ellsbury had two hits that day and two hits again the next day. The Yankees won both games. They have won 12 of the past 17 games he has started, and starting with that Aug. 26 game against the Mariners, Ellsbury is hitting .381 and scoring nearly a run per game.

"He's just played extremely well," Girardi said. "Jacoby's been a big part of us winning [five] series in a row, the way he's played. He's going to continue to play."

Why is it happening now?

"Staying on the ball better," said an American League scout who saw the Yankees earlier this year and again this week.

The Yankees signed Ellsbury just as Robinson Cano was leaving to sign with the Seattle Mariners.
The Yankees signed Ellsbury just as Robinson Cano was leaving to sign with the Seattle Mariners.John Minchillo/Associated Press

Maybe the concussion he suffered running into an outfield wall May 24 had lingering effects that have gone away with the passage of more time. Maybe he had trouble getting going after missing so much time. Or maybe he's just having a good month in the midst of what has been a multiyear decline.

Whatever it is, Ellsbury deserves credit for keeping himself ready when he wasn't playing much. Girardi regularly praised him for being ready to play, and Ellsbury said in August that he knew no other way.

"I just prepare each day like I'm going to start," he said, at a time when he often wasn't starting. "I do everything I can in the video room and the batting cage and in early work on the field. And then you're just ready when your number is called. You're just trying to help the team win. At the end of the day, that's what it's all about."

If Ellsbury ever makes things more complicated than that, he rarely shares it publicly. He didn't complain when he wasn't playing. He hasn't said all that much now that he is.

He got back in the lineup at a time when Aaron Judge was struggling and stayed in the lineup in part because Aaron Hicks got hurt again. He's not going to win an MVP award, as he nearly did with the Boston Red Sox in 2011, but he could be key in October, as he was when the Red Sox won the World Series in 2007 and 2013.

He scored 14 runs in 16 games in the 2013 postseason. He was still a good enough player that the Yankees seemed to be overpaying by only a bit when they gave him $153 million over seven years the same winter they drew a line on keeping Robinson Cano.

It turned out they overpaid by quite a bit. A $153 million player ought to be an All-Star once in a while, and Ellsbury hasn't been one in any of his four seasons in New York.

He's not an All-Star now, but he is an important part of what is beginning to look like a very good team. Whatever he cost and whatever the Yankees have left to pay, the fact is they need Jacoby Ellsbury.


Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.