TAMPA, Fla. — Back in 2011, the season Jacoby Ellsbury finished runner-up to Justin Verlander for the American League MVP, he was a first-year arbitration player earning $2.4 million from the Red Sox.
Ellsbury batted .321 with 32 home runs and a .928 OPS, a stat line that now looks like an egregious misprint on his resume, as useful as it was two years later to get him a seven-year, $153-million contract from the Yankees.
Since that dark day Ellsbury’s pen was put to paper, he’s produced a slash line of .264/.326/.382 for the tidy annual sum of $21 million, the same amount Alex Rodriguez is being paid to be a spring-training instructor and special adviser to Hal Steinbrenner.
If A-Rod is as valuable a mentor as Steinbrenner claims, and can help develop Gleyber Torres, Jorge Mateo and Clint Frazier into All-Stars, we dare say he’s a better buy than the underachieving Ellsbury, who’s been behaving like a Boston double-agent.
It’s supposed to work in reverse. Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens, Johnny Damon. Each one changed their Sox for pinstripes and won a ring, thereby cementing favored-son status in the Bronx. While Ellsbury doesn’t deserve all the blame for the Yankees’ recent downturn, he makes a convenient scapegoat for the discontent. And when the front office starts making noise about wanting more bang for its buck — as Brian Cashman mentioned last week — it’s safe to say Ellsbury is wearing a target on his back heading into the 2017 season.
Not that he’s going anywhere. Ellsbury is signed through 2020, has a full no-trade clause, and still is guaranteed $89 million (we’ll assume the Yankees will pass on the 2021 option). If he doesn’t pick it up a bit at the plate, and get more aggressive on the basepaths, the Bronx could start feeling more toasty for the centerfielder.
Good thing for Ellsbury he’s the kind of guy that seems completely unfazed by it all. Or at least gives that impression. Ellsbury was a late arrival to Steinbrenner Field this week because of the birth of his daughter, Crew, and spent roughly seven minutes Wednesday dispassionately swatting away numerous variations of the “underperforming” question.
If Ellsbury was disappointed, or frustrated, or just felt plain-old guilty about not playing up to his past MVP-caliber potential, he didn’t express one ounce of that. Despite the repeated attempts at squeezing it out of him. When told that Cashman thought “there was more in the tank” from him, Ellsbury barely flinched.
“Last year, I hoped to have a little bit better overall season, so that’s how I look at it,” Ellsbury said. “But yeah, just continue to work hard, that’s all I can do. You’re going to have seasons where you’re a little better. Just continue to put the time in.”
The one question that did seem to tweak Ellsbury a smidge was the idea of Joe Girardi moving him down in the lineup, perhaps even much lower than he’d consider comfortable, in the bottom third. After three seasons of subpar Ellsbury, at a premium cost, the Yankees’ decision makers probably aren’t too concerned about rattling him. And the notion of getting dropped down appeared to strike a nerve. Sort of.
“I’m going to talk to Joe first,” Ellsbury said. “I haven’t talked to Joe about that. Hadn’t really thought about it yet. In the offseason, it’s about you working on your skills and then coming into camp. I’m sure Joe and I will have a conversation at some point.”
How does Ellsbury think that chat is going to go? His .703 OPS last season ranked 48th among the 54 outfielders with enough qualifying plate appearances, and the 20 stolen bases in 148 games was a stunningly low rate by his standards. Another problem — Ellsbury isn’t getting any younger. He’s 33, the age when downward trends begin, especially for players that rely on their legs to impact a game. As you might expect, Ellsbury brushed aside the suggestion.
“I don’t even let that enter my mind,” he said. “I still have speed, still have explosiveness, so that’s how I view it. I try not to look at age. Just how the body feels. And the body feels good.”
Great. That’s what the Yankees are looking for. Now Ellsbury just has to deliver what they’re paying for.
Jacoby Ellsbury hasn’t been able to meet the standards he set with the Red Sox after signing a seven-year, $153-million deal with the Yankees:
RED SOX (7 years)YANKEES (3 years)
.297 BA .264
.350 OBP. .326
,439 SLG. .382
.789 OPS .708