The Yankees were shut out of the postseason for just the second time in the Wild Card Era, they watched their bitter rival waltz away with a championship, they were dragged through an ugly public feud with their star player and they watched their TV ratings and attendance numbers plummet. It was not a good year for the Empire. So how would the Empire respond to defeat, debacle, and humiliation?
Like they always do: The Empire strikes back. The Yankees and Jacoby Ellsbury agreed to a seven-year, $153 million deal Tuesday, according to multiple reports. The deal, the third-richest contract ever for an outfielder, is pending a physical that is expected to take place Wednesday. The signing came on a breathless day that saw a flurry of moves in major league baseball, none bigger than the All-Star centerfielder’s move to New York, a move that significantly strengthens the Yankees in the short-term but will be a deal they regret years from now if Ellsbury’s injury history continues. (Yes, the Yankees have money, but just how easy has it been for them to unload A-Rod or Mark Teixeira?)
Here’s the thing: Even after their big moves this offseason — the signing of All-Star catcher Brian McCann also became official on Tuesday — the Yankees are not done. What’s next? Shin-Soo Choo? Carlos Beltran? Masahiro Tanaka? Robinson Cano? Everything is still in play.
Clearly, though, the Yankees in recent days began to feel like their longtime second baseman was slipping away. (Reports had the Mariners emerging as serious players in the sweepstakes.) So instead of forking over the more than $200 million to Jay-Z, the Yankees went out and landed the second-best free agent available, a 30-year-old centerfielder who, when healthy, is one of baseball’s best all-around players (he should have won the AL MVP in 2011), an impact hitter who plays elite defense and is a plus runner who adds value with his baserunning (he led the AL in stolen bases in ’08, ’09, and ’13). Ellsbury is also the kind of dynamic player who will make the Yankees exciting again—the early expectation is that he will play center with Brett Gardner and Alfonso Soriano in the corner outfielder positions and Ichiro Suzuki and Vernon Wells on the bench.
It’s hard to believe — considering that we’re talking about the Yankees here — that almost no one saw this coming. The deal rocked the baseball world Tuesday night, but it is far from a crazy gamble for New York. In the short term, the signing will look good for the Yankees. Speedy outfielders like Ellsbury do tend to age well, and even when Ellsbury is no longer an elite burner, he can still be an impact bat in the Yankees order. Ellsbury will see an uptick in his power numbers, with Yankee Stadium’s short rightfield porch.
But let’s remember what kind of player he is -- the big question with Ellsbury has always been his health. He had a huge 2009 season, then played in just 18 games in 2010. He looked like one of the best players on the planet in 2011, when he led the majors with 364 total bases, then played just 74 games in 2012. It’s reasonable to expect three our four great seasons from Ellsbury, but odds are, in 2017 or '18 we’ll be talking about Ellsbury as one of the more overpaid players in the game. After 2008, the last time Yankees missed the playoffs, they went out and spent almost half a billion dollars on CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett, and they won the World Series the next year. The 2014 Yankees club still does not look like a championship team — they still have too many questions in the rotation. But there’s no doubt that they are already much better and good enough to make a run at the Red Sox and Rays in the AL East next season. They are already the big winners of this strange, unpredictable, wild offseason. And the Empire is not yet done.