By Ernie Palladino
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On the surface, the Yankees’ deal for Jacoby Ellsbury doesn’t look like a bad one, save for that $153 million over seven years that would put a chokehold on most teams in Major League Baseball.
He hits, having come off a .298 season. He runs, having stolen a league-high 52 bases in 2013. He gets on the basepaths, as a .355 on-base percentage indicated.
At 30, he’s still young enough to have plenty of useful seasons ahead of him. If not seven of them, then the Yanks might at least get four or five before they start bemoaning the big-money expenditure.
But here’s the catch: The Yanks might not even get that much. Ellsbury, you see, gets hurt an awful lot. And after watching one pinstriped hero after another head off to various types of rooms — X-ray, trainer, operating — the thought of adding a player who played in 18 games in 2010, 74 in 2012 and 134 in 2013 (a low for seasons in which he has played 100 games or more), well, that’s just a little scary.
While there’s no doubt what a healthy Ellsbury could do for an outfield that missed power-hitter Curtis Granderson for most of last year, there will always be the question of whether the former Red Sox star’s bones will hold up after the next collision. While Ellsbury doesn’t have the power of Granderson, he at least puts the ball in play. But he, of course, can’t do that sitting on the bench injured.
After seeing Mark Teixeira, Granderson and Kevin Youkilis have their seasons ruined by injury, it becomes ever more difficult to take comfort in Ellsbury’s arrival.
He’s a crapshoot, pure and simple. A gamble that, even at best, does not give the Yanks the power they lacked in the outfield.
Ellsbury hit but nine homers last year, which is less of a surprise than the 32 he came up with in 2011. That went as his only foray into double-digits in a seven-year career. With his fragile history, there is absolutely no guarantee he’ll get there for a second time. In fact, there’s no guarantee he gets there if he stays healthy, either.
Still, Ellsbury shows a consistent bat when he does play, and that’s something else the Yanks sorely needed in a season where key hits appeared as rarely as mistakenly-discarded winning Lotto tickets on a subway platform. You look for them, sure, but when you finally find one it’s like Christmas morning.
The Yanks are trying to avoid that feeling in 2014. Hence, the Ellsbury pickup. But they need more than an injury-prone contact hitter to spruce up their lineup. Brian McCann will certainly help with some power out of the catcher’s spot. But they truly need another corner-outfield type with some pop. That’s where the $21 million average they handed Ellsbury could handcuff them. If they really are intent on staying under the $189 million luxury-tax ceiling, Ellsbury could restrict them from further significant offensive additions.
Remember, they’ll be hot and heavy in the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes when, or if, the Nippon Professional Baseball ever makes him available. Thursday’s announcement that the Rakuten Golden Eagles might not “post” Tanaka this season after all could throw those plans out the window. But nothing is for certain yet, so assume the Yanks have a pile of good, old, American dough to throw toward a particular 25-year-old right-hander from the Far East.
Still, a healthy Ellsbury will benefit that lineup next year with consistency and speed as long as he can stay in uniform.
And let’s face it, the Yanks never look two years down the road at anything. The objective is to win now and worry later.
They can only hope Ellsbury’s injury history doesn’t cause those worries to happen sooner than later.
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