By Sweeny Murti
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Depending on your perspective the Yankees either have great outfield depth or too many outfielders to keep.
Clint Frazier’s name has been brought up in trade talks for a controllable starting pitcher and there are still those who believe a trade like that will happen before pitchers and catchers report Feb. 12.
Frazier has trade value, but can also be a key piece in New York. The addition of Giancarlo Stanton probably pushes Frazier to Triple-A as insurance and a call-up at the first sign of injury. He could also slide into left field in 2019 with Brett Gardner’s contract up after this season.
So while Frazier has considerable value both in-house and on the market, Jacoby Ellsbury is very squarely on the outside looking in.
The starting outfield and designated hitter spots are set with Gardner, Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge, and Stanton likely holding those four positions on a regular basis. The Yankees have a number of depth options, as Frazier, Billy McKinney, and Jake Cave are all on the 40-man roster, along with newcomer Jabari Blash.
With that full lineup I mentioned, that next outfield spot is a bench role at best. It offers too little playing time for a top prospect like Frazier, but could be perfect for an up-and-down candidate like Cave or a versatile utility man like Tyler Wade.
You know who doesn’t fit? Ellsbury, the guy with three years and $68 million left on his contract, plus that pesky no-trade clause. We know the Yankees’ motivation to move him, but what is Ellsbury’s to accept? Maybe it’s simply to find a place he can play. Having already lost his starting job to Hicks, the Stanton trade left Ellsbury with no real position on this team.
When Ellsbury arrived in New York before the 2014 season it was to be an impact player. He had a strong 2013 season with Boston, and it was hard not to like what you saw in person when he slashed .333/.400/.511 in 10 games against the Yankees that year. Ellsbury then went on to help the Red Sox win the World Series. He played every inning of all 16 postseason games that year as Boston’s leadoff hitter and center fielder.
Ellsbury had a decent first season with the Yanks in 2014 and, with durability the biggest knock against him, he played in 149 games, hit .271 with a .747 OPS, 16 home runs and 39 stolen bases. It wasn’t off the charts, but you could see how good a player he was. Ellsbury got off to a good start in 2015 before suffering a knee injury and it has really been downhill ever since.
Over the last three seasons Ellsbury has produced just a .702 OPS, played in more than 112 games only once, and has a three-year total of just 23 home runs.
At times — early in the 2015 season and September of last year — Ellsbury showed signs of being the player the Yankees had hoped for. But whether it was the knee in 2015 or the concussion in 2017 — injuries that sidelined him for months — Ellsbury never recovered enough to give the Yankees what they were paying for. He had a very strong finish in 2017 (.912 OPS in September), but that earned him only a spot on the bench come October.
And that is the biggest indictment against Ellsbury as a Yankee — the postseason. He was signed to be their leadoff hitter and center fielder. In 13 playoff games last fall, Ellsbury did neither, not even once. He played in only seven games and started just four (all at DH and batting eighth). Ellsbury played only one game start to finish when he went 0-for-4 in the Wild Card win over the Twins. Overall, Ellsbury has 10 postseason at-bats as a Yankee, no hits and has played one inning in centerfield (the ninth inning of the 2015 Wild Card loss to Houston).
Ellsbury’s regular seasons have been unremarkable and his postseasons have produced nothing. The Yankees have given away his position and his spot in the batting order. So the question is this: why on earth would he reject a trade if it meant the chance to play and salvage some of his reputation and legacy as a player capable of making an impact? It’s a discussion that Ellsbury should be having with his agent Scott Boras, who can — and likely will — have a great deal of influence on the outcome.
What does Ellsbury want? Does he want to ride the bench as a Yankee? Or does he want to play and contribute and compete, perhaps win a third career World Series ring as something other than a fifth wheel?
At 34, with diminishing speed and little power, Ellsbury is not a desirable piece unless the Yankees eat some money. Which is why they would have to consider paying at least $15 million per year in order to make him a fit somewhere. However, any savings they can get from his $21.9 million AAV (for luxury tax purposes) would be valuable.
There is some question about Hicks’ durability after a pair of oblique injuries last year limited him to only 88 games (that number was also held down by the outfield rotation). But he played every inning of all 13 playoff games in center. He was given Ellsbury’s job and there is no reason to think it will be given back. Gardner’s ability to spell Hicks in center offers roster flexibility, while Frazier provides insurance, too.
Last month after the Stanton trade, I said I would be surprised if Ellsbury were still a Yankee by February because he just didn’t fit anymore. General manager Brian Cashman countered by saying Ellsbury could come to spring training and win back his job from Hicks. But Ellsbury played great last September and still lost that job.
At some point Ellsbury has to decide for himself what makes sense for him. And he needs to decide sometime in the next five weeks before spring training begins.
Please follow Sweeny on Twitter at @YankeesWFAN