The Yankees won 100 games last season despite getting nothing — literally zero plate appearances and zero defensive innings — from their third highest paid player. Jacoby Ellsbury was hurt all year but don’t blame him for his contract. That’s on the Yankees. How could he say no to that offer? The team’s success without Ellsbury shows how little the Yankees need him right now. He’s a non-factor.
Ellsbury had season-ending hip surgery in August and he is questionable for Opening Day according to Brian Cashman’s most recent update, which came in October and is not all that recent. The Yankees do have an open bench spot and Ellsbury could slot in there. It’s also possible Ellsbury has already played his final game as a Yankee. He’s so far out of the picture right now that the club could release him once healthy and move forward with Clint Frazier (or someone else) in that bench spot.
Despite his lost 2018 season, there have been some trade rumblings involving Ellsbury this winter. The Yankees and Mariners discussed an Ellsbury-for-Robinson Cano swap at some point, and Cashman said other clubs have asked about Ellsbury in what he called “money-laundering” scenarios. A bad contract-for-bad contract swap, basically. Ellsbury is still on the roster, so obviously those conversations didn’t go anywhere, but they did happen.
According to Buster Olney, the Giants have “talked about” Ellsbury as they pursue outfield help. Talked to the Yankees about Ellsbury? Only talked internally about Ellsbury? Who knows. San Francisco has considered Ellsbury. That much we know. Whether they engaged the Yankees in trade talks is another matter. Let’s talk about this a bit.
1. What do the Giants have to offer? As you’d expect, Olney says a bad contract-for-bad contract swap would be the likely outcome. You can forget unloading Ellsbury’s entire contract, or even most of it. Maybe the Yankees would eat enough salary to turn him into a $5M per year player and get a prospect back? I suppose. Some cash savings and a prospect is a good outcome in my book.
Anyway, the Giants have a lot of bad contracts right now. They’re currently where the Phillies were in 2012. Lots of money tied up in declining players with a crash coming. The crash has come already, really. San Francisco lost 98 games in 2017 and 89 games in 2018. Ellsbury is owed approximately $47.5M the next two years with a $21.86M luxury tax hit. Some possible matches:
- Johnny Cueto: $68M through 2021 ($21.67M luxury tax hit)
- Jeff Samardzija: $39.6M through 2020 ($18M luxury tax hit)
- Brandon Belt: $51.6M through 2021 ($17.2M luxury tax hit)
- Brandon Crawford: $45.6M through 2021 ($12.5M luxury tax hit)
- Evan Longoria: $73.18M through 2022 ($11.17M luxury tax hit)
Hard pass on Longoria, who is signed for another four years and is declining every way possible. Offensively (.285 OBP in 2018), defensively (-4.4 UZR), you name it. Crawford has slipped a bit since his 2014-16 peak but is still a quality two-way shortstop and those are tough to find. I don’t see why the Giants would trade him for Ellsbury. It doesn’t make sense for them on the field or financially.
Buster Posey is recovering from his own hip surgery and will presumably see more time at first base going forward. That figures to make Belt expendable and Ellsbury-for-Belt would work for the Yankees. They’d get a lefty first base bat and the total salary is close to a wash, though it’d be spread across three years rather than two. Ellsbury and Greg Bird for Belt? Maybe? Possibly? I feel like San Francisco could fetch more for Belt. Maybe I’m wrong.
Ellsbury-for-Cueto would be very complicated. For starters, Cueto is recovering from Tommy John surgery and is unlikely to pitch this year, so he does nothing for the 2019 Yankees. He’d be a pickup for 2020-21. Secondly, Ellsbury and Cueto have nearly identical luxury tax hits, but Cueto has another year on his contract and more money coming to him. I think the Giants would jump all over a straight-up trade given the money situation.
An Ellsbury-for-Cueto deal would require some work to make both sides happy financially. I could see the Yankees taking on salary in exchange for a lower luxury tax hit (i.e. Ellsbury-for-Belt). Taking on salary for the same luxury tax hit though? Nah. From a baseball perspective, the Yankees would swap an outfielder they don’t really need for a potential 2020-21 rotation option. Someone to replace CC Sabathia next year and provide depth. Could be cool?
To me, Ellsbury-for-Samardzija is the most realistic scenario. A straight up trade would give the Yankees a serviceable swingman and save money, so, in that sense, go for it. The Yankees would presumably have to eat money to make this work though. The Yankees trade an outfielder they don’t need for a possible swingman. The Giants trade a starter they (probably) don’t need for an outfielder. Both sides would deal from depth to address a weakness.
San Francisco has several bad contracts on the books and multiple outfield openings, so, on paper, they’re probably the best fit for an Ellsbury trade. That doesn’t mean a trade will happen, of course. Ellsbury-for-Samardzija makes the most sense and seems most doable to me. Ellsbury-for-Cueto would be really complicated, Ellsbury-for-Belt or Ellsbury-for-Crawford strikes me as a bad fit for the Giants, and Ellsbury-for-Longoria gets a hard no from me.
2. What about Ellsbury’s insurance? This might be the single biggest hangup in an Ellsbury swap. The Yankees have insurance on Ellsbury’s contract — they reportedly recouped $15.9M of his $21.14M salary last year — though that doesn’t help the luxury tax situation. It does save the team real dollars though. Why trade Ellsbury for Samardzija when you could potentially save millions through insurance, and sign a Samardzija-caliber pitcher on the cheap?
We haven’t had an update on Ellsbury’s hip surgery rehab in a while now and it could be that he isn’t expected to miss enough time for the insurance policy to kick in. Usually the player has to spend so many days on the disabled list before the insurance company starts to pay out. In a screwed up way, Ellsbury missing time makes him less valuable to other teams (because he’s still hurt) but more valuable to the Yankees (because insurance pays out).
3. Couldn’t the Giants just sign a free agent? I mean, yeah. This is what I don’t understand. Cot’s says the Giants are $34.4M under the $206M luxury tax threshold. Couldn’t they just sign Adam Jones or Curtis Granderson for $5M or so and get a healthy outfielder without going through the hassle of a bad contract-for-bad contract trade? If they could unload future dollars with a Cueto or Longoria deal, I’d get it. Otherwise … why?
Perhaps money in San Francisco is tighter than I realize. They did reset their luxury tax rate last year, so that’s good, but they also saw attendance decline for the fourth straight year. The World Series(es) honeymoon seems to be over. Plus every team is cutting payroll nowadays. Why sign a free agent when you could trade for some other team’s busted player and not add payroll? Unless it’s a Cueto or Longoria situation, where significant future dollars are cleared up, I don’t get whey the Giants would want Ellsbury over a free agent. Then again, it’s not my job to get it, so there you go.
4. Would Ellsbury waive his no-trade clause? Beats me. The Giants are pretty bad, but they are closer to Ellsbury’s home in Arizona and his family in Oregon, plus there is a (much) clearer path to playing time with San Francisco than there is with the Yankees. For what it’s worth, Samardzija (eight teams) and Belt (ten teams) have limited no-trade clauses. Crawford has a full no-trade clause and neither Longoria nor Cueto have no-trade protection.
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Olney’s report is quite vague (isn’t every hot stove rumor vague these days?) so it’s unclear how much interest the Giants have in Ellsbury. Is this something they kicked around the office the way every team discusses every player each offseason? Or did they have sincere “hey, this could work for us” talks? The rumor passes the sniff test in that the Giants need outfielders and they have ammo for a bad contract-for-bad contract trade.
On paper, the Yankees have no real use for Ellsbury right now. That was even more true last year, yet there was Jace Peterson in left field nine games into the season, and Shane Robinson in right field much of August. If the Yankees can work out a bad contract-for-bad contract trade and turn Ellsbury into a piece that better fits the roster, great. If not, they’ll wait until he’s healthy and recoup as much as insurance money as possible in the meantime, then figure out whether he fits the roster.