There is an alternate universe in which the Yankees won the World Series, and amidst all the rejoicing realize they have a dilemma. Does Jacoby Ellsbury get a ring? To answer that question, one must define what it means to be a Yankee, or even a baseball player at all.
In one sense, a baseball player is defined simply as a person who plays baseball; in turn a Yankee is one who does so for the New York Yankees. Using this criteria, Ellsbury was technically a Yankee in 2018. He appeared in six Spring Training games, going 1-14 with a pair of walks. However, there were other Spring Training Yankees who surely wouldn’t have received a hypothetical World Series ring, such as traded players like Tyler Austin or minor leaguers like Estevan Florial.
No, it’s going to take more than a few Spring Training games. Another definition could be someone who is paid to play major league baseball by New York Yankees Partnership. Ellsbury surely checks this box. In fact, he was the third highest paid player on the team in 2018, and will be again in 2019 (assuming they don’t sign Manny Machado).
It still doesn’t feel right. Ellsbury never emerged from the ether of the disabled list all season long. His Baseball-Reference page makes no mention of 2018 as a year in which he played baseball. Indeed, it was a lost year for the so-called outfielder, but he remains under contract through 2020. What is to become of the rest of his Yankee career?
Finding a role
One thing is sure about Ellsbury in 2019, he will make a lot of money. The Yankees owe him $21,142,857 for the coming season, just as they paid him each of the last five years and will pay him the same in 2020. (He also has a team option for $21 million in 2021, but will almost certainly be paid the $5 million buyout.) As such, he will be a nominal Yankee once again this spring.
If he’s miraculously healthy (which he undoubtedly isn’t), no one knows what kind of player he really is anymore. From 2015 to 2017, he was a slightly sub-par starter, amassing 1.1, 1.6, and 1.7 fWAR each season. This was the result of below average offense, pretty good baserunning, and acceptable center field defense.
Now 35-years-old, he won’t have faced live pitching in a calendar year when Spring Training rolls around. With a medical history longer than Santa’s naughty list, he’s undoubtedly lost a few steps. He’s probably a corner outfielder these days, and the baserunning will have suffered similarly.
Even at full health, if such a thing exists, he might no longer exceed replacement level. The Yankees appear to have moved on without him. In addition to the insurmountable starting outfield of Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks, and Aaron Judge, they also feature Clint Frazier— the poster boy for “post-hype sleeper prospect.”
The final nail in Ellsbury’s pinstriped coffin may have been Brett Gardner. Once upon a time, Gardner moved from center to left to accommodate Ellsbury. This winter, the Yankees kick-started the offseason by bringing back Gardner on a one year, $7.5 million contract. If the Yankees had faith in Ellsbury’s recovery, would they have paid as much to retain a fourth or fifth outfielder? Not very likely.
Health and wealth
Realistically, Ellsbury will probably never play for the Yankees again in the regular season. In 2018 alone, he suffered significant injuries to his hip, oblique, labrum, and plantar fascia while not really playing baseball. He finally succumbed to season ending surgery in August to repair the labrum and hopes to be ready for Spring Training (whatever “ready” means).
Even before the 2018 season that never was, Ellsbury had a lengthy medical rap sheet. Injuries plagued him during his Boston Red Sox days, and he failed to play at least 135 games in five of his eleven full seasons in the majors.
The craziest part of the story is that the Yankees don’t want him to be healthy.
As reported by Wallace Matthews of Forbes.com, the Yankees collected nearly $16 million on Ellsbury’s insurance policy last season (75 percent of his salary). If he proves healthy this spring, the team can no longer collect. They’ll be forced to pay the nearly $47.3 million remaining on his contract— without reimbursement— even though he’s likely no higher than sixth on the outfield depth chart.
For whom the bell Tulo’s*
The Yankee medical staff and front office decides when Ellsbury can come off the disabled list, but surely the insurance company doctors determine his actual health. When the insurance money dries up, the Yankees have to decide what to do with him. The division rival Blue Jays already made their choice with a similar player.
As Beyond the Box Score’s Azam Farooqui and Devan Fink describe thoroughly, the Blue Jays could no longer keep Troy Tulowitzki on the disabled list (read: yielding insurance money). Forced to activate him and his hefty salary in the spring, they opted instead to release him outright. They’ll still pay the remaining $38 million on his guaranteed contract, but with his diminishing skills and the team’s limited roster space, they decided they’d rather pay him to seek employment elsewhere.
The Tulowitzki situation is nearly identical to Ellsbury’s if the insurance doctors deem him fit for baseball. Possibly that never happens, and the Yankees ride out the next two years collecting insurance on their injured player. Otherwise, they have to either play him or release him. If the Blue Jays are any indicator, Ellsbury will never play again for the Yankees.
Playing a different sport in the same metropolitan area, Jeremy Shockey received a Super Bowl ring from the New York Giants in 2007. He started 14 of 16 regular season games at tight end, but when he broke his leg and ceded the job to rookie Kevin Boss, the team blasted through the playoffs and defeated the New England Patriots to claim the championship.
Shockey wasn’t on the sidelines during the game. He didn’t attend the victory parade or ring ceremony. All the same, he is officially a Super Bowl champion as a Giant. (He later won another Super Bowl with the New Orleans Saints.) He was a member of the team, and a starter for the bulk of the season, so they gave him a ring regardless of whether or not he wanted it.
Shockey was a 2007 New York Giant more than Jacoby Ellsbury was a 2018 New York Yankee. He’s technically a member of the 2019 Yankees as well. As things currently stand, they have as good a chance as any team of winning the next World Series. If so, should they give Ellsbury a ring? Would he want one?
*-Couldn’t resist. Sorry.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983