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The Yankees (and fans) took all the wrong lessons from Jacoby Ellsbury

In many ways, he was the rallying cry against big contracts. In fact, he’s an argument to go all-in.

MLB: Spring Training-Detroit Tigers at New York Yankees Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Yankees fans, classy as ever, took to social media to express their frustration at Jacoby Ellsbury and the team eating the final $26 million of his seven-year, $153 million deal. That complaint entailed, according to Brendan Kuty, “dissing... Ellsbury on his most recent IG post — a picture of his baby daughter on July 4.”

While going straight for the actual public face of a person who had little to do with the terms of his contract and how it panned out would be unfair, it’s a little less unfair to say that his contract was still, from the team’s perspective, a (mostly) unmitigated disaster. There’s really only one reason Ellsbury will be cut from the 40-man roster, from the New York Post:

“The Post learned that Ellsbury’s final season at $21 million wasn’t insured. Even released, Ellsbury and his annual average value of nearly $22 million would count toward the Yankees’ 2020 luxury-tax figure.”

This was never reported on during the lengthy time between his last game in 2017 and now that his final season was uninsured, an important factor to note when you consider that the team happily let Ellsbury sit on the sidelines while they collected a portion of his salary over the last two seasons. Once the insurance money spigot ran dry, they figured that they should cut their losses and absorb the luxury tax implications altogether.

Ellsbury is the victim not of a big deal that went wrong, but actually an ill-fated organizational strategy that only a team like the Yankees can weather, a lesson that really should teach the opposite of how fans and ownership took it and continue to take it.

When he signed, this was, remember, the year that Robinson Canó became a free agent and signed with the Mariners for ten years and $240 million. The Yankees, feeling freshly burned by the prospect of eating the rest of Alex Rodriguez’s mammoth deal, decided to spread their risk around into multiple players rather than just Canó; so, they signed Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, and Masahiro Tanaka instead of doling out for the one, long deal (they likely sign Tanaka even if they retained Canó, I would think).

In short, they shot themselves in the foot. Ellsbury played just 520 games in pinstripes, and hit .264/.330/.386 with 8.1 fWAR in the process, good for about 2.5 wins per 162 games. McCann, to his credit, was a serviceable catcher at least defensively, putting up 8.2 fWAR in his three seasons before being shipped to the Astros. Beltran was effective when he was healthy, hitting to a 116 OPS+ and was the team’s best hitter to start 2016, but he played in just 341 games.

Canó, on the other hand, has a 125 OPS+ in the 811 games since becoming a free agent, and he now finds himself seventh all-time in second base JAWS. While his positive test and suspension for a diuretic could put his Hall of Fame case in some jeopardy, it was clear that—and it sounds tautological because it is—paying Hall of Fame money for a player yielded Hall of Fame performance.

The New York tabloids love to snicker about bad contracts, and Ken Davidoff at the New York Post said that the lesson of the affair is to “Beware of shiny objects without examining them closely,” going on to say that Giancarlo Stanton falls into a similar category, and to think of the same as they pursue Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg, despite them having more valuable tool sets. To that I said: bzzt, wrongo.

Stanton was an opportunity that was unique in that a team basically threw him on to their lap; for a team trying to build on their success in 2017, it’s a no-brainer to add a generational talent, even if it doesn’t work in the end, at the time given the situation. The problem with Ellsbury, though, is that Canó was the Stanton at that time, and they swung and missed.

If you’re the Yankees, what hurts you more: a) signing a player for two-thirds of a blockbuster and getting mediocre-to-poor performance, or b) signing a blockbuster that yields great short-term results and ultimately fizzles out at the end? You obviously pick b), and here’s why.

The Yankees can weather the storm of an Ellsbury because they are the Yankees, but the situation is actually harder with someone like him rather than Rodriguez or Canó. When they reach the end of the line, you may have to eat the contract, sure. But someone like Rodriguez produced well over 50 wins in pinstripes, making the end slightly more palatable. Having to cut a player that produced much less, while still basically having to pay a similar amount, stings a bit more.

The free agent market has largely agreed, as total expenditure has decreased but both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado still got at least $300 million. The reason is that the value, as we’ve seen, on the free agent market isn’t really linear. Players in the mid-to-high-range have a higher variance in performance than Machado, Harper, or others, where you can basically bank on them tallying at least three wins in the first season, and at least 10-20 wins in total. People like to laugh at the Albert Pujols deal, yet even in that instance he has been worth 13+ wins in Los Angeles, while being paid (so far) about $30 million more than Ellsbury.

The lesson that the Yankees took from this is to, essentially, not sign big deals at all. Stanton notwithstanding, the Yankees have not signed a single deal even in the ballpark of Ellsbury, and their only deal of a similar length was to Aaron Hicks, who is under contract for $70 million over seven years.

The impetus of being forced to pay for Ellsbury’s luxury tax may force the Steinbrenners to just hop over the tax threshold, hopefully, and maybe it inspires them to do a 2008-09 spending spree instead of 2013-14. Instead of spending big on short-term risks as a way to circumvent signing the big ticket items, they should probably remember why they’re the Yankees to begin with: because if you can handle the fallout of any potential deal, you might as well shoot for the stars.