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High Heat: Yankees’ Ellsbury era is finally over

New York Yankees' Greg Bird is congratulated by Jacoby Ellsbury after Bird hit a two-run home run in the fifth inning of Game 2 of baseball's American League Division Series against the Cleveland Indians on Oct. 6, 2017. The Yankees cut Bird and Ellsbury on Nov. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/David Dermer)

Brian Cashman made a move that was long overdue Wednesday night when the Yankees announced they were releasing oft-injured outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury despite there being one year left on his contract. 

Having to protect some minor-leaguers with upside, New York removed Ellsbury — along with Greg Bird and Nestor Cortez — from its 40-man roster. While there are sure to be more roster moves coming as the Hot Stove season picks up, Cashman made the most logical move in releasing Ellsbury, who has not played in a major league game since Game 4 of the 2017 ALCS and appeared in only 520 of 1,134 possible regular season games since signing a seven-year, $153 million contract with the Yankees in December 2013. 

What an utter disaster this signing was. One can argue that Ellsbury is not only Cashman’s worst free agent signing, but perhaps the worst signing the Yankees have ever made. 

Ellsbury hit .265/.330/.386 during his Yankees tenure, which is serviceable for a center fielder. But the Yankees needed to be more than serviceable, and he failed them. Perhaps it was unfair for the Yankees to expect much more from Ellsubury than what he gave them. While he was a decent player for most of his career in Boston, Ellsbury only really had one elite season.

In 2011, he posted a .321/.376/.552 batting line to go along with 32 home runs and 105 RBIs while adding strong defense in center field. Ellsbury finished the season with a 9.5 WAR in 2011 after topping out at 4.2 in his first fours years in Boston. And he never topped a 4.6 WAR after 2011. 

The Yankees made an emotional decision when they decided to bring Ellsbury on board. They knew they were about to lose home-grown star Robinson Cano in free agency — the Yankees weren’t going anywhere near the 10 years and $240 million Cano eventually got from the Seattle Mariners — and saw an opportunity to steal a star from Boston in Ellsbury.

The expectations that came with the contract were overblown from the start and Ellsbury never came close to reaching them. New York expected Ellsbury’s power to surge with the short porch in Yankee Stadium, but he never finished a Yankees season with more than 16 home runs and failed to reach double-digit dingers in any other season in New York. 

Looking back on Ellsbury’s tenure with the Yankees, it’s easy to see how this was clearly Cashman’s worst free agent signing, and it’s not even close. Cashman has made plenty of smart moves over the years, but he’s had his fair share of blunders. 

There was the Carl Pavano signing (four years, $39.95 million) that saw the former Florida Marlin start only 26 games and pitch to a 5.00 ERA as a Yankee. Then, there was the Kei Igawa signing (five years, $20 million, along with a $26 million posting fee), which saw the Japanese southpaw pitch in only 16 games across two seasons. But add up those two contracts — including the posting fee for Igawa — and you get $85.95 million, which is $76.5 million less than what the Yankees gave Ellsbury. 

And now, even with Ellsbury gone, the Yankees still owe him $21M in salary next year plus the $5M buyout of his 2021 club option. He’s the gift that keeps on giving!

While Ellsbury hasn’t come close to returning to the big leagues while dealing with injury after injury during the last two seasons, he simply isn’t worth the roster spot. Even if he were to magically be healthy heading into the 2020 season, he’ll never be the player the Yankees envisioned when they signed him, so it made no sense to keep him around. 

Now, Cashman and the Yankees can move on, and officially close the book on the Jacoby Ellsbury era. It was about damn time. 

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