Jacoby Ellsbury and the NBA-Style Trade

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Yankees weren’t necessarily looking to add a player who can earn $295 million over the next 10 seasons, but when you can land Giancarlo Stanton by surrendering only cash and a modest return of prospects, it’s an opportunity worth exploring.

The addition of the reigning NL MVP not only has the Yankees leaping the Red Sox in the AL East — 92 to 91 projected wins according to our projections — but he creates one of the rarest player tandems in history with Aaron Judge, making the Yankees’ lineup extremely potent on paper and also must-watch entertainment.

The biggest negative regarding the transaction for the Yankees is the $22 million Stanton luxury-tax number Stanton adds to the club’s payroll.

According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the addition of Stanton places the Yankees’ 2017 payroll at $183 million, which includes arbitration estimates, pre-arb salaries, and player benefits. The luxury-tax threshold is $197 million in 2018. In 2019 and 2020, the Yankees have $97.15 million and $97.24 million committed in guaranteed salaries and player benefits before including arbitration costs, pre-arbitration salaries, and minor-league players on the 40-man roster.

For a team interested in short-term upgrades, like finding another arm and perhaps adding a second baseman, first-base insurance and another option at catcher, that’s little room for added payroll. In the longer term, if the Yankees want to pursue, say, Bryce Harper next offseason, they might need to shed some salary to stay under the tax threshold — or at least restart their tax-penalty clock and avoid or delay the most punitive new measures in the CBA that include two tiers of surcharges. If a team spends more than 20 million above the threshold it is subject to an additional 12% tax and then a 42.5% to 45.0% tax on spending that is $40 million above the threshold.

And surcharges occur on top of the luxury tax: 20% for a first-time payer, 30% for a second-time payer, and 50% for a third-time one.

Baseball, in essence, has made its soft salary cap more rigid.

As Billy Witz reported for the New York Times, the Yankees entered the offseason motivated to get below the tax for the first time.

The Yankees are the only team that has been taxed every single season, and they have paid close to $335 million across those seasons, far more than the rest of baseball combined …

Just last month, the Yankees’ principal owner, Hal Steinbrenner, said it was “absolutely a goal” to get below the luxury tax threshold — and there is good reason.


The Yankees are still below the threshold, but they’re going to have to be creative to stay below it to address short-term and longer-term needs unless they can shed salary. And there is a top candidate to shed: Jacoby Ellsbury, who is owed $63.3 million over the next three seasons and has a $5 million buyout in 2021.

Ellsbury is not total sunk cost. He produced 1.8 WAR, .264/.348/.402 slash line, and a 101 wRC+ last season. He averaged 1.5 WAR over the last three years. He could fill a role. But as he enters his age-34 season, he’s not the kind of player you want to owe $68 million. The other issue is he is not going to fill a starting role in New York. The Yankees have the corner outfield positions covered, Aaron Hicks is going to start in center, and Brett Gardner is also ahead of Ellsbury on the outfield depth chart, though perhaps not a trusted center-field option at this point in his career.

Ellsbury is a fifth outfielder owed $68 million. There are few contracts a team would rather shed this offseason. Complicating matters is that Ellsbury has a full no-trade clause.

Still, the Yankees ought to try and move him. Easier said than done? Yes. But let’s explore some hypotheticals that could contain some logic and pragmatic appeal.

While the Phillies eroded a portion of their spending power by signing Pat Neshek on Monday, they still entered the offseason with the second-most room to add salary after the Tigers — around $70 million, according to Craig Edwards’ estimates. The Phillies are also projected to be one of the worst teams in the sport according to FanGraphs’ projections. Spending on high-end free agents might be a bit mature for the Phillies particularly given next year’s class. But the Phillies could use their spending power to buy prospects, essentially. They could make an already “elite” system (according to Baseball America) better.

What could they buy? Part of it depends on how they project Ellsbury’s remaining performance value. For the sake of simplicity without accounting for inflation, let’s say he’s worth about a win a year — or about $27 million in performance value over the next three seasons — given regular playing time. So he has a projected surplus value of negative-$41 million.

What would it take to move a player with a projected surplus value of negative $40 million? According to prospect values, that’s a position-player prospect with a future value grade of 55. FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen stamped Clint Frazier with a FV of 55 last year. Frazier appears to be an attractive trade chip for the Yankees. Left-handed pitcher Justus Sheffield has a FV 50 (worth $14 million). The Yankees moved similarly valued prospects at last summer’s trade deadline.

Baseball’s cap makes this sort of NBA-style trade a possible option for a number of other clubs, too.

According to Edwards, the Tigers have the most payroll room entering the offseason, just over $80 million. The Tigers are in need of young talent to refresh their system and could benefit from a similar NBA-style trade. The White Sox, A’s, Mets, Angels, Braves and Orioles are other teams that have money to spend — more than $30 million in estimated payroll space — but might have little motivation to spend on free agents while also having an interest is adding young talent. They could all stand to purchase some prospects from a Yankees’ system that is still loaded for talent.

The no-trade clause is a significant issue. Ellsbury probably doesn’t want to play for a team that is not expected to contend. But if Ellsbury wants to play at all, he might have to accept a trade, as he’s headed for reserve duty in New York.

The Yankees could use more payroll space. Many teams are in need of young talent. Ellsbury is not going to play much in New York. Where there is a will, payroll space, and prospects, there is a way.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
6 years ago

I also like Rusney Castillo in this role. So long as he’s marooned in Pawtucket he isn’t affecting the RedSox luxury tax number so the urgency isn’t the same. But $37M is still an awful lot of money to spend on a guy who’s never going to play, and I’d bet a willingness to buy that contract off of Boston could land someone … something of value at least.

6 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

The difference is the Sox aren’t overflowing with prospects with no path to starting. DD saw to that when he gutted a top minor league farm for relief and starting pitchers

6 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

Until that deal’s almost shot, it’s a huge thing to convert his salary from untaxed to taxed. For all the teams with big financial resources, the taxed vs. untaxed distinction matters, and for the ones without big pockets, if Boston has to eat salary to move him then it’s probably a deal breaker given their efforts to get under the cap last year and this coming year.

6 years ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

Rusney Castillo’s contract counts towards the luxury tax.