In the fall of 2013, the Red Sox had just won their third World Series in a decade and the Yankees had just missed the playoffs for just the second time in 19 years. Robinson Cano, far and away New York’s best player, was a free agent. Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury, a year younger, was also a free agent. Ellsbury hadn’t exactly been the picture of health, playing 384 games over the previous four seasons. Over the same period, Cano had played 640. That’s right, Cano missed 8 games in four years, or 10 fewer than Ellsbury played in all of 2010. Cano and Dustin Pedroia had been duking it out for the title of baseball’s best second baseman since 2010, when Chase Utley’s body decided it couldn’t play a full season anymore. Ellsbury had a case as the game’s second-best center fielder at the time, though a very distant second to 22-year-old Mike Trout.
The Yankees offered Cano $175 million over 7 years, which would have been the fourth-largest contract they had ever handed out (after A-Rod, Jeter, and Teixeira) with the second highest average annual value (after A-Rod). The Mariners, who were coming off a streak of four straight losing seasons, offered Cano $240 million for ten years. The Yankees refused to top that, so Cano was off to Seattle. It’s hard to blame a guy for turning down an extra $65 million, even if it comes at the cost of being his generation’s Derek Jeter or Cal Ripken. It’s also hard to blame the Yankees for not wanting to sign a 31-year-old second baseman to a ten-year contract.
In their dumbest move since outbidding themselves and signing Alex Rodriguez to a second ten-year deal, the Yankees responded to losing Cano by signing Ellsbury to a $153 million deal for seven years, at an AAV of just under $22 million. It wasn’t a deep free agent class, with Cano and Ellsbury head and shoulders above everybody else. Of course, by signing a player with an injury history like Ellsbury’s, you basically need to sign both that player and a steady backup. Ellsbury has been relatively healthy as a Yankee, missing significant time only in 2015. Cano, of course, has only missed 12 games in the three years. The value of a player who plays every day cannot be overstated — ask Derek Jeter. Since changing teams, Cano has obviously been better than Ellsbury in just about every way, with a slash line of .299/.355/.479 to Ellsbury’s .264/.326/.382 and similar defensive value.
[Side note: .326 OBP from a leadoff guy? Seriously? No wonder he’s now hitting fifth.]
Predictably, Cano has trounced Ellsbury in WAR, with 17.1 to Ellsbury’s 8.0 (per Baseball-Reference). Their teams’ results have been similarly predictable: the Mariners averaged 69 wins in the four seasons prior to acquiring Cano; they’ve averaged 83 in the three years since. The Yankees have gone from averaging 93 wins in those four seasons — and that doesn’t include 2009, the year they won 103 games and the World Series — to 85 wins since trading Cano for Ellsbury.
By signing Ellsbury instead of Cano, the Yankees saved three years and $87 million, or approximately what they just gave Aroldis Chapman (4 years at $86 million). Was it worth it? With a career path seemingly like nobody in history — except arguably Rogers Hornsby (that’s a whole other post) — Cano is a future Hall of Famer. The only way Ellsbury is ever getting into the Hall is by buying a ticket. Or possibly as David Ortiz’ date.