Prospect Retrospective: Jacoby Ellsbury, OF, New York Yankees

Jacoby Ellsbury - Rob Carr

Can Jacoby Ellsbury live up to his new free agent contract with the Yankees? Here's a look at his career in context.

The New York Yankees opened up the bank vault this week, snagging outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury from the Boston Red Sox for seven years, $153 million. Is this a good move, or will the Yankees regret the contract, at least the back end of it? Let's look at Ellsbury's career in context for some clues.

Jacoby Ellsbury was drafted in the first round out of Oregon State in 2005, 23rd overall, with the pick the Red Sox got from the Angels for losing Orlando Cabrera as a free agent. A star in college, he'd hit .406/.495/.582 with 26 steals, and was expected to move quickly through the system due to his combination of tools and polished skills.

He hit .317/.418/.432 in 35 games for Lowell in the New York-Penn League after signing, swiping 23 bases in 26 attempts, while posting a +28 percent OPS in a pitcher's league. I gave him a Grade B in the 2006 book. The main question for Ellsbury was how much power he would develop.

Assigned to Class A Wilmington to begin 2006, Ellsbury hit .299/.379/.418 in that notorious pitcher's park, with 25 steals in 34 attempts over 61 games. Promoted to Double-A at midseason, he hit .308/.387/.434 with 16 steals in 15 games. His combination of speed, plate discipline, and contact hitting ability was highly impressive, and he drew good reviews for his defense as well. I gave him a Grade B+ in the 2007 book, slotting as the Number 21 hitting prospect.

Projecting his major league future, I wrote "pencil him in as a .280/.350/.400 hitter with 30-steal potential in the short run, escalating to something like .300/.380/.430 at his peak."

Ellsbury began 2007 with Double-A Portland, hitting a stunning .452/.518/.644 with eight steals in his first 17 games. Promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket, he hit .298/.360/.380 with 33 steals in 87 games. He ended the season in the majors, with a .353/.394/.509 mark in 33 games for Boston, swiping nine bases without being caught. Although he didn't show a lot of home run power, everything else was there, and I gave him a Grade A- in the 2008 book, ranking him as the Number Eight hitting prospect in baseball.

His debut may have caused some unrealistic expectations, and some people actually seemed disappointed by his 2008 rookie season: he hit .280/.336/.394 (close to my original prophecy from '07), though he led the American League with 50 steals and his defense helped push his WAR to 4.2. In 2009 he hit .301/.355/.415 with a league-leading 70 steals and a 2.4 WAR.

A collision and subsequent rib injury limited Ellbury to just 18 games in 2010. He roared back in 2011 with a stunning .321/.376/.552 season with 39 steals, 46 doubles, 32 homers, and 105 RBI, posting a 9.4 WAR in combination with his defense. Unfortunately a shoulder injury limited him to just 74 games in 2012, compromising his hitting skills and leading to a .271/313/.370 line, 1.5 WAR.

Healthy enough for 134 games in 2013, he hit .298/.355/.426 with nine homers and 31 doubles, leading the league with 52 stolen bases, posting a 5.8 WAR.

Overall, in 715 games Ellsbury is a .297/.350/.439 hitter, with 241 steals and a career wRC+ of 109. However, his line is spiked by a 149 mark in '11. Overall, he has a career WAR of 23.7.

When he was a prospect, I was an optimist about Ellbury's power development, thinking that he could get into the 15-homer range with maturity. I never expected the 46 doubles, 32-homer outburst of 2011 and it seems unlikely to me that he will repeat that. Overall, Ellsbury has lived up to expectations he generated as a prospect, exceeding them at times, though he's lost large parts of two seasons to injuries.

So where does he stand historically?

Through age 29, Ellsbury's Bill James Sim Score list comes out as

Phil Bradley
Tony Gonzalez
Roberto Kelly
Tommy Holmes
Carl Furillo
Ken Griffey Sr
David DeJesus
Shane Victorino
Pete Fox
Coco Crisp

Interestingly, Tommy Holmes had an out-of-context power spike at age 27, slugging .577 with a league-leading 28 homers. Granted, that was playing diluted competition due to World War Two in 1945, but the parallel remains and he wasn't the only one. Phil Bradley had a strong power spike at age 26, hitting a career-high 26 homers. Carl Furillo had a big power spike at age 27. Pete Fox had a significant power spike at age 26. Griffey Sr. spiked power at age 27. So did Victorino. Ellsbury's case was extreme, but there were precedents.

Is Ellsbury a good investment for the long-term? How will he age into his 30s?

Holmes remained an effective hitter until age 33. Bradley fell apart at 31. Furillo remained above average until age 36, though he become more of a power guy and much less of a speed guy. Gonzalez fell apart at 33. Kelly became a bench player/platoon guy by 32 but still hit .300 at age 34, his last full season. Fox remained effective through age 35 but that includes playing against weak pitching during the war. Victorino and Crisp are still going in their early 30s. Griffey Sr. remained valuable all the way through age 41.

Ellsbury drew Kenny Lofton comparisons when he was a prospect, and that also seems like a good comp. Lofton also spiked power at age 27, lasted all the way through age 40, and finished with a career .299/.372/.423 line, 110 wRC+, with an excellent 66.2 career WAR.

For another group of comparisons, Dave Cameron at Fangraphs ran down a list of speed players and discovered that, generally speaking, they hold their value well, at least into their early 30s. His follow-up article about Ellsbury this week mentioned the possibility of a Carl Crawford like collapse, but also the possibility of a Lofton-like long run of success. Cameron concludes:

There are risks with any player type. Ellsbury is certainly no guarantee, and one serious knee injury could wreck his value in a hurry. At these prices, teams are betting big on areas where some rough assumptions have to be made. But, I think the performance of Ellsbury-like players should at least lend some comfort to teams considering a big contract for him this winter. This player type has historically aged pretty well, and it’s simply not true that they become useless as soon as their speed goes. Ellsbury won’t be an elite defender and baserunner forever, but there’s value in his bat too, and the total package looks to project as a pretty nice piece for the foreseeable future.

That seems reasonable to me.

So, the bottom line: the historical precedents indicate that Ellsbury has a good shot at remaining a very productive and valuable player for the first half of the contract. Once he gets past 33 the risks escalate quickly, although there are some precedents that were effective up to age 40.

I'd have to assume that the Yankees are aware of all of this and are willing to take the risk that the second half of the contract could be troublesome, if the first half helps them win a World Series.

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