He was one of the most desirable free agents on the market in 2013. A centerfielder blessed with a rare combination of speed, plate discipline and a penchant for extra base hits would be available to any of the thirty major league clubs. Christmas came early in December of 2013 for Jacoby Ellsbury, fresh off seven stellar seasons with the Boston Red Sox replacing the popular Johnny Damon and winning two World Series championships in the process. Following in his lead, Ellsbury also chose to sign a massive free agent contact with the New York Yankees and faced the burden of elevated expectations. At the end of his second season in New York, concealed buyer’s remorse sets in as Ellsbury endures his worst slump in his career with youngsters waiting in the wings.
The ink had yet to be dry on a robust seven-year, $153 million contract, but Ellsbury inherited one of the most prime pieces of real estate in sports, center field for the New York Yankees. Flickering images of DiMaggio, Mantle, and Williams adorn the position and every player to follow must live up to the legacy and make their mark as they blaze a new trail. Ellsbury’s first season with the Bombers largely produced an adequate return on the investment, batting to a .271/.328/.419 slash line with 16 home runs, 70 runs batted in and a 3.3 WAR for a club virtually out of playoff contention for much of the second half of 2014. Perhaps the biggest saving grace for Ellsbury was his ability to stay out of the trainers room and log at least 149 games for the first time since 2011.
With Derek Jeter no longer in the fold and a team seemingly in transition, much would be expected of Ellsbury for the 2015 campaign. Ellsbury came out of the gates eager to improve upon his first showing in the Bronx, batting above .320 through late May with a team leading 14 stolen bases, but a sprained right knee dampened his gains and opened the door for former top prospect Slade Heathcott to take the reins in center field. A native of Texarkana, Texas, Heathcott’s background was well documented as a born again Christian who recovered nicely from alcohol and drug issues to earn his first big league call up. In the stead of Ellsbury, Heathcott provided instantaneous energy for the Yankees, leading them to a three game sweep against the Kansas City Royals on Memorial Day weekend, going 6 out of 17 for a .353 average during his first week in the show. Like Ellsbury, injuries, the bane of Heathcott’s minor league career sidelined him until August and eliminated any long-term look at the rookie until September.
Recovery time was slower than expected for Ellsbury as the Yankees tried every option in the outfield from rookies such as Mason Williams and Ramon Flores to Chris Young. Ellsbury returned to the lineup prior to the All-Star break and the Yankees anticipated a revert back to form prior to injury. The second half however turned into regression. A recent free-swinging approach and aggressive tendencies have led Ellsbury to a putrid .210/.251/.328 slash line, while remaining entrenched in the leadoff spot. A higher strikeout rate and fewer walks contribute to diminishing results and an ongoing 2-for-28 slump intensifies the pressure Ellsbury currently faces. To add insult to injury, entering Tuesday, Ellsbury collected just five hits since August 30th, none of the extra base variety. His only multi-hit games have come against Tampa Bay Rays ace Chris Archer, who he has hit over .500 against in his big league career. Despite these extended woes, the Yankees appear committed to staying the course and not make any changes and hope Ellsbury regains his past form.
As Ellsbury dealt with his extended slumber at the plate, Heathcott returned from his quad stain and helped lead the Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre Railriders to the International League playoffs. After a batting just .205 in August, Heathcott regained his timing once the postseason rolled around in September he hit to a .417/.478/.619 slash line, regaining both his confidence and his stroke. As rosters expanded Heathcott earned another opportunity and the made the most of it on Monday, hitting a three run home run on the first pitch he saw against Rays closer Brad Boxberger for a 4-1 victory at Tropicana Field to provide a spark to a team suddenly seeing their stranglehold in the American League wild card race begin to evaporate.
With less than twenty games remaining in the regular season, the Yankees can ill afford to wait for things to go their way. Jacoby Ellsbury, though a vital component to their postseason aspirations, continues to struggle mightily, showing few signs of improvement. Perhaps the Yankees would be apt to place Brett Gardner in the leadoff spot and give a start or two to Heathcott. Giving Ellsbury a day or series off could help revitalize a once potent hitter and allow him to work through his struggles between games in the batting cage and rectify any possible mechanical issues with his plate approach. The month of September create a chance for young minor league prospects to provide a shot in the arm for players beginning to feel the aches and pains of a grueling 162 game slate. Heathcott, a player set on making the most of his chances this season could give opponents a different look and continue to take advantage of unfamiliar pitchers, while gaining invaluable experience in a pennant race. The Yankees have relied on close to twenty rookies this season to keep them afloat as they pursue their first postseason berth. The contributions by Luis Severino and Gregory Bird since their August promotions have reestablished faith in the club’s minor league system, thanks to their surging starts and compliments a veteran laden roster.
Too often, teams feel indebted to veteran players with proven track records due to financial investment and undue pressure by the front office. When high-priced players fail to produce it places undue pressure on both the club and said player especially in the largest media market in the United States. Down the stretch it sometimes takes an unheralded prospect or an unproven player to assist a team’s playoff hopes and reignite the passion once ingrained within a clubhouse and regain their edge. Allowing Ellsbury a mental day away from the starting nine can help simplify things for a veteran who has been in a position to compete for a championship on multiple occasions. The Yankees will need Ellsbury to live up to his advanced billing once October rolls around, but also need to recognize that it might be time to try something different to eventually return to convention.