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Should the Orioles actually want to acquire Jacoby Ellsbury?

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Apr 28, 2017; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury (22) follows through on a grand slam against the Baltimore Orioles during the seventh inning at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Should the Baltimore Orioles trade for Jacoby Ellsbury?

Should anyone trade for Jacoby Ellsbury?

There has been word on background from a major league source to our Jon Heyman that the Orioles have a certain amount of interest in acquiring Ellsbury should the Yankees be willing to pay more than half his salary — as of right now, the Yankees have only suggested a willingness to pay half. That itself, of course, marks a major salary dump; Ellsbury is making almost $22 million a year each of the next three years, with a $5 million buyout for the final year of his contract that will almost certainly be exercised.

Ellsbury certainly isn’t of much interest to anyone at $22 million a year. Outside of his lightning-in-a-bottle 2011 season, he has been a speed-and-defense player his entire career, more notable in his first couple seasons in the majors for getting Red Sox fans free tacos whenever he stole a base (120 free tacos in his first two full seasons alone) than anything else he did. For the vast majority of players, speed doesn’t age all that well, and Ellsbury’s stolen base numbers and defensive prowess have both fallen off a bit as he aged past 30, while his offense has stayed consistently below league average over the past three years. Had Aaron Hicks stayed healthy all of last year, it’s entirely possible that Ellsbury would have appeared in even fewer than 112 games in 2017.

That’s another thing with Ellsbury: Five of his 11 seasons in Major League Baseball have seen him play fewer than 120 games, and two of those five seasons came within the last three years. Teams thinking about trading for him as a fourth outfielder or 1-A option in center field may not have much of a choice; as Ellsbury enters his age-34 season, it becomes less and less likely that he’ll be able to handle a full season’s workload from here on out. A team acquiring Ellsbury would be on the hook for at least part of his salary for his age-35 and 36 seasons, too.

The Orioles, of course, already have a center fielder: All-Star and face of the franchise Adam Jones. His contract is up at the end of the season, but it’s hard to buy Ellsbury as a serious replacement for Jones, or even as leverage to use against Jones in negotiations before he hits free agency (assuming there will even be any — all contract discussions between this Oriole front office and its current players seem particularly icy at the moment, with Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop both skipping the Orioles’ Fanfest and Jones making no secret of the fact he wants to play for a winner). More likely Ellsbury would be added to the left field/designated hitter carousel that Baltimore has employed over the last few years; ideally, if Ellsbury was coming in at something like $8-9 million a year for the next three years, the Orioles would immediately turn around and offload Mark Trumbo somewhere… but it’s even harder to think of a prospective landing spot for him. Ellsbury’s light bat still hurts in left field, but at least his defense should play a little better there.

None of this matters, though, or at least it shouldn’t for the Baltimore Orioles, because under no circumstances should the Orioles assist in clearing even a cent of any contract from New York’s books to help the Yankees get further under the “competitive balance tax” threshold. Whatever value Ellsbury would add to the club — which would be marginal at best — would be more than offset by giving the New York front office more money to play with under its self-imposed payroll ceiling. There’s simply no good reason to do that as a division rival, especially when the player coming back the other way is so middling. If the Orioles aren’t competitors, what do they need an expensive veteran for in the first place? Baltimore isn’t a dumping ground for contracts New York has decided it no longer wants.

If Baltimore wants a center fielder, it had its chance to sign Austin Jackson — who was available quite cheaply — and didn’t make a move. There’s no reason to help the Yankees while filling a position that clearly wasn’t a priority when a cheaper, safer option was available. Oriole fans no longer have the spirit to ask for much from their team; everyone’s pretty sure they’ll never have good starting pitching ever again. But Baltimore helps the Yankees too much as it is on the field. There’s no reason to start helping them off it.

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Jonathan Bernhardt lives and works in the Baltimore area. He has previously covered Major League Baseball for Baseball Prospectus, Sports on Earth, VICE Sports, and The Guardian.

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