One of the most high-profile moves of the offseason was Jacoby Ellsbury’s defection from the Boston Red Sox to the New York Yankees. The Yankees were credited with adding an impact player, even though they paid top dollar to do so, and questions arose as to how the Red Sox would replace Ellsbury in centerfield. The consensus is that top prospect Jackie Bradley Jr. will take over in centerfield to begin the season. Bradley Jr. brings a different skill set to the table from his predecessor, but he is expected to have the same kind of impact on a major league game. This great potential is a key reason why the Red Sox were wise to leave the job for Bradley Jr, rather than spend exorbitant amounts of money on a contract for Ellsbury’s post-prime seasons.
Using Oliver’s 5 year WAR projections we can calculate that, in total, Ellsbury will be worth 16.6 WAR to the New York Yankees. When considering the fact that a win (1 WAR) was valued at around $6 million on the free agent market this offseason, we can see that Jacoby Ellsbury is expected to be worth roughly $99.6 million over the next five seasons, assuming health. Ellsbury’s contract calls for him to earn $109.5 million over the next five seasons, so we can say that Ellsbury is being paid above market value for his projected production. This is aside from the fact that he will play every season of this contract in his 30’s, making the risk of decline a real possibility. Since much of Ellsbury’s value comes from speed and athleticism, a decline with age in those areas would also come with a significant decline in his overall value to the Yankees.
Taking a look at Bradly Jr.’s Oliver 5 year WAR projections, we see a familiar pattern of value. Bradley Jr is expected to produce a total of 14.6 WAR over the next five seasons, during which he will be playing at 24-28 years of age. At the previously mentioned rate of $6 million per win, Bradley Jr. would be worth $87.6 million on the free agent market for those seasons. Bradley Jr.’s future salaries are difficult to predict due to the nature of salary arbitration, but for at least half of those years the Red Sox could reasonably be expected to pay him around the major league minimum, with slight incremental raises coming through arbitration in subsequent years. There is extra upside here for the Red Sox as well, in that with the right development, Bradley Jr. could outperform these projections and be worth more to the team than is currently expected.
When broken down by the numbers, it is pretty clear that the Red Sox made a wise move in allowing Jackie Bradley Jr. to man centerfield over Jacoby Ellsbury. While Ellsbury is an established, productive major league player and is expected to produce slightly more value over the foreseeable future than Bradley Jr., the difference is not enough to justify the gross salary discrepancy. It boils down to a choice between paying top dollar – maybe even more – for a player (Ellsbury) entering the latter part of his prime who also represents a substantial risk of injury or decline, or allow a highly-regarded prospect who represents substantial upside since he won’t even be playing in his prime years (Bradley Jr.) to play and provide similar, almost identical production while making only a fraction of his expected value. The Red Sox made their centerfield decision with an eye towards the future, and so far their vision seems clear and accurate.