Analysis

Yankees: Does Ellsbury for Cueto Make Sense?

With rumors swirling regarding a potential exchange of Jacoby Ellsbury and Johnny Cueto, would the move make sense for the Yankees?

Every time Jacoby Ellsbury comes up in trade talks, Yankees fans salivate. Ellsbury’s contract has been an albatross thus far and there are still two years left on it.

On Monday, ESPN’s Buster Olney suggested a swap of bad contracts with the San Francisco Giants:

Jacoby Ellsbury is due just over $21.1 million per year in 2019 and 2020 and has a team option of $21 million with a $5 million buyout for 2021.

Johnny Cueto is owed just over $21.8 million per year in 2019, 2020, and 2021 with a $22 million team option or $5 million buyout for 2022.

At first blush, it’s obvious that Cueto is owed an additional year. Since he is injured this year, New York may be considering what the insurance policy is on Cueto. Regardless of the terms of that policy, the Yankees would have to pay a premium and the policy most likely covers just a portion of his salary.

Therefore, the Yankees would be looking for the Giants to pick up a portion of Cueto’s salary. Most likely the Yankees would be asking for around $21 million, or the difference in the contract between Ellsbury and Cueto.

Why would either team do that?

The Giants may think Ellsbury will be healthy and can contribute this year. Rather than paying for a player who can’t contribute now in Cueto, they could see some benefit in having Ellsbury who could contribute this year for a possible playoff run or potentially be a trade piece if they are out and he is performing well.

Ellsbury is a solid defender when he is healthy, however, he has not put up the offensive numbers the Yankees had hoped for when he signed. Still, in the vast expanse that is the outfield in Oracle Park, Ellsbury’s defense could be at a premium.

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The Yankees could be looking at Cueto and see the potential for getting a back of the rotation starter in 2020 and 2021. They also would be freeing up roster space in 2019 by moving Ellsbury and having Cueto on the DL.

One reason the Yankees are seemingly not in on Bryce Harper is the logjam in the outfield. Perhaps they want to clear that logjam. Also, if the Giants are willing to pay for Cueto’s last year, this would lower the AAV of his contract and have a positive impact on the Yankees luxury tax threshold.

Still, though, it would add another year over simply holding on the Ellsbury.

While this deal is complicated, the Yankees front office has shown creativity in the past in order to free up luxury cap space. For instance, instead of exercising Brett Gardner’s option for 2019, the Yankees bought him out and then signed him to a one-year deal at a lower rate.

Moving Ellsbury would allow the Yankees to move on from a player and contract that has been terrible for the team, but also it could allow them more flexibility to operate within the luxury tax rules, if that is their goal. Alternatively (and hopefully), the Yankees really want to clear more roster space to sign Bryce Harper and trading Ellsbury is the vehicle to do so.

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