For some reason, I felt a shudder when I first heard about Jacoby Ellsbury‘s contract with the New York Yankees. To get the Red Sox’ oft-injured centerfielder into pin stripes, the Yankees paid Ellsbury Top 20 money. Among deals signed over the last year, Ellsbury is now earning more than Dustin Pedroia, Elvis Andrus, Josh Hamilton, David Wright, Cole Hamels, and Zack Greinke. I understand that service time plays a role in some of those contracts, but I rather like the point that basic sticker shock makes. Compared to outfielders, Ellsbury’s annual value is stronger than Ryan Braun (the second, late service years deal, even!), Matt Kemp, and B.J. Upton. Needless to say, I felt a shudder when I thought about the future implications of this deal for the Brewers’ own centerfielder, Carlos Gomez.
When Gomez signed his contract extension, the deal was significant for a number of reasons. First, the Brewers solidified a core member of their team in the middle of the diamond, and they did it as he was emerging offensively. Even as centerfield evolves into more of an offensive position in the contemporary era (really, it’s kind of stuck in a strange balance between offense-first and defense-first), keeping depth up the middle of the diamond is always a good thing, especially if the man can wield a glove. Secondly, the Brewers front office nabbed several free agency years from Gomez, a Scott Boras client. This is worth mentioning because Boras clients almost never sign extensions that buy out free agency deals (and the Ellsbury deal, among others, is a good reason why); in fact, Carlos Pena is one of the only Boras clients of note that I can think of that signed an extension before free agency that bought out free agency years (if anyone can name others, I will gladly listen).
The Brewers will pay Gomez $24 million for (approximately) his 7th, 8th, and 9th years of service. The Ellsbury contract averages out to nearly $23 million per season — so, while the deal will likely be backloaded, the Yankees will pay Ellsbury nearly triple the amount that the Brewers will pay Gomez for their centerfielder’s 7th, 8th, and 9th service years. If the Gomez extension did not seem significant before, it appears to be an even better deal in hindsight (and sure, I guess it’s cheap to look at that deal in hindsight, and yet, Brewers GM Doug Melvin will pay his centerfielder approximately 1/3 of Brian Cashman‘s centerfielder.).
In fairness, there are many reasons Ellsrbuy should earn more than Gomez. Ellsrbury signed his contract on the open market, while Gomez’s deal was a buyout of free agency years. One might add, Ellsbury was not rushed to the majors as much as Gomez, and was more prepared for regular play than Gomez when he came up in 2007. Furthermore, Ellsbury was a regular who suffered injuries, while Gomez shifted between regular and bench roles, only recently earning full-time centerfield duties. Finally, there is a sense that Ellsbury always was the player that he is now, at least in terms of his basic attributes (patience, speed, even slugging — minus 2011). On the other hand, Gomez famously changed his batting approach under coach Dale Sveum, and is only now realizing power potential that many mentioned for years. In some ways, Melvin’s extension of Gomez was a gamble that Gomez’s changes would pay off; Cashman’s signing of Ellsbury is to recognize that he’s a free agent being compensated for a generally even career.
Yet, it’s still worth asking, how does Gomez compare to Ellsbury? I was convinced, before I looked, that Ellsbury would be better than Gomez, bar none. Yet, since Milwaukee acquired Gomez, he has been surprisingly comparable to Ellsbury. First, let’s get 2007-2009 out of the way; Gomez’s time with the Mets and Twins does not come close to Ellsbury’s first three seasons.
However, from 2010-onward, the story is quite different for these two players. Ellsbury maintained his strongest attributes, including his speed, patience, and discipline. While Gomez and Ellsbury both experienced increases in power, Gomez’s transformation was much more extreme. Not surprisingly, Gomez also realized and applied his speed potential, and his fielding also improved as a full-time player.
Perhaps the best aspect of the Gomez extension is that if his offensive improvements do not stick, he’s still an exceptional centerfielder. Gomez arguably has more power potential than Ellsbury, and both players have speed. As they age, Ellsbury has an edge with patience and discipline, while Gomez has an edge with defense. In both cases, these centerfielders are well equipped to age without completely losing their ability to perform in some area of the diamond.
Ultimately, I don’t think one could say that Gomez is better than Ellsbury. However, given their career developments, Gomez’s improvements make his contract extension with the Brewers a potential bargain, especially because the Brewers are paying for free agency service years. One might also argue that since Gomez is younger than Ellsbury, he might be more likely to maintain or improve his performance over the next three years (although, I’m not necessarily a fan of age determinism in analyzing ballplayers, I don’t think it hurts to be 28, as opposed to 30). It is also interesting to note that Ellsbury’s contract extension could be a type of goal for Gomez, too; he’ll be 30-going-on-31 for his next contract, and if he continues to hit and field like he did in 2013, he might find himself on the receiving end of a gigantic contract, too.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2013.