Would a Zack Greinke for Jacoby Ellsbury swap benefit both teams?

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Greinke. (Getty Images)

It is always hard to match up bad contracts in trades. Fans and writers alike spend time contemplating which sunken costs could be exchanged in an attempt to rectify value for different teams. Very rarely do the proposed exchanges make sense for both sides. We’ve seen it once this off-season  with the Braves and Dodgers matching up for what amounted to a wash in total money (about $50MM) and player value (essentially zero). It did however accomplish different payroll goals for each team and seems to be the rare win-win salary dump trade.

The Yankees have had a difficult time finding a bad contract trade of their own this off-season when shopping their sunken cost, Jacoby Ellsbury. After acquiring Giancarlo Stanton in December, the former MVP Runner-up Ellsbury has become a $22 million dollar fifth outfielder on New York’s roster. His expensive salary in addition to his full no-trade clause has made him nearly impossible to deal.

Of the few teams that make sense for Ellsbury, one that has been mentioned is the Arizona Diamondbacks. It has been reported that Ellsbury would only consider waiving his no-trade clause for teams near his off-season Arizona home. Obviously, the Diamondbacks fit that description.

The Diamondbacks have an expensive player of their own in RHP Zack Greinke. In terms of production, the comparison to Ellsbury is night and day. Greinke is coming off a fabulous season where he led the top of a rotation for a team that won the 2017 NL Wild Card game. However, his massive salary will be in the back of the front office’s mind when trying to upgrade the rest of the Arizona team in the future. There have been some rumblings that Arizona tested the market on Greinke this winter, but nothing serious has come from it thus far. Would a swap of these contracts benefit both teams? Let’s dive in.

The Contracts

Might as well start here. Jacoby Ellsbury, 34 years old, will be in the fifth year of a massive 7-year, $153 million dollar contract that he signed with the Yankees following the 2013 season. The move seemed questionable at the time given the redundant fit with Brett Gardner already on New York’s roster, and has become only more odd over time. Ellsbury has three years and $68.5MM left on his contract and comes with a payroll hit of just under $22MM a year. He has a full no-trade clause, as previously mentioned.

Zack Greinke, also 34 years old, will be entering the third year of an even more massive 6-year, $206.5 million deal that he signed following a 2015 season where he finished 2nd in Cy Young voting with the Dodgers. I remember thinking at the time “next year we will be hearing Zack Greinke rumors”. I was wrong, it took two years, but my point stands. Huge contracts with smaller market teams often financially handcuff those teams pretty quickly. Zack has 4 years and $138.5 million dollars left on his contract. His yearly salary will count as about $34.5MM per year toward the payroll.

Greinke’s contract is a bit more interesting in that according to Spotrac it has $62.5MM in deferred money from 2022-2026. He also has a built in $2MM bonus if he is traded. Finally, Zack has a no-trade clause that includes 15 teams. It is unclear if the Yankees are one of those 15 teams, but those lists often change from year to year and there is no way of knowing for sure what Greinke’s preferences are. It is worth noting that Greinke once tried to convince Yankees GM Brian Cashman into trading for him. Both the Yankees and Diamondbacks have expressed willingness to eat salary in potential Ellsbury or Greinke trades, respectively.

The Production

I feel there is a perception that Jacoby Ellsbury is completely useless. That is not the case. He is coming off a season in which he hit .264/.348/.402 with a .326 wOBA, 101 wRC+ and 1.6fWAR in 409 plate appearances. He can still give you some production, just not $22MM worth of production. Take a look at the following graph:

Screen Shot 2018-01-17 at 7.28.15 PM
Credit: FanGraphs

As you can see, there are some gradual trends that have developed as Ellsbury’s career has gone on. His K% has gradually increased as he has aged, and he has posted his two highest strikeout marks of his career, 17.2% in 2015 and 15.4% in 2017, in his four years as a Yankee. The increase is indeed concerning, though his 2017 mark is not all that far off from his career mark of 13.7%.

Luckily for Jacoby, with the increase in strikeouts has also come an increase in walks. That is encouraging because usually that is the opposite as hitters begin to age and try to cheat on fastballs. Ellsbury has set a new career high in BB% in three of the four years he has played in New York, peaking last year at 10%.

In terms of batted balls, Ellsbury was remarkably consistent his last two years. In 2016, Ellsbury finished with a contact profile of 22.2%/51.3%/26.6% in terms of Soft%/Medium%/Hard%. He then went on to post almost exactly the same line in 2017 with 22.7%/51.2%/26.1%. These numbers, compared to his 19.8%/54.6%/25.5% career line, show a decrease in medium contact that has resulted mostly in a spike in soft contact, with a small increase in hard contact as well.

Defensively, Ellsbury has begun to trend downward since donning pinstripes. That is not unusual for a player in his 30’s whose value comes mostly from his legs. That trend did not reverse last year, as Ellsbury posted -3 DRS and an -8 UZR/150 in just over 800 innings playing center field. It would not be hard to argue that Ellsbury is best suited for left field at this point in his career, and he grades much better defensively in left in 536 career innings.

Overall Jacoby has posted a .264/.330/.386 line with a .314 wOBA, 96 wRC, 39 homeruns and 102 stolen bases 2,171 plate appearances for New York. That calculates out to 8.6 fWAR. So like I said, Ellsbury is not a useless player but he also is certainly not worth the price tag. There are some signs of decline in Ellsbury’s game, namely his increase in strike outs and soft contact with declining defensive numbers, but nothing extreme enough to indicate he is going to suddenly drop off and become an unusable player.

Zack Greinke is coming off a fabulous bounce back season where he posted a 3.20 ERA (3.31 FIP), 9.56 K/9 and 5.1 fWAR in 202 innings. 2017 was the 7th time Greinke had at least 4.0 fWAR and his 4th time with at least 5 fWAR in a season. Translates: Greinke is really good. He is this generations Mike Mussina, as reliable as they come.

Greinke doesn’t come without flaws of his own though. His 35.1% hard contact was the second highest of his career – his worst mark was in 2007, before he became Zack freakin’ Greinke. Though that number jumped, his med% and soft% remained solid and he gave up less line drives while getting more ground balls than his career average. The biggest concern for Greinke is depicted below:

Screen Shot 2018-01-17 at 7.30.28 PM
Credit: FanGraphs

You can see that fastball velocity has steadily decreased from his masterful 2015 season through his first two seasons in Arizona. His 91.0 vFB in 2017 was 1.2mph below his previous career low (which came in 2016). It’s a concern that since arriving in the desert (where it should be easier to get loose in theory) Greinke has lost 2.5mph off his fastball. He also posted career lows in velocity on his sinker and slider. Now if I had to pick one pitcher to bet on figuring out how to pitch with diminished stuff, Greinke would be on a short list of pitchers I would consider, but these are obvious red flags.

Expanding a deal

I don’t imagine this would be as simple as a one-for-one deal. Greinke vastly outperformed Ellsbury in 2017 and no matter which way you slice it, losing him would likely make them worse next year. Additionally, the Yankees stay committed to staying under the $197MM luxury tax threshold next year and have about $18MM-$22MM left to play with before hitting that line. The ~$13MM difference in salaries between the two players would put them right up against that line with New York having to leave some room for in-season additions. Luckily these two teams match up well in other areas that could allow them to expand a deal.

With Fernando Rodney likely to depart as a free agent, the Diamondbacks have a void at closer. Though Archie Bradley could easily slide into that role, the D-Backs could still use to upgrade their bullpen. The Yankees have a couple high priced relievers in Adam Warren ($3.3MM) and David Robertson ($11.5MM AAV) that are set to become free agents after this season and could help offset the salary impact on New York’s books. Dellin Betances ($5.1MM) has two years of control left and also fits the bill as someone that might interest Arizona.

Beyond the rotation, the Yankees only other real need is their infield. They have been mentioned to be interested in Arizona infielder Brandon Drury. Would Ellsbury and Warren/Robertson be enough to get Arizona to deal Greinke and Drury? It feels like Arizona might need more. I don’t think New York would offer any of their top prospects to get a deal done, but they may consider putting RHP Chance Adams on the table to give the Diamondbacks a ready made replacement to step into the rotation.

Does it make sense for what both teams are trying to accomplish?

This is the ultimate question. As I referred to, these bad contract swaps often don’t make sense for both teams. Does the money outweigh the production gap in the two players? It depends how much Arizona values saving the ~$70MM total (or less if they take on a reliever) that they could potentially spend elsewhere. They have been mentioned as one of the most aggressive suitors for Manny Machado and could possibly use the savings to put toward acquiring him.

Arizona also may be feeling the pressure to win before their window closes. They lost J.D. Martinez this year. They are set to lose CF A.J. Pollock and LHP Patrick Corbin to free agency next off-season. Face of the franchise 1B Paul Goldschmidt will be a free agent the following year. The time to win in Arizona is now.

Undoubtedly losing Greinke would weaken Arizona’s rotation. However, they might be better off re-allocating the money invested in Greinke with LHP Robbie Ray and RHP Taijuan Walker ready to step in as top-of-the-rotation guys, prospects RHP Taylor Clarke, LHP Anthony Banda, and RHP Jon Duplantier either knocking on the door or close to it, and the Shelby Miller experiment set to return sometime this year. That is not to mention a possible Chance Adams acquisition we attested to earlier. Is Ellsbury, Robertson/Warren, Adams, Machado and ~$40MM in long-term savings (potentially toward a Goldschmidt extension) a better plan than to just keep Zack Greinke and sign someone like Jon Jay who will give you production similar to Ellsbury for a fraction of the cost?

For New York, acquiring Greinke and Drury would fix their two biggest needs. Greinke would step in as a #2 behind ace Luis Severino and give them a dynamic 1-5 in their rotation. Drury would be able to hold down second until prospect Gleyber Torres is ready. It would likely come at the cost of weakening their bullpen and giving up one of their better prospects to shed a bad contract, a questionable decision when your pockets are as long as the Yankees.

A Greinke for Ellsbury/Robertson swap would ultimately be a wash in terms of salary implications, leaving the Yankees room to replace Robertson and possibly still shore up third base. It depends how comfortable they are bringing a right-handed pitcher with diminishing velocity into a left-handed hitters heaven. The $70MM difference in committed money is no joke either, and agreeing to pay Greinke deferred money for 5 years after he is no longer with the team might be a bad idea as Giancarlo Stanton begins to enter the back-loaded years of his contract.

There is a lot of moving parts here. It is not unreasonable that another wrench in a deal could be either team asking for money to offset the salaries. There is also the issue of the no-trade clauses. So does it make sense? In a vacuum, yes. Kind of. Not Really. The Yankees shore up their biggest needs, keep some wiggle room, and shed their worst contract. The Diamondbacks save money that they could choose to reinvest in Machado or extensions for their own players (or both), replace J.D. Martinez, and shore up their bullpen. But it isn’t that simple. It comes down to how these organizations value each of the players mentioned. And since it makes sense to us means it probably doesn’t make sense for them.

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