Book it: A New York Yankees player will rank among my top 10 fantasy baseball players for 2014.
It just might not be Robinson Cano.
According to ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick, the Yankees and Jacoby Ellsbury reached agreement late Tuesday on a seven-year, $153 million contract. Ellsbury is fantasy baseball's top free agent, going by the 2013 Player Rater. Ellsbury was the No. 7 player in the game, per the Player Rater, Cano 13th. It was the third time in the past five seasons that Ellsbury has registered the better fantasy year; he finished second overall to Cano's 18th in 2011, and sixth overall to Cano's 40th in 2009.
Despite those facts, though, I initially found it difficult to believe in Ellsbury as a top-10 fantasy player -- at least in terms of draft/trade stock -- and perusing the reactions of Yankees fans in the 12-plus hours since word of his signing, it seems that many have similar doubts. Almost all focus on his injury history; he missed 264 of 648 Boston Red Sox games the past four years combined, appearing in only 18 in 2010 and 74 in 2012.
That's why I'm here to tell you, once again: Book it.
To quash the "injury-prone" chatter, consider that Ellsbury's limited 2010 was the product of a fluky injury that was initially misdiagnosed -- he fractured four ribs in a collision with teammate Adrian Beltre on April 11. Ellsbury attempted to play through the injury at the eventual expense of the remainder of his season (he played just 12 more games). His shortened 2012 was the product of another somewhat-fluky injury, as he partially dislocated his right shoulder trying to take out then-Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Reid Brignac on a double-play attempt on April 13. His 28 missed games in 2013, meanwhile, were largely the result of wrist, hand and foot injuries, but he was scheduled for an MRI on his wrist and hand following the World Series, and in addition to his mid-October announcement that his foot wouldn't require surgery, he stole six bases in seven attempts in 19 games from Sept. 25 through the conclusion of the World Series, showing no ill effects.
Here's the upshot of all this: Ellsbury's deal with the Yankees won't become official until he passes a physical, so any lingering concerns about his 2010, 2012 or 2013 injuries will most certainly be addressed then. Is it therefore fair to condemn his future if he's given a clean bill of health?
Or, for another perspective, look at the hitters with comparably perceived value, and ask whether you'd bank on them to stay any healthier. Among hitters traditionally judged between the sixth- and 20th-best in fantasy baseball, you've got: Carlos Gonzalez, who has never played more than 145 games in a season; Hanley Ramirez, who has missed 151 games the past three seasons combined; Troy Tulowitzki, who has missed 170 during that time; David Wright, who has missed 116; and Ryan Braun, who in addition to his season-concluding 65-game suspension was never his usual self in 2013 due to a thumb issue. Why is Ellsbury the injury whipping boy of this group?
In New York, Ellsbury gains a specific advantage that improves his healthy ceiling, a homer-friendly home ballpark, which will give him a fighting chance of approaching his career high of 32 home runs, set in 2011. Fantasy owners know all about the appeal of potential 30/30 players, or in this case, more like 15-20/50-plus; nobody in baseball managed a 30/30 season in 2013. Nobody. As for 20/50, only two players -- Eric Byrnes and Ramirez, both in 2007 -- have done it in the past 20 seasons.
That's not to say that Ellsbury will hit 20-plus home runs for the Yankees in 2014, even if he plays all 162 games. It merely enhances his prospects, primarily because he's a left-handed hitter with a good pull-power stroke, so if he wants to become that kind of hitter again, he surely can.
Addressing that desire -- and I believe it's largely a desire to do it, to be clear -- Ellsbury's prospective fantasy owners need to consider his style of hitting. These were his spray tendencies in 2011 and '12 compared to 2013, calculated as the percentage of all balls he put into play:
2011, 2012: 41.4 percent pulled, 23.8 percent "far right" (farthest 20 percent of the playing field beginning from the right-field line and moving left), 27.2 percent hit to the opposite field
2013: 37.1 percent pulled, 20.5 percent "far right," 31.1 percent opposite field
Remember, Fenway Park possesses the shortest measurement in baseball from home plate to the right-field foul pole (Pesky's Pole) at 302 feet, but outside of that one specific area of right field, Fenway has no right-field measurement as favorable as those between right and right-center field at Yankee Stadium. Ellsbury himself admitted, during his 2011 power explosion, that he saw more pitches that season that he could drive. If he decides to return to such an aggressive power-hitting approach -- possibly working with hitting coach Kevin Long -- Ellsbury could hit a more modest 25 home runs to go along with his speed. After all, this was part of the adjustment Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira made in New York, and I discussed it in my Brian McCann analysis 10 days ago.
But even if Ellsbury remains the player we saw in 2012 and '13 (.289, 11 HRs, 62 RBIs, 52 steals on a per-162-games basis), he is still destined for the Player Rater top 10. A healthy Ellsbury belongs in that group, and for every concern about the injury risk, he brings as much upside in terms of power to counter it (and perhaps also runs scored, since he's assured of batting first or second in an above-average lineup).
As the rankings go, Ellsbury gained only one spot with the news, improving from 10th to ninth overall. It is my confidence in his inclusion in the upper tier, however, that has increased.