The 2017 Yankees could be heading for a change at the top of the lineup
One of Brett Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury could be moved down in the lineup
All things considered, this has been a relatively quiet offseason for the Yankees. Sure, they did sign Aroldis Chapman and Matt Holliday, and trade Brian McCann, but otherwise they've opted to lay low. The Yankees haven't done a whole lot aside from those three moves and only a few times have they been mentioned in rumors recently.
New York is, of course, in the middle of a semi-rebuild as they try to get younger while contending at the same time. Most of their open roster spots, such as right field and first base, figure to go to young players. Aaron Judge and Greg Bird are the favorites for those jobs, but they're not the only candidates. Others will get a look in spring training too.
One aspect of the team the Yankees are considering changing is their lineup, specifically the top of the lineup. Veterans Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury have hit first and second in some order for most of the last three years. GM Brian Cashman seemed to indicate that may soon change during a recent YES Network interview. Here's the video:
"We've kicked it around from the second half last year, is it best to split them up? Who should really bat leadoff? Those type of things," said Cashman. "And I'm sure those will pop back up this spring training. It could stay that way. It's ultimately going to be (manager Joe Girardi)'s call."
Neither Gardner nor Ellsbury are the players they were in their prime a few years ago, yet they've hit atop the lineup thanks to their pedigree, the lack of alternatives, and, let's face it, their contracts. Ellsbury is owed roughly $90 million through 2020 while Gardner is owed $26 million from 2017-18. Here are their numbers side-by-side:
Even though Ellsbury has the much more lucrative contract, Gardner was the better player in 2016 and has been over the last three years as well. Ellsbury steals more bases and hits for a slightly better average, and that's about it. Gardner gets on base more and has shown more power. And he's more durable too.
Generally speaking, you want your best on-base player to hit leadoff so that there's someone on base when the middle of the lineup gets to the plate. Gardner has done a better job getting on base than Ellsbury over the years, meaning he's a better candidate for the job. If someone is going to move down in the lineup, it should be Ellsbury.
It's not quite that simple though. For starters, who bats second? New York doesn't have many great options. Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro both set career highs in home runs last year, and both of them were right around .300 with their on-base percentages. Holliday and Chase Headley are slow station-to-station players, Judge strikes out too much, and Bird is coming back from shoulder surgery.
Also, Ellsbury's contract will undoubtedly factor into the decision-making. It happens all the time. Teams are reluctant to demote a veteran player making huge dollars -- moving down in the lineup qualifies as a demotion in my book -- because a) it makes them look bad for signing the player, and b) it could make the player unhappy. Clubhouse politics come into play.
It's worth noting the Yankees did demote some veterans last year. Alex Rodriguez was benched for weeks at a time before being released. McCann was moved to DH full-time to make room for Gary Sanchez. Mark Teixeira lost at-bats to Tyler Austin. Perhaps Ellsbury's contract won't stand in the way of a lineup demotion.
Either way, Cashman indicated the Yankees are at least considering reshaping the top of their lineup, which is the kind of thing a team does after finishing the previous season 22nd in runs scored. How exactly they go about reshaping the lineup remains to be seen.
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