Jacoby Ellsbury Johnny Cueto
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If the San Francisco Giants and New York Yankees can find a way to swap Johnny Cueto and Jacoby Ellsbury, it will be a win for the Bombers.

Aaron Case

Forget Merlin’s beard. If the New York Yankees can trade Jacoby Ellsbury for Johnny Cueto, it’s time to start swearing by Brian Cashman’s bald head.

Cashman is far from perfect, and Ellsbury is exhibit A. Yet another perfect example of Cashman’s fallibility is Sonny Gray.

But the Yankees’ general manager made the solid prospect Josh Stowers appear in Gray’s place like he was pulling a quarter from behind Bombers fans’ ears.

Now, rumors suggest Cashman may be on the cusp of performing another magic trick. This trick would involve flipping Ellsbury for Cueto, per ESPN’s Buster Olney:

Making the money even out isn’t a problem. Both players make about $21 million a year, and Cueto could miss all or most of 2019. The insurance Olney’s tweet referenced would basically cover the difference.

However, it’s not as simple as a “bad contract swap.” Here’s why.

The Yankees may get a really good pitcher

If Cueto can return to his typical level of play, the only thing that makes his contract “bad” is the fact that he’s not available for the bulk of 2019. And, again, insurance covers that missed MLB time.

Ellsbury’s contract is demonstrably horrible. The only good thing about his deal is that it probably motivates Cashman to work hard to make people forget he ever made such an unwise move.

The former Boston Red Sox star fell to total mediocrity after the Yankees made him filthy rich. He’s slashed .264/.330/.386 in pinstripes, compared to a .297/.350/.439 line with the Sox.

New York Yankees

Also, Ellsbury has been injury prone, culminating in a 162-game absence in 2018.

Conversely, Cueto has been an ace and he can be one again. The man is just two seasons removed from going 18-5 with a 2.79 ERA for the Giants.

Sure, he put up a dud in 2017, going 8-8 with a 4.52 ERA. However, he was on a crazy hot run in 2018 before he got hurt, with a 0.84 ERA in his first five starts.

You might be worried about Cueto aging and losing velocity, but that may not be a problem.

As Lee Judge of the Kansas City Star pointed out in 2015, one of the things that makes Cueto so good is his ability to change speeds:

“…if you’re waiting on a Johnny Cueto fastball, are you getting the one that goes 96 mph or the one he throws at 88? If you’re sitting on a changeup; which one? The 85 mph changeup or the 80 mph version? Slider? You might get one at 82 and another at 79.”

That means even if Cueto’s velocity dips, he can adjust.

He lost about 1.4 MPH on his fastball from 2016 to 2017. While 2017 was a major down year, he quickly adjusted, as his strong start in April 2018 coincided with another slight drop in velocity.

If he can come back at the end of 2019, he’ll have a chance to feel out his stuff in the minors or possibly out of the bullpen in the Bronx. Consequently, he should be able to make another adjustment and be ready for peak performance in 2020.

The Yankees get younger

Okay, sure, it’s not like the Yankees would be swapping out 35-year-old Ellsbury for a Generation-Z player.

Cueto is turning 33 the day after Yankees pitchers and catchers report to spring training. He’s in the latter stages of his career, and he’s coming off Tommy John—or Tommy Johnny in his case.

Still, the Bombers just threw three years and $51 million at 36-year-old J.A. Happ. Contrast that with Cueto, who they could buy out before his 36th birthday for the low price of $5 million.

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New York can’t bribe Ellsbury to ditch his pinstripes until after his 37th birthday.

If the Yankees are going to pay in excess of $20 million to an older player, it’s best if that player is a guy like Cueto who can still see his prime when he glances over his shoulder.

The Yankees get a risk…but one worth taking

There is significant risk in taking on Cueto.

He could lose so much velocity that he can’t make an adjustment. If that happens, he might become a ridiculously expensive mop-up reliever.

However, there’s not much difference between that and a fifth outfielder who makes $21 million and stands in the way of valuable evaluation time for players like Clint Frazier and, eventually, Estevan Florial.

Also, the Yankees seem to have no interest in spending money on Bryce Harper or Manny Machado. Therefore, there’s no reason to think they’ll have any pressing need to spend Cueto’s millions elsewhere in the next couple of years.

The upside of what Cueto could be compared to the downside that is guaranteed with Ellsbury is more than enough reason for Cashman to take this risk.


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