This week the MLB Players’ Association filed a grievance against the New York Yankees on behalf of the team’s former center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury in an attempt to recoup the remaining $26 million that he argues is owed to him. After winning the World Series with the Red Sox in 2013, Ellsbury signed a seven year, $153 million contract with the Yankees, however went on to miss a staggering 452 games between 2014-2019. For reference, in that same time frame the Yankees played 972 games (excluding playoffs), meaning the speedy outfielder appeared in just over 53% of those contests. If that wasn’t already hard enough to stomach, according to Fangraphs, Ellsbury registered a wRC+ (explanation below)* of 96 as a New York Yankee, so he was roughly 4% worse than league average.
While it is impossible to understate how disappointing Ellsbury’s tenure in the Big Apple was, his contract, like the vast majority of MLB contracts, was fully guaranteed therefore the $153 million was never contingent upon performance or even playing for that matter. However, the Yankees allege that the former silver slugger violated his contract by receiving unauthorized medical treatment which allowed them to convert his contract to “non-guaranteed” and then subsequently release him.
According to the Yankees, the 36-year-old was treated for an injury by Dr. Viktor Bouquette in Atlanta without the team’s consent, yet Ellsbury argues that the treatment was for a non-baseball-related injury, which does not require permission. The CBA essentially states that as long as the “Non-Work-Related Injury does not affect the Player’s ability to provide services,” then the player is exempt from disclosing treatment procedures. However, seeing as Ellsbury had not played a game since the end of 2017, which coincidentally is around the same time it is alleged that he started seeing Dr. Bouquette, it will be tough for the MLBPA to prove that there is no link between the two.
Though Ellsbury’s medical records are protected under medical privacy, if there is truly no causal connection between his NWR injury and the right oblique strain that was the first of his slew of 2018 injuries, then he and the MLBPA could and should release those medicals to prove that they are wholly unrelated.
There is a lot at stake for both sides in this case that will be heard by arbitrator Mark Irvings, who will be making a significant ruling next month in another dispute between player and club. For the Yankees, after the historic Gerrit Cole signing, their 2020 payroll ballooned to $243 million, which carries a significant luxury tax. The tax threshold (number at which team’s must pay extra for every dollar over) for next season is $208 million. The Yankees will pay 30% on ever dollar between $208 million and $228 million, 42% between $228-$248 million, and 75% beyond $248 million. So, the Yankees would stand to gain substantially if they lower that figure from $243 million, which would represent $12.3 million in taxes, to $217 million, which would only tax them $2.7 million.
As for Ellsbury, he is still rehabbing but is looking more like a liability than an asset so this $26 million could represent the last paycheck of his player career. However, for the MLBPA it goes a bit deeper as this case could set a meaningful precedent. It brings to mind a 2010 dispute between Carlos Beltran and the New York Mets over a similar issue that never reached litigation. In any case, the verdict in this conflict between the MLBPA and the Yankees could either be the final insult for foolish free-agent spenders or a sign to those same regretful investors that there are in fact legal ways to wriggle their way out of those abominable contracts.
*wRC+ means weighted Runs Created adjusted. This statistic is meant take external factors (such as ballpark or era) into account to paint a picture of a player’s overall value to any given MLB team. 100 represents league average, so a player with a wRC+ of 150 means that player is 50% better than league average and vice versa. wRC+ is widely regarded as one of the best indicators of a player’s true value.