Home MLB'Weekly' Hit Ground Ball A $26m question

A $26m question

by Matt Smith

New York Yankees fans have been front and centre in hunting down video evidence for the ongoing investigation into the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing. This public service, surely not motivated by any bitterness towards their ALCS opponents, has helped to put the Bronx Bombers on the side of the good in the ongoing saga.

So it was gracious of the Yankees’ Front Office to restore normal order this week by engaging in some classic Evil Empire behaviour.

When the Yankees signed outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury to a 7-year, $153m free agent contract in the 2013/14 off-season it had the feeling of being a potential Part 4 in Boston’s Reverse the Curse of the Bambino story. Parts 1-3 were the ultimate acts, winning World Series championships in 2004, 2007 and 2013. Ellsbury was a key contributor to the 2013 triumph, having got a ring in his 2007 rookie season too, and it was all-too obvious for the Yankees to take him away from their AL East rivals when he hit the free agent market that off-season.

Ellsbury had certainly earned his standing as a leading free agent during some very successful years in Boston and the Red Sox likely would have been happy to keep him on a less-substantial contract. The Yankees were determined to make him a fixture of their outfield for years to come whilst taking him away from their rival, much as they had done with Johnny Damon during the 2005/06 off-season, and so splashed-out on a lengthy and lucrative deal to get their man.

And so Part 4 was brought into effect. Not that anyone thought the Yankees had bought a lemon, just that Ellsbury was the type of speedy player that tended to be more affected by the passing of time than most. It’s probably a stretch to pin the last two seasons lost to injury on that, injuries can happen to any player, but the way his contract has played out (okay for the first 4 years, not so for the rest) has not come as a complete surprise.

The majority feeling was that the Yankees had over-committed as part of exerting their power in taking away a key Boston player. It was a deal that always looked likely to come back to bite them, and so it has.

However, the Yankees are doing their best to fight the forces of fate. ESPN’s Buster Olney reports that they have ripped up the final year of his contract, plus the buy-out clause on an option year for 2021, due to Ellsbury “receiving unauthorized medical treatment”. In other words, the Yankees think they’ve found a way to wriggle out of paying the $26m they still owe him.

The claim is set to be challenged rigorously by the Players’ Union, not just for Ellsbury’s own case but as part of the precedent it may set in allowing a team to renege on a contract.

The full details haven’t been disclosed, so, joking aside, it’s fair to reserve judgement at this point. For all it looks like the Yankees are trying to pull a fast one, if they have clear evidence that the treatment Ellsbury underwent has made his condition worse then there may be grounds to justify their actions.

It’s an interesting case more widely within the ongoing debates around Minor League pay and plans to reduce the number of affiliated Minor League teams.

In a British sporting context, there’s a clear starting point that you are contracted to a football team, for example, and therefore your grounds to seek independent treatment, or even independent coaching, are not great. That doesn’t mean you don’t get a say, especially when it comes to getting second opinions on medical treatment and potential surgical procedures, but it rightly has to come with full disclosure and involvement with the team that is paying your wages.

Whilst it’s not exactly the same in the States, that same principle would apply to Jacoby Ellsbury’s case. The Yankees can’t force him to do whatever they like, yet as the organisation paying him a (supposed) guaranteed $21m a year to play baseball they undoubtedly have the right to a strong say in anything affecting that, and equally in Ellsbury being obligated to involve them in any such decisions.

However, what obligation should players have lower down the pecking order, such as in the Minor Leagues? A team can trade you with no notice or say at all, and even decide to terminate your contract at little financial cost, so why would you not follow your own path if you thought it best for your career?

The answer, of course, is that the 30 MLB ownership groups don’t give you a huge amount of choice. Where else are you going to go, other than taking your chances in the Independent League or hope for one of the small number of opportunities in Japan or Korea coming your way? This is the way the system works and if you want to play ball then, to a large extent, you have to play ball with whatever your current organisation wants you to do.

Ellsbury has earned millions already so he is not going to garner a lot of sympathy from the masses, even though being denied an expected $26m is a substantial issue irrespective of how much money you’ve already got in the bank.

The devil will be in the detail as to exactly what treatment he had, the effect of it, what he told the Yankees and why he went down the route of seeking alternative provisions outside of the Yankees’ control. Going against the wishes of the Yankees’ medical professionals behind their backs, if true, would be something that the team, or any other team in that situation, would be within their rights to take action against.

The case does prompt wider questions though at a time when the entire eco-system of Major League and affiliated Minor League Baseball is an ever-increasing battleground.

Like anyone else, players have obligations to their employers that they have to abide by, knowing that not doing so can put them in breach of contract. The reasonableness, and ultimate lawfulness, of those obligations in a business that is effectively a monopoly of 30 employers is an altogether more complicated matter. The antitrust exemption that MLB teams have operated under since 1922 gives them a huge amount of power in controlling the employment opportunities and rights of people wanting to play baseball professionally in North America.

How responsibly they are wielding that power is up for debate; a debate that those who fall under that power are becoming increasingly motivated to challenge.

You may also like

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.