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Jacoby Ellsbury batting fifth is not as crazy as you think

Initial reactions to the lineup Joe Girardi trotted out against the Tigers last night, which he said could be “similar” to the Yankees’ Opening Day lineup, was shock.

There are three things that stand out to me with this starting nine. As Rich pointed out yesterday, there have been whispers of Gary Sanchez batting second all spring and as it turns out, Girardi is strongly considering it for the regular season. It’s a logical move; not only does it get one of your best hitters in Sanchez up more often throughout the season, but it also allows you to go Left-Right-Left-Right with Brett Gardner, Sanchez, Greg Bird, and Matt Holliday. That is a formidable top four, especially with the now high expectations for Bird after his torrid spring.

You may also notice Aaron Hicks’ name, not Aaron Judge’s, in right field. The RF competition is coming down to the wire and Girardi is not letting on who is the leading candidate, but if Tuesday’s lineup is any indication, it seems Joe is leaning towards Hicks.

The biggest surprise was Jacoby Ellsbury’s name appearing in the five spot.

Ellsbury has been an extremely disappointing player since signing with the Yankees before the 2014 season. Seven years and $153 million was already an overpayment for an aging player who relied on speed and athleticism to generate most of his value, but after three seasons in which Ellsbury has produced a .708 OPS (81 points below his Boston production) it looks like one of the worst contracts in Yankees history.

Girardi and Ellsbury have also had some turbulent times; you may remember Ellsbury being benched in the 2015 Wild Card game and in a game last September against Baltimore when the Yankees were (surprisingly) fighting for their playoff lives.

So then, why is hitting Ellsbury in the number five spot behind Holliday not crazy?

First of all, the Gardner-Ellsbury “dynamic” at the top of the order is played out. There was a short stretch early in 2015 when both were on base constantly. Admittedly, it was fun to watch. Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira were also mashing behind the speedy duo, not sitting behind a broadcast booth.

The back-half of 2015 and entirety of 2016 was a different story for Ellsbury. Batting leadoff, Ellsbury produced a modest .714 OPS (25 points below league average). In the two hole, Ells had an embarrassing pitcher-like .650 OPS (89 points below league average). We know what Ellsbury is at the top of the order at this point; his lack of production cannot be tolerated there.

Girardi cited Ellsbury’s success in RBI situations as a reason for hitting him 5th. In those scenarios, Ellsbury hit .298 with an .814 OPS — actually very good splits with men in scoring position. It defies logic because Ellsbury was seen as a table-setter his entire career, but with the Yankees, he’s been anything but.

Didi Gregorius starting the season on the sidelines also throws a wrench into the Yankees lineup plans. Didi, who was DH-ing and batting in the middle of the Netherlands lineup at the World Baseball Classic, was producing like a traditional number five or six hitter. I could have seen Girardi toying with Didi, not Ellsbury, in the five slot on Opening Day if healthy.

This season is going to provide Girardi with room to experiment. No longer are they tied to a lineup filled with veterans and big salaries. Moving a player like Ellsbury around to find his right fit is a luxury the Yankees could not afford in years past. Now, they can.

Finally, the sad reality is the Yankees have tried everything else with Jacoby and it hasn’t worked. Sometimes you just have to say screw it, and do something crazy. We just may be surprised.

 

Follow me on Twitter: @Andrew_Rotondi

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