Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Red Sox Weighing Options With Jacoby Ellsbury

Jacoby Ellsbury has one final year of arbitration remaining before he becomes eligible for free agency, a challenging situation for the Red Sox. Ellsbury was drafted and groomed by Boston, becoming one of the organization's brightest young talents along the way.

Ellsbury stole 50 bases in 2008 and followed that by stealing 70 bags and batting .301 in 2009. Ellsbury looked like a star in the making before his 2010 season was derailed by a collision with teammate Adrian Beltre that broke the center fielder's ribs. Ellsbury was limited to just 18 games that season.

But Ellsbury returned to have a truly breakout season in 2011, batting .321 with 212 hits, 46 doubles, 32 homers, 105 RBI, 119 runs and 39 stolen bases. As a result, he finished second in the MVP voting.

Everyone in baseball was eager to see how Ellsbury would follow up such a breathtaking performance. But after suffering a dislocated shoulder just one week into this season, he was sidelined once again, this time for three months. Again, it was a collision — of sorts — that resulted in Ellsbury's injury, as Rays shortstop Reid Brignac’s knee came down on Ellsbury's shoulder at second base.

Since returning, Ellsbury's performance has been lackluster, at best. In 53 games, Ellsbury is batting just .267 with a .310 OBP — hardly All Star numbers. To make matters worse, Ellsbury has also suffered a power outage, hitting just two homers and knocking in only 16 RBI. At this pace, Ellsbury would compile just 240 total bases over the course of a full season, after posting a league-best 364 last year.

Ellsbury's stunning 2011 performance bears no resemblance to any other season of his career, which is a reason for concern. Ellsbury hit 32 home runs last, year, yet has combined for just 22 homers in parts of six other Major League seasons. In fact, Ellsbury has never even reached double digits in home runs in any other season, and his next highest RBI total is 60. Does one breakout season in six years make a player a bona fide middle-of-the-order hitter?

So just what is Ellsbury's value? That may be hard to determine in the absence of multiple bidders. Yet, the Red Sox surely don't want it to go that route. They have internally established their center fielder's value and won't enter a bidding war to retain his services.

Even before his poor 2011 season and injury-riddled 2012 campaign, Carl Crawford, a similar player to Ellsbury, was never worth $21 million annually. The Red Sox made a huge mistake with that contract and are grateful that the Dodgers took the overpriced Crawford off their hands. Most baseball insiders assume that Crawford's pact will be agent Scott Boras' benchmark in the Ellsbury negotiations.

Long term deals are often looked back upon with regret, at least by the teams that made them. So, with 22-year-old Jackie Bradley Jr. in the pipeline, and likely ready for the big league in 2014, will the Red Sox feel compelled to go all in for Ellsbury?

Perhaps.

Bradley has never played a game above Double-A and is still just a prospect. Plenty of minor leaguers have seemed like can't miss kids, until they missed. It happens all the time. Additionally, the next two free agent classes of center fielders are very thin.

The Sox won't touch Josh hamilton, who is 32, injury prone and has substance abuse issues. Curtis Granderson will be in Elllsbury's free agent class, but does anyone believe the Yankees will lose one of their own highly-coveted players? Have the Yankees ever been out-bid?

One thing is for sure, Ellsbury won't come cheaply. The question is if he'll be worth all that money.

Boras says his client is a franchise player and seems determined to let the market determine Ellsbury's value after the 2013 season. Gordon Edes writes that the Red Sox have privately discussed offering Ellsbury a contract extension this winter and plan to at least make an attempt to keep him from hitting the open market next year.

However, given Boras' history of letting the market determine value, it's unlikely he would encourage Ellsbury to sign an extension with Boston this winter.

With that in mind, is it best for the Red Sox to trade their center fielder this offseason, or to keep him and let him play out the 2013 season?

Ellsbury turns 29 on September 11th, and will be 30 when his arbitration eligibility expires after next season. Will the Red Sox engage in a six to eight-year deal with a player of that age, especially after misfiring on a number of long term deals in recent years? After all, Boras will surely be seeking a contract of that length for Ellsbury.

Ellsbury will make $8.05 million this season and arbitration always seems to mandate a raise for players — even when they don't deserve it. So the Red Sox can retain Ellsbury on a reasonable one-year deal, perhaps in the vicinity of $10 million. That's chump change to the Sox, who are suddenly flush with cash.

Keeping Ellsbury around next season could be a wise idea since he will be particularly motivated to increase his value heading into free agency. It's uncanny how many players have career-years leading into free agency.

Additionally, since the Sox just dealt Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, the Sox may need Ellsbury more than ever next season. Without Ellsbury, the Sox offense would take an even more giant leap backward.

However, under baseball's new collective bargaining agreement, teams no longer receive two compensatory draft picks when their top free agents leave; they will now receive just one — as long as they offer a qualifying, guaranteed, one-year contract. The compensatory pick will be sandwiched between the first and second rounds. There are no longer distinctions between Type A and Type B free agents.

That could make Ellsbury less valuable to the Red Sox than he would have been in the past.

A team will have to offer its own free agents the average of the top 125 contracts — currently about $12.4 million — to receive draft-pick compensation if their former player signs with a new team. Given that Boras will be seeking an average annual salary for Ellsbury exceeding that amount, it's a no-brainer that the Sox will make such an offer if Ellsbury is still with the team at the end of next season.

Additionally, only players who have been with their clubs for the entire season will be subject to compensation. This would make Ellsbury particularly attractive and valuable to other teams this winter. If he is traded at the deadline next July, the acquiring team would receive no compensation if Ellsbury left via free agency.

The Red Sox have surely made an internal determination of Ellsbury's value. The key now is to decide which is greater; one more year with Ellsbury in center and the middle or their order, or the return they might get for him in a trade.

The guess here is that there is more to be gained by hanging onto Ellsbury and hoping for another MVP-worthy season in 2013. Yes, Ellsbury's 2011 performance may have been an outlier, the likes of which he'll never repeat. But considering his affordability next year, and the fact that the Red Sox can easily make him a guaranteed qualifying offer for 2014 that would at least secure a sandwich pick in the 2015 draft, it seems to make the most sense to hang onto Ellsbury instead of trading him.

Unless the Mariners are offering Felix Hernandez. In that case, the Red Sox can't act quickly enough to make it happen.