Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Monday, November 25, 2013

Breaking Down Free Agent Jacoby Ellsbury



Last week, the Mets signed outfielder Chris Young to a one-year, $7.2 million contract, pending a physical.

In 2013, Young hit .200/.280/.379 with 12 homers and 10 steals. That feeble performance somehow warranted a $7.2 million pay day for next season.

That begs the question, how much is Jacoby Ellsbury worth?

Ellsbury plays terrific defense. With his superior speed, the center fielder gets to balls that others can't.

Yet, while Ellsbury is capable of making highlight-reel plays, his weak arm is a limitation. Have you ever seen him throw out anyone at home plate? Me neither.

In 2013, Ellsbury put together a slash line of .298/.355/.426/.781, with 9 homers, 31 doubles, 53 RBI and 52 stolen bases, which led the majors.

Let's breakdown those numbers a bit:

The .298 average is nice and it was right in line with Ellsbury's .297 career mark. The other thing that stands out is the 52 steals; 2013 marked the third time in his seven seasons that Ellsbury eclipsed the 50-steal mark. The man is undoubtedly an elite base stealer.

However, the .350 on-base percentage, while a decent clip, is not elite. Some great hitters bat .350. Moreover, a .350 OBP for a leadoff hitter, in particular, is nothing special.

Another thing that jumps out is that Ellsbury, a guy with terrific speed, had just 31 doubles in 2013. For comparison, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, a big, lumbering guy, had 40 doubles last season. How is that possible?

Yet, this year was no fluke. Ellsbury has surpassed the 30-doubles mark in just one other season; his freak year of 2011, when he had 46.

Ultimately, the job of a leadoff hitter is to first get on base and then score. As noted, last season Ellsbury posted a .355 OBP, roughly in line with his .350 career average. That put Ellsbury 38th in the majors and 19th in the American League. Either way, that's not elite.

When it comes to scoring runs, Ellsbury is good, but not great. In fact, Ellsbury has scored at least 100 runs in just one of his seven seasons. In 2013, Ellsbury scored 92 runs despite stealing 52 bases. How did that happen?

Considering that the Red Sox were first in the majors in runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, you have to wonder how Ellsbury failed to score at least 100 runs last season.

Ellsbury's 92 runs were seventh in the AL in 2013, which is fine. But with his great speed, failing to score 100 runs — on a team that produces runs at such a prodigious rate — is hard to fathom.

Ellsbury had a freak season in 2011, which seems to be the basis of agent Scott Boras' argument that the center fielder is worthy of an elite contract. But 2011 was an outlier; it was not representative of Ellsbury's overall career.

In 660 at-bats in 2011, Ellsbury hit 32 homers. In the remaining 2,252 at-bats in his career, Ellsbury has hit 33 homers. In fact, Ellsbury has never even reached double digits in any other season.

One way or another, Ellsbury is about to become a very rich man. Given that baseball is awash in new TV contract money, it's easy to surmise that Ellsbury is on the verge of a windfall contract.

However, it will be particularly fascinating to see how many (if any) teams view him as a $20 million per year player.

As history shows, teams that sign players to long-term, high-dollar contracts are often left bitterly disappointed in the end (i.e Barry Zito, Ryan Howard, Carl Crawford, Vernon Wells, Mark Teixeira, Prince Fielder, Johan Santana and Alex Rodriguez, for example).

Manny Ramirez was arguably the only player who continually earned his $20 million annual salary, inasmuch as a baseball player can truly earn that kind of money. Yet, it's anybody's guess how long Ramirez was using PEDs to achieve his gaudy stats.

The economics of the game are simply crazy right now; average players are getting the kind of money once reserved for superstars. Ellsbury is certainly well-above average, so he is going to get an enormous pact one way or another.

Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reports that Ellsbury is looking for deal in the range of the seven-year, $142 million contract that Carl Crawford signed with Boston three years ago. That deal is now widely viewed as a bust. Baseball execs may be wary of handing the same sort of deal to Ellsbury.

In fact, Red Sox owner John Henry recently expressed a reluctance to enter into long-term contracts.

"We had a long history of overpaying and going too long in contracts... You can make mistakes. You can sign someone to a five-year deal that should have been a four-year deal."

Henry indicated that the Sox would rather overpay players on short-term deals, as they did last offseason, rather than engage in long-term contracts.

"You can pay him a few million extra a year in order to put together the exact team that can contend," said Henry.

If you take the owner at his word, and Ellsbury sticks to his guns in pursuing a seven-year pact, the center fielder has already played his last game with the Red Sox.

As much as I love Ellsbury's skills and abilities, he is not a $20 million per year player. Yet, it only takes one irrational, irresponsible owner to make such an offer.

If the Red Sox lose the 30-year-old Elsbury to free agency, they will be losing a player who stole 52 bases in 2013 and 241 in his Red Sox career. Yet, while Ellsbury's greatest strength is his speed, that typically starts to fade during a player's mid-30s.

Over the course of a five year deal, a team may be able to maximize Ellsbury's value, provided that he remains healthy (which is not a certainty, given that he missed significant time in two of the last four seasons due to injury). But on a six or seven-year deal, which Ellsbury is allegedly seeking, things could get dicey.

That's why the Red Sox should remain steadfast and not get involved in a bidding war over a long term contract for Ellsbury.

In reality, he is probably worth five years, $75 million — or an average annual value of $15 million.

While an annual salary of that magnitude would not have ranked among the 20 highest in baseball last season, it's fair to argue that Ellsbury is not among the 20 best players in baseball right now.