Jacoby Ellsbury
The Boston Red Sox have a lot of issues to face this offseason, but none may be more significant that the question of what to do with Jacoby Ellsbury. The 29-year-old Center Fielder will be coming into his last year of team control in 2013, and with agent Scott Boras in tow, will almost assuredly test the market in free agency at the end of next season. It’s that looming reality that has moved many to declare that the Red Sox should explore trading Ellsbury this offseason even before the summer blockbuster that sent Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford to the Dodgers was pulled off.

Given the current state of the Red Sox roster, trading Ellsbury could be a reasonable move to make. He’d be likely to yield a strong return, even in spite of his rather clunky injury history, which is due more to bad luck and freak occurrence than it is nagging hamstrings, elbows and other pesky, re-occurring maladies. The question isn’t whether Ellsbury could net a strong piece – it’s how many strong pieces he could bring in. That’s going to depend largely on how teams valuate him – a range that could be all over the map. Is Ellsbury the 9.4 fWAR player he was in 2011, or is he closer to what we saw in previous seasons (more in the range of 3-4 fWAR)? How teams view him and his upside is what will dictate his return. The return is going to mean everything to a Red Sox team in an expedited rebuilding process.

A few days ago, our own Scott Candage made the case to trade him, so today, we’ll explore some of the teams that might have interest in Ellsbury as well as some of the pieces that would be of interest to the Red Sox. Let’s jump right in!

Prime Candidates

Texas Rangers

While it’s probably a stretch to suggest the Rangers’ window is closing, it’s safe to say that the opportunity to win with the core group they have in place now is beginning to dissipate. Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli are likely to hit free agency and if speculation has any substance, they’ll be signing elsewhere this offseason. Nelson Cruz and Michael Young will be hitting contract years in 2013, and with Young on the verge of retirement and Cruz on the wrong side of 33, it’s likely that both will be seeing their time in Texas come to a close as well.

The good news for the Rangers is that they have lots of money to spend and are the proud owners of a deep and talented farm system that should keep them relevant for years to come. Still, being young all the time is just as bad as being too old and if they want to keep their status as the team to beat, they’ll have to add some veterans, either via trade or free agency.

Ellsbury seems like a pretty obvious fit if for nothing other than their need for a CF. The Rangers could very likely make Jacoby a Ranger for a long time and extend him, even though that’s not necessarily Scott Boras’ modus operandi to let teams do that. I don’t see a hesitation to spend on the Rangers’ part – I just see hesitation to spend on Josh Hamilton. Ellsbury may also be appealing if for nothing other than the fact that one of their most talented players is also somewhat expendable. Elvis Andrus is certainly an elite SS, but only has two years left of team control and has top-5 prospect Jurickson Profar breathing right down his neck. While Profrar’s performance at the big league level in September produced mixed results, there are many who have speculated that he could be good to go, meaning that the Rangers may feel comfortable parting ways with Andrus.

Of course given the position scarcity and extra year of control over Andrus, the Rangers will likely want more than just Ellsbury. Even if the asking price seems a little high, the Red Sox should consider taking them up on their offer. Andrus presents an outstanding opportunity for the Red Sox to have a cost-controlled elite SS at $11 million over the next two years. While his offensive production would more or less be a lateral move from Ellsbury, his defense and age make him a potential core piece for the Red Sox heading forward. SS has been somewhat of the White Whale for a number of years in Boston. Andrus could bring some long awaited stability to the position.

Acquiring Andrus could also cause a ripple effect throughout the rest of the roster as well, most notably buying some time for Xander Bogaerts to season a bit more in the minors. Recent accounts suggest Bogaerts may be able to play SS at the big league level, which if that’s the case would mean that the Red Sox could likely dangle Andrus next year and receive a significant haul in return. If Bogaerts evolves into more of a 3B/OF type, Andrus can be kept, Middlebrooks could be moved – OR – Bogaerts could settle into and outfield spot.

Needless to say, the Red Sox need to balance being competitive with maintaining as much roster flexibility as possible. Given his cost and ability, Andrus could do just that.

Seattle Mariners

As Dave Cameron pointed out yesterday on his blog, the Seattle Mariners organization is in a weird place. In fact, Cameron puts it well enough:

The Mariners are honestly in a bit of an awkward situation. They’ve committed to building a core group through the farm system that can sustain a winner for years to come. They have some pieces in place that could — or should — be part of that core, but as a whole, they’re not quite ready to win. The organization’s future is still brighter than its present. Unfortunately, with only two years left on Felix Hernandez‘s contract and attendance that continues to trend the wrong way, the Mariners can’t keep asking fans to just wait around and watch the kids develop. The kids need help, and in some cases, the kids might need replacing. There’s enough talent on hand to win 75-80 games again next year, but they need to add about 10 wins of talent this winter to put themselves in a position to make an unexpected run at the playoffs next year. And they need to do it without throwing away the pieces that a future contender could be built around.

That’s not easy. Any team can borrow from the future to increase their odds in the present, either by trading prospects for veterans or signing players to inflated free agent contracts that harm the team’s ability to compete going forward. That kind of win-now roster construction is generally counterproductive unless a team is sure they’ve got a real shot at the playoffs and the riches that come along with a postseason appearance. The Mariners aren’t there yet. But they also can’t afford to sit on their hands and run another sub-.500 team out there while asking the fans to wait for the kids to develop. The natives are restless, attendance is down again, and Felix Hernandez‘s contract is about to come back into the spotlight. It’s time for the Mariners to put a competitive team on the field again, making this a winter where they can’t just sit back and hope things fall into place. They need to be aggressive, make smart moves, and improve the overall talent base of the organization, both for 2013 and beyond.

I’d tend to agree. The team is actively looking to extend Felix Hernandez and GM Jack Zduriencik has even said that he’s wide open to making the club better this year. That could mean free agent signings, but it could also mean trades.

It’s no secret that the leadoff spot in Seattle has been a mess over the past few years. Chone Figgins was an unmitigated disaster and Franklin Gutierrez has yet to stay healthy enough to warrant a full time job in spite of his incredible defensive prowess. With the need for offensive firepower, a full time Center Fielder and a leadoff hitter, Jacoby Ellsbury may be the answer to all of those questions as well as helping to accelerate the rebuilding process in Seattle.

There’s also a decent box office case to be made as well – as Ellsbury himself is a native of the Pacific Northwest. With attendance dropping and fan interest waning, bringing in a quasi-home town kid could help stunt the negative momentum. It’s rare in baseball where you see deals where business needs meet baseball needs. This might be one of them.

And make no bones about it, the Mariners have a lot of what the Red Sox are in dire need of: lots of young, cheap starting pitching. Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, and James Paxton have all been ranked amongst the Mariners top five prospects. Erasmo Martinez, Charlie Furbush, Blake Beavan, Hector Noesi and others could be of interest, too. There’s a lot to pick from here that the Red Sox would likely consider. The Mariners also have a decent number of position players worth considering. One might be 1B Justin Smoak who has been thus far underwhelming, but finished last season strong and showed some signs of a potential breakout.

While the Red Sox might not be able to mine for the kind of quality up front they could expect to get in a prospective deal with Texas, there’s potential to add considerable quantity to the stockpile of young talent they already have in a trade with the Mariners. Expect both to talk quite a bit.

Tire Kickers

Atlanta Braves

It’s going to be tough for the Braves to sign Michael Bourn and truth be told, they probably shouldn’t. This is a club that’s always shied away from enormous contracts for all but the most elite players in their organization. With Chipper Jones finally off the payroll and Bourne’s salary gone, they may figure that Ellsbury is worth the investment in players and coin. The Braves have some intriguing, albeit very raw pitching prospects in their organization that might be tasty options for the Sox in the future. Randall Delgado might be the most appealing – a very polished 22 year old who could make an outstanding compliment to Boston’s core of young pitching that includes Felix Doubront, Matt Barnes, Rubby De La Rosa and Alan Webster. Delgado was traded for Ryan Dempster back in July, only for the deal to fall through when Dempster exercised his 10-5 rights and vetoed the trade. The hitch in a potential deal with the Braves is – in fact – their pitching which despite oodles of talent, failed to perform up to expectations this year and has remained more of an enigma. Would the Braves be willing to let a prospect go when things seem so unsettled? It’s anyone’s guess. Nonetheless, the Red Sox would be silly not to shop Ellsbury in their general direction.

Cincinnati Reds

There’s little secret the Reds desperately need a leadoff hitter, and Ellsbury might be an ideal fit. They kicked tires at the trade deadline, but decided to settle on Denard Span instead, who decided himself (inexplicably) that he’d rather stay in Minnesota. Nonetheless, the Reds have a hole and the Red Sox have a potential solution. Issue is, are any of the Reds’ prospects intriguing to the Sox and what would the Reds give up? It’s hard to see them parting with guys like Zach Cozart or Billy Hamilton. Also, with Michael Bourne and a decent free agent market for leadoff hitters, they may find other options more appealing, instead choosing to hang on to their young glut of high upside prospects and go with more of a medium-term stop-gap.

The Wild Cards

The Miami Marlins are one of the nuttier franchises in the game and with this year’s latest flameout; they may be desperate to make something happen down in South Florida. There’s a lot to pick from out of the Marlins system and there is an opportunity or two to add a Major League piece. It’s just going to depend on what direction the Marlins decide to take – of which could (of course) change week to week. You just never know. The other issue is that of potential redundancy. With Jose Reyes hitting leadoff already and given the size of the park, you wonder if Miami’s much of a fit for Ellsbury. Truth be told – they’re probably not. Not that that’s ever stopped them, of course.

The Philadelphia Phillies could be interested despite a young, higher upside core of OF talent. The real question will be whether the Phillies see the upside to potentially mortgaging their future to try and win with a club whose core is already aging and whose opportunity to repeat the successes of 2008 and 2009 is getting smaller every day. Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee are all on the bad side of 32. The window is closing. While Ellsbury might not be the best long-term move, he can buy them another year or two to help win that second championship.

The Washington Nationals may decide to get froggy and upgrade their outfield a bit. With Edwin Jackson likely to skip town this offseason, they’ll only have two players in the $10 million+ club and have all the money in the world to spend and prospects to spare. Still, some things would have to happen for the deal to become viable, namely figuring out what to do with Mike Morse, who’s likely the odd man out. For Ellsbury, it’s a chance to compete for the foreseeable future and Scott Boras has gone on the record as saying he loves doing business with the Nationals. If you’re Ellsbury, Washington is a great place to be. Whether Ellsbury is great for Washington remains to be seen.

The Chicago White Sox are never afraid to turn their back on a developing youngster in favor of a more established veteran. While this strategy has occasionally caught up with them over the years, the White Sox seem perfectly content to trudge forward, burning prospects like marshmallows in order to appease the masses. They’ve got a seemingly young and talented outfield, but there’s little doubt that Ellsbury would be a significant upgrade. The stability Ellsbury would provide could do the Sox some good, as they’re a team with a boatload of questions – almost as many as the Red Sox. There’s the inconsistency of Gordon Beckham and Alexi Ramirez in their middle infield. There are contract issues with Kevin Youkilis and Paul Konerko at the corners. Gavin Floyd still remains a mystery, as does what they’ll do with Jake Peavy’s option for next year. With all those key pieces up in the air, trading for and signing Ellsbury could bring some stability to a franchise that could use it. The return might not be as appealing on paper, but GM Kenny Williams is never afraid to go the extra mile if it’s someone he wants bad enough. There might be a better deal here than people would think.

Trading Ellsbury could help set a distinct core for the Red Sox to build around for the future. It’s one of the bigger decisions the team’s had to make in the last few years. If you had the opportunity to trade Ellsbury, where would you send him? What would you look for in return?