I was over at Sons of Sam Horn the other day and stumbled across this interesting thread with the idea of trading Jacoby Ellsbury to the San Francisco Giants in exchange for Tim Lincecum. It certainly tickled my fancy but before I could put pen to paper, I noticed my Twitter feed was lit abuzz by rumors that the Giants may – in fact – be putting Lincecum out on the trade market for next season.
With two strikingly similar situations and two teams desperately in need of what the other has, would the prospect of a trade between the Giants and the Red Sox be THAT far fetched?
Both Jacoby Ellsbury and Tim Lincecum are Boras clients. Both are in the final years of their respective contracts. Both are coming off of 1.5 fWAR seasons that have brought their long-term value into question. Despite that, both will demand a substantial commitment heading forward. Neither the Giants nor the Red Sox seem particularly interested in extending either guy unless they can see evidence that both can return to form. With both outcomes very much in question, don’t expect either team to budge on barfing up substantial years and money to keep either player.
Complicating matters is Scott Boras, who almost never signs extensions before a player hits free agency. Even if the Sox or Giants were willing to buy low and incur the risk, there’s little to no chance Boras would allow it to happen. That would mean that barring a trade – that both players would be due to hit free agency next year – and with the risk high and the possibility of retaining both very low, there’s little for either organization to gain by taking a patient, wait-and-see approach. With an agent burning to take both to free agency and two organizations less than willing to dance, it appears as if both Lincecum and Ellsbury’s time with their respective teams is coming to a close.
While it’s safe to say the trade wouldn’t be a significant improvement over their current long term contract situations heading forward, it could be one of those rare opportunities where making a lateral move to settle for risk in an area of need rather than surplus makes sense. The Red Sox need pitching with high upside and low risk (don’t we all?) The Giants will need a CFer who can come close to – or surpass Angel Pagan’s performance this year.
So is this a viable trade? Let’s take a look!
Both stars have experienced their fair share of issues over the past year or so, making it difficult to valuate either heading forward.
Ellsbury’s problems have been well documented. After posting MVP-caliber numbers in 2011, Ellsbury got bit by the injury bug again, missing most of the season with a dislocated shoulder. When he got back into the lineup in late July, the numbers weren’t pretty with Ellsbury hitting .271/.313/.370 with a massive power shortage and a 66-point wRC+ drop to go along with it.
In fairness, Ellsbury was battling a shoulder injury – the latest ding in a series of odd injuries that the Center Fielder has suffered over the last few years. While he’s not injury prone in the traditional sense, the dip in performance post-shoulder is a bit concerning considering the extent of his drop off . There’s no telling what the cumulative effect of these injuries could mean heading forward, if anything.
Tim Lincecum comes with a more convincing track record than Ellsbury, but also comes with more red flags. There’s been a slight loss of velocity in his fastball, he’s struggling to do anything with his once devastating changeup and most glaringly – he’s getting crushed when runners get on base.
In fact, Lincecum has been atrocious out of the stretch this year. Teams have posted a wOBAA of .349 with men on base and a whopping .378 when in scoring position. His walk rate nearly doubles and K% dips almost six points when he allows runners to reach first. His walk rates with men on are staggering- spiking to 5.47 on base and 7.07 in scoring position.
Both guys come with all-star level talent, but their glaring failures shouldn’t be ignored.
There’s lots of upside to be had for the adventurous
The big issue for Ellsbury over the past three years has simply been playing time. Baseball is a game of routine. Being in the lineup one day, out the next and then finding yourself trying to play catch up in the middle of July is a challenge for even the best players. Injury has disrupted that routine to a great deal, but the extend of it is mostly unknown. There’s little question that Ellsbury is a good player. It’s a matter of how good.
There’s speculation to be made on both sides of the coin. On one hand, the power dip could be completely attributable to the shoulder injury sustained in April. One would figure a healthy offseason could bring it back. The other argument could be that his power surge was a one-time thing and that the numbers he posted this year are closer to who he really is.
The same can be said about Lincecum. He’s struggled with his mechanics in the past, but never like he did this year. Perhaps a second set of eyes in the offseason and some time off could be all he needs. The other side is that he could be a great, young pitcher flaming out early – employing mechanics that were bound to blow apart – just as many scouts had suggested. Which guy is he? We don’t know.
What we do know is that the reward for both is high. If either can bounce back to even a shadow of their former selves, we’re staring two palatable 4.0+ fWAR players in the face. We’re also looking at two players who could end up like they did this year.
There’s the need
For the Red Sox, it’s obvious they need pitching help and while there might be other, less expensive one-year deals to be had on the market, it’s hard to fathom that any of them would come with more upside than Lincecum who – for all intents and purposes – has been the best pitcher in the National League over the last few seasons. If he were to find his mechanics again, the Red Sox could potentially rope in a bonafide top of the rotation starter.
The need might be even more pressing for the Giants. As Wendy Thurm pointed out today over at Fangraphs, the Giants will have $80 million worth of commitments between Lincecum, Matt Cain, Barry Zito, Ryan Vogelsong, Madison Bumgarner, Pablo Sandoval and Javier Lopez. With a long-term extension looming in the background for Buster Posey, it might make sense for the Giants to free up some of their payroll by trading the 2-time Cy Young award winner.
With players like Brian Wilson and Hunter Pence in their last years of arbitration eligibility and a lot of youngsters making league minimum, the Giants are looking at a fairly substantial payroll increase next year and that’s before they go about the business of trying to fill in voids that will be (likely) left by Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera.
Trading for Ellsbury would essentially fill one of those gaps and provide them with the funds to address their other arbitration and payroll raises. For the Red Sox, they’d get a pitcher with top of the rotation potential with a chance to extend him provided things went well.
Both teams can avoid a grey area
While lots of talk has been made of the Boston Red Sox pursuing high-upside pitchers on one-year deals, the reality suggests actually signing one will be difficult. The point of a pillow contract is to pad one’s stats in hopes of a better payday a year from now. If you’re a pitcher, Fenway Park and the American League East are probably towards the bottom of your list. Trading for Lincecum would mean you pay more, but you also avoid the obstacle of overpaying for someone with less upside and ability.
For the Giants – they’ll need a bat. The way their payroll is constructed now, finding premium replacements could be a challenge. Adding Ellsbury to the mix helps them find a reasonably priced outfielder and minimal risk that could also become an important part of the team heading forward.
There are some things to discuss first
No make no mistake about it – there would certainly be obstacles to overcome in a straight-up Ellsbury for Lincecum deal. First and foremost would be the money. Ellsbury is slated to make a little under $10 million next year. The Giants are on the hook for $22 million owed to Lincecum. The $12 million difference is a significant wad of cash that will be hard to ignore.
The second obstacle is obviously the deal itself. Is this the best either team could get in exchange for their talent? Is it worth selling low on one of your most valuable pieces? The answer for both teams could be ‘no’.