The Red Sox have been one of the most active teams in the league this offseason, signing free agents Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew, Ryan Dempster, Koji Uehara and Mike Napoli (deal still pending) and trading for closer Joel Hanrahan. The club also brought back John Farrell to take over as manager for 2013 and beyond.
But despite spending well over $100 million on new players this winter, Boston’s biggest decision has revolved around what to do about 29-year-old center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who hits free agency for the first time after the 2013 season. So far, the Sox have stood pat.
Ellsbury was one of the most prized commodities in the major leagues following a 2011 season in which he hit .321/.376/.552/.400 wOBA with 32 homers and 39 steals, leading the league with 9.4 fWAR (his 8.0 rWAR finished second to Ben Zobrist’s 8.5). Combined with stellar defense (his 15.7 UZR led all center fielders) at one of the game’s most premium defensive positions, Ellsbury looked to be in line for a massive contract.
But after suffering a shoulder injury in April, Ellsbury managed to play just 74 games in 2012, posting a paltry .300 wOBA and 1.5 fWAR.
As Fangraphs author Mike Axisa noted in mid-November, the Red Sox had three options to pursue with Ellsbury when the offseason began. They could sign him to a contract extension when his value is low, relative to what it was after 2011; they could trade him to the highest bidder; or the Sox could keep Ellsbury for 2013 and hope for the best.
It’s been a buyer’s market for outfielders this winter, due to the incredible amount of supply available, so it shouldn’t be surprising that Boston has remained cool on making a move on Ellsbury so far. Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton, Nick Swisher, Melky Cabrera, Torii Hunter, Cody Ross and Victorino all signed deals with new clubs, while Denard Span, Ben Revere and Shin-Soo Choo were traded to contending teams in need of outfield help. Only Michael Bourn, arguably the best pure center fielder on the market to begin with, has yet to find a home for 2013.
Now that the dust has settled, the Red Sox are once again faced with the exact same three options, only now they have more information on the potential value of each move.
Sign Ellsbury to an extension
An Ellsbury extension is probably the most difficult option to predict for several reasons. If Ellsbury’s 2012 season had mirrored his 2011 campaign, he’d be in line for something around the eight years, $160 million that Matt Kemp got from the Dodgers entering his contract year in 2012.
The reality, though, is that Ellsbury’s value is not nearly that high, and there’s no way Boston would be willing to pay that much. Scott Boras, Ellsbury’s agent, has been known to get the most for his clients, but even he would not be able to make a rational argument for that kind of mega deal.
A favorable comparison could be made to the deal Upton just received from the Braves, who locked in the 28-year-old for five years, $75 million. Of course, Upton’s deal came in his free-agent year, but taking a closer look at the stats, the players are fairly comparable.
Upton has put up 4,063 plate appearances with a 107 wRC+, while Ellsbury has 2,568 plate appearances with a 108 wRC+. Upton has been the more consistent player, putting up 4 fWAR four times from 2007 to 2011, but Ellsbury’s peak is clearly higher.
That peak is what Boras will sell to the Red Sox in contract negotiations. While it’s hard to imagine giving $75 million or more to a guy who has played just three full seasons in the big leagues, it’s also hard to risk the possibility that he does revert back to his 2011 form and prices Boston out of negotiations next winter.
Historically, the Red Sox would never be priced out of contract negotiations, unless the Yankees were also at the bidding table. But these are not the 2003-2011 Red Sox anymore. After unloading over $200 million in salary to the Dodgers last July, it’s hard to imagine Boston giving any kind of deal in the $100 million range to anyone.
The philosophy for the Red Sox right now seems to be about getting back to the basics of what made them such a dynasty to begin with: breed homegrown superstars, keep them cost-effectively, and surround them with serviceable veterans. Boston has spent over $100 million so far this winter, but it’s been evenly distributed to solid players who will compliment guys like Jackie Bradley, Will Middlebrooks and Xander Bogaerts as they develop.
The bottom line: there is no way the Red Sox extend Ellsbury before the season starts, unless he’s willing to come in for far less years and/or money than one should expect.
Trade Ellsbury now
Hunter Golden examined the trade market for Ellsbury shortly after the 2012 regular season ended, and came up with a list of eight realistic suitors: Texas, Seattle, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Miami, Philadelphia, Washington and the Chicago White Sox.
We can cross off Atlanta, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Washington, as those four clubs already acquired Upton, Choo, Revere and Span, respectively. Miami is also a no-go now that they’ve traded all of their high-priced stars to Toronto.
That leaves Texas, Seattle and Chicago, which all present interesting scenarios, though none seem particularly likely as of now.
Texas, of course, is in need of a center fielder after losing Hamilton to rival Los Angeles last month. In order to snag Ellsbury from the Sox, the Rangers would probably have to ship slugging prospect Mike Olt to Boston. If Ellsbury is his 2011 self, he would be a guy who could vault Texas into being the clear favorite in the American League West. But because Ellsbury’s 2012 season raises serious question marks, it’s unlikely that Rangers general manager Jon Daniels will take on that risk at the cost of losing Olt.
Seattle seems like a potential fit on the surface, as the Mariners have been linked to just about every outfielder on the market this offseason, only to have come up with nothing so far (unless bringing back 40-year-old Raul Ibanez counts, which it shouldn’t). However, there isn’t really much value to a trade for both teams.
While Ellsbury would be an upgrade in center field for the Mariners in 2013 even if he posts an average season, the concept of marginal wins shows that it’s not worth it for the M’s to give up a package of prospects to “rent” him on a one-year deal.
Seattle should be a somewhat competitive club, but in trying to contend in the ultra-tough AL West, it will take a lot more than the addition of Ellsbury – even if he gets back to his 2011 form – to turn Seattle into a playoff team. Therefore, it would be almost useless, and quite possibly harmful, for Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik to give up anything of future value for one year of Ellsbury. And because of this, Boston can’t expect to get anything it would want in return.
The White Sox haven’t been linked to anyone this offseason, really, and that points to a shift in the organization’s mindset. While GM Kenny Williams has been known to spend wildly – both in dollars and in prospects – to bring in big names, he held back last season by not dealing any of his top prospects in the midst of a heated divisional race with Detroit. Instead, Williams improved the team with the acquisitions of Kevin Youkilis, Francisco Liriano and Brett Myers without giving up anything of note.
Because Chicago has remained silent all winter while teams scooped up big-name center fielders left and right, one would have to imagine that Williams and manager Robin Ventura have faith in the speedy Alejandro De Aza to handle the job going forward.
All told, the trade market for Ellsbury appears to be grim right now, but that could all change in a couple of months.
Ellsbury is the Opening Day center fielder
By starting the season with Ellsbury on the roster, the Red Sox will still have the options to extend him, trade him or keep him for the rest of the year. Whatever Boston decides to do will depend not only on Ellsbury’s production for the first few months of the season, but also on the club’s place in the standing.
In the highly competitive AL East, it’s tough to imagine the Red Sox having a decent chance at winning the division title. Most projections have Boston as a 78-86 win team; surely not enough to win the East, but likely good enough to stay in the race for the fifth wild-card spot, at least for a while.
Now, let’s say that Boston plays at the high end of its spectrum for the first half of the season, and come July, they are in reasonable contention for a playoff spot. At that point, trading Ellsbury wouldn’t necessarily be out of the question. After all, the Sox shipped star shortstop Nomar Garciaparra to Chicago in the middle of 2004, and we all know how that worked out.
However, in order for Boston to trade Ellsbury in the midst of a pennant race (assuming its goal is to make the playoffs), they’d have to acquire a package that would help the team immediately. The problem there is that any team that would want to trade for Ellsbury as a three-month rental most likely would not want to give up major league talent, as that team would also be trying to make the playoffs.
So, if the Red Sox are competitive to begin 2013, their best bet will be to keep Ellsbury in the fold for the rest of the year. At that point, they can either sign him to an extension – which, as previously noted, could be quite difficult – or let him walk at the end of the year and collect a compensation pick (assuming they offer him the $13.3 million qualifying offer).
The more realistic scenario, though, is that Boston isn’t really in contention come July. Even if the Sox play .500 ball for the first three months, it would be tough to imagine them keeping up with the likes of Tampa Bay, Toronto and New York, much less the other AL powers.
At that point, the choice to trade Ellsbury will be pretty simple, but that doesn’t mean that Boston won’t have leverage in a potential deal. Remember the buyer’s market from this offseason? Come July, it’s likely that Ellsbury will be one of the few impact offensive players available, and there should be plenty of suitors looking to pony up a package for the center fielder, especially with the new 10-team playoff system and the added value of winning a division.
While the Rangers, Mariners and White Sox may be cool on Ellsbury at the moment, a legitimate shot at making the playoffs three months into the season might force these teams to re-examine what they’d be willing to give up for a rental. That same theory could also be applied to just about every other team in the league, even if they’re not in the market for an outfielder right now.
Trading Ellsbury will hurt, especially if he has another monster year, but this scenario is in fact the best thing Sox fans can hope for, short of a miracle run to the postseason in 2013. There’s nothing wrong with fielding a competitive team, but Boston should not hold onto Ellsbury for too long if another team is willing to pay a high price for his services.