Who Wants Jacoby Ellsbury?

In case you didn’t know, Jacoby Ellsbury will become a free agent after this season. It’s presumed that he will take his services to the open market, and the Red Sox may not have much of an inside track on his services. Whether they do or not, there will be no shortage of teams who want the Madras, Ore., native. Earlier this week, Ken Rosenthal suggested the Mariners may be in the market for him. This got me thinking just how deep the pool of suitors may be. So let’s take a trip through Major League Baseball and reason through it, shall we?

First, a quick overview about Ellsbury’s season. He’s doing fairly well. He currently has the fourth-best WAR among center fielders and 15th-best among position players. It’s been reassuring for those who catch their breath every time Ellsbury grimaces. It was easy to write him off again in ’12 as an injury plagued guy who can’t play in pain. But even with the poor ’12, he has still been one of the 10-15 best position position players in the game since the start of 2011. A lot of his value is tied to base running (he easily has the best BsR in the game this year) and defense (in the top 30), but his bat has still been above average. And since he is showing no signs of slowing down and is hitting free agency heading into his age-30 season, he should be highly desirable — especially since he will be a “young” 30. During the wild card era (’95-present), 170 qualified players have compiled more plate appearances than has Ellsbury by the end of their 20’s. Ellsbury’s 3,107 PA are less than half of Alex Rodriguez, who put up more than 7,000 PA before his 20’s ended.

Who won’t want him

As desirable as Ellsbury is, there will be some teams that just won’t need or want him. The Angels are set with Mike Trout/Peter Bourjos, and the Pirates are set with Andrew McCutchen. Colby Rasmus’ improvement this year probably precludes the Blue Jays’ involvement, unless they want to waive Melky Cabrera and move Rasmus to left field (for the sake of argument here, we’re going to consider Ellsbury a center fielder only — you don’t swing the big stick in free agency so that you can switch positions). The Brewers are good with Carlos Gomez and the O’s are good with Adam Jones. Jason Kubel probably won’t be back in Arizona, but with Gerardo Parra, Adam Eaton and Cody Ross, their outfield is probably going to be full. Detroit is good with Austin Jackson, and the Rockies are good with Dexter Fowler. The Braves, Dodgers and Padres may not be good with B.J. Upton, Matt Kemp and Cameron Maybin, respectively, but they are stuck with them. The Indians are set with Michael Bourn, as are the Rays with Desmond Jennings. Jon Jay has been not great in St. Louis this season — particularly on defense — but chances are they’ll stick with him. That leaves us with 16 teams, who may or may not have varying degrees of interest.

We like him, but we’re either not in the right position to win or we’re too cheap

The Twins, White Sox and Marlins qualify here, and the Astros probably do as well. I’d give a little pause to the Astros, because I think that when they come they’re going to come fast, but that still probably is no sooner than 2015. Down to 12 teams.

We could make it work

Boston — Yeah, the Sox want Ellsbury back, but it’s a little complicated. Re-signing him means Jackie Bradley has to move to left, where Jonny Gomes and Daniel Nava already are. If Mike Napoli doesn’t re-sign, Nava could move to first, which would leave JBJ and Gomes in a nifty little platoon. But 1) the Sox probably want to bring Napoli back as well, since he’s been pretty good this year and 2) Bradley may not be deserving of the platoon treatment. Yes, his star has dimmed a touch thanks to his false start in April, but that didn’t stop Marc Hulet or Keith Law from putting him in their midseason top 50 prospect rankings. GM Ben Cherington isn’t letting Ellsbury go without a fight, but there are some moving parts here.

Kansas CityDavid Lough has been a nice surprise, but a 27-year-old rookie with a 100 wRC+ shouldn’t be guaranteed a job. Lorenzo Cain could slide over to accommodate Ellsbury and give the Royals one of the best defensive outfields in the game, but with more pop than they currently have with Lough out there. Ellsbury may be a little rich for KC’s blood, but perhaps being part of a pennant chase plus the added pressure to take advantage of the James Shields window will get them in the market. If they can’t land Robinson Cano, that is.

NY YankeesCurtis Granderson is a free agent. Maybe the Yankees want him back, maybe they don’t. Maybe they want Brett Gardner to play center field, but maybe Gardner would happily shift back to left field if it meant stealing Ellsbury from their division rival. One thing is for certain — New York needs to do better with their outfield than they have this season. The Yankees’ 92 wRC+ ranks 23rd in the game and is eight percent worse than the Mets, who were supposed to have the worst outfield ever this season. And spare me the sermons about the Yankees’ newfound fiscal responsibility.

Philadelphia — The Phillies should probably be rebuilding, but general manager Ruben Amaro doesn’t do five-year plans, and after not making a splashy move last offseason, he might be itching to turn the crazy up a few notches this offseason. He’s certainly not taking the blame for the team’s underperformance, as he displayed today by dismissing manager Charlie Manuel. Ben Revere would have to move to right field, and that wouldn’t be ideal, but in all honesty his offensive production this year has been just as good as Delmon Young’s was and John Mayberry’s has been. And Revere plays better defense.

San Francisco — The Giants should probably be rebuilding as well, but with Tim Lincecum, Barry Zito, Hunter Pence, Ryan Vogelsong and Javier Lopez potentially coming off the books this winter, San Fran may have some cash with which to play. Angel Pagan is still in the fold, but he could slide over to left to replace Andres Torres, who is hopefully taking his .277 wOBA, making like a tree and getting out of there.

TexasAlex Rios will be back, but Nelson Cruz and David Murphy are going to be free agents. Leonys Martin and Craig Gentry have been a good platoon in center, they could also be a good platoon in left field, or could be good fourth and fifth outfielders. The wrinkle here is what the Rangers decide to with their middle infield logjam. If Ian Kinsler or Jurickson Profar is moved to the outfield that would likely extinguish any interest in Ellsbury, but if they don’t then he could end up a good fit for them. The Rangers steal plenty of bases, but their -8.2 BsR ranks 27th in the game.

WashingtonDenard Span is under contract for 2014, but he has been so bad this year that maybe the Nationals want to make him a highly-paid fourth outfielder. It makes a modicum of sense. For starters, they’re loaded. Second, there have been past rumblings that general manager Mike Rizzo has coveted Ellsbury. Finally, Jayson Werth gets hurt a lot, and while Werth is better than Span against right-handed pitching, Span can at least be average against righties and could spell Werth against them to keep him fresh and clean. Probably not going to happen, but I could see it.

We have offers at the ready

Chicago Cubs — The Cubs are tied down to exactly zero outfielders next season, so signing Ellsbury may be something that they’re interested in. They have a club option on David DeJesus, but the buyout ($1.5 million) certainly isn’t prohibitive. The Cubs may need another year before they’re ready to spring on the scene, but the 2015 free-agent list has exactly zero marquee outfielders on it, so the time may be this offseason rather than next. And since the Cubs brain trust is the same one that was in place when Ellsbury came to Boston, maybe they are champing at the bit to get him.

Cincinnati — Is Billy Hamilton really good enough to be a major league starter? Does Dusty Baker even want to find out? Color me skeptical on that score. Shin-Soo Choo is a free agent, and while the Reds may want him back, the Choo as center field experiment would be best served if it ended after one season. There is some urgency here, as Baker will be in the last year of his contract and isn’t going to manage forever — he’s 64 this year. In addition, the core of this team isn’t getting any younger, and two of their best pitchers — Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos — could be free agents at the conclusion of the 2014 season. And the National League Central waters aren’t going to be any easier to navigate next season.

NY Mets — Many believe the Mets are still too far away to compete, and they may be right. But as with the Cubs, the same principle about 2015 free agents applies, so if the Mets are going to drop a bomb, Ellsbury is probably the pick to click if they want to do so via free agency. Juan Lagares and Marlon Byrd have played well, but Lagares can slide over and Byrd is old enough that it would be unwise for them to hitch their wagon to him long-term.

Oakland — Yes, that Oakland. If I was a betting man, I’d say the A’s are going to pick up Coco Crisp’s option this winter. But then, if I was a betting man, I would have (and did say) that the A’s were going to pick up Stephen Drew’s option last winter, and they didn’t do that, so … ya. Covelli had himself a nice little April, but it’s been mostly downhill since, including a 29 wRC+ in July. He’s four years older than Ellsbury, his best season was nearly a decade ago, and that best season would probably only be Ellsbury’s third-best season. The A’s usually don’t generally splurge on players, but they are in an unique position to do so this winter. According to Cot’s, they only have $22 million committed for next season before accounting for their 12 arbitration players. Of the 12, only Jed Lowrie and Josh Reddick figure to see significant raises. If they come out of those cases at around $50-55 million in payroll, there should be plenty left over for Ellsbury. Their only significant free agents to be are Grant Balfour and Bartolo Colon, and replacements for them are ready, willing and cheap.

Seattle — As Rosenthal mentioned, Seattle makes plenty of sense for Ellsbury. The soft factors may be overblown (is living one state away from where you grew up really that big of a deal? He’d probably still get on a plane to get home.), but the dearth of quality talent in Seattle’s outfield is not. Michael Saunders’ second-half surge makes him a likely candidate to stick in one spot, but the other two should essentially be up for grabs. Plugging in Ellsbury could actually give the M’s a lethal offense. Their 100 wRC+ thus far in the second half ranks fifth in the American League, and it has been built on the backs of players who should be back (Kendrys Morales being the only question mark) and may keep improving as well. And that mark is even with Raul Ibanez, Michael Morse and Endy Chavez stinking up the joint.

So there you have it — as many as 12 teams may want Ellsbury this winter. Rest assured, it’s going to be an interesting winter for Ellsbury and Boras.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

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