Jacoby Ellsbury’s Three Outcomes

The Red Sox made a historic trade in terms of dollars moved a few months ago, a trade that simultaneously improved their long-term outlook while burning their short-term chances to the ground. Boston lost 26 of 34 games after the deal with the Dodgers and will spend the winter picking up the pieces, trying to find smart ways to invest the $260+ million in savings while getting the team back into contention as soon as possible.

One of GM Ben Cherington’s biggest short-term questions is Jacoby Ellsbury, who followed up his 9.4 WAR season of 2011 with a 1.5 WAR effort in 2012. He missed most of the summer due to injury and when he was on the field, he stunk. Just a .300 wOBA and 83 wRC+ in 323 plate appearances. Without looking it up, I’m guessing the 7.9 WAR drop from one year to the next is one of the largest by a position player in history. But I digress.

The 29-year-old Ellsbury is just one year away from free agency and that leaves the team in a bit of a predicament. He’s theoretically in his prime years right now and does that line up with the team’s expected return to contention? What’s his value to the club in the short-term versus his value in the long-term? What’s his value on the market regardless of the club’s internal evaluations? Is he really the MVP-caliber player he was last year or the guy who failed to crack 2.5 WAR three times in the last four years? Cherington has to answer all of that and more to figure out the best course of action going forward. The way I see it, this will come down to one of three (true!) outcomes.

1. Sign Him To A Contract Extension

The only thing I can say about Jacoby is that there are few players like him. He is a proven successful player in Boston and in the American League East environment, and he plays a premium position at Gold Glove levels. He is a franchise player.”

That’s what agent Scott Boras said to Michael Silverman of The Boston Herald back in early-September. Barring something extreme like another serious injury or further decline in performance, you can bet Boras will be seeking a top-of-the-market contract for a two-way, in-his-prime center fielder come next offseason. He’ll probably reference the Carl Crawford (seven years, $142 million) and Matt Kemp (eight years, $160 million) contracts in negotiations.

The Red Sox, however, just shed one of those massive nine-figure contracts that Boras figures to use a reference point. Obviously Ellsbury has had more success in Boston than Crawford did in his short time there, but it still serves as a cautionary tale. Ellsbury is still young enough that you can envision his peak years being part of the next great Red Sox club, so we’re not talking about an Alfonso Soriano/Washington Nationals situation here. Boston certainly has the money to sign him if they choose.

2. Trade Ellsbury This Offseason

Depending on how you value Ellsbury, there are two ways to view this option. One, the Red Sox should trade him now before his stock drops further as his MVP-caliber season goes farther into the rear-view mirror. Two, they should keep him and let him rebuild value in the first half rather than sell low following the disappointing year he just had. It’s worth noting that if Ellsbury is traded at the deadline, his new team wouldn’t be able to recoup draft pick compensation if he signs elsewhere. That will factor into trade talks.

Determining a proper return given the last few years is very tough. Is this a situation like Matt Holliday, who was a legit star when he was traded from the Rockies to the Athletics? Is he the inconsistent Melky Cabrera going from the Royals to the Giants? Is he worth more in a deal than Shin-Soo Choo? The Red Sox have a number of holes on the big league roster and could fill one or two (or three?) by moving Ellsbury this winter. There’s no shortage of teams in need of a center fielder, especially one who has demonstrated the ability to be an impact player.

3. Keep Ellsbury This Year And Let Him Walk As A Free Agent

I have a hard time defending this option, but it is a viable one for the Red Sox. They would enjoy Ellsbury’s production next year and then gain a draft pick after the season when he signs a big contract elsewhere. He’d serve as his own stopgap until top outfield prospect Jackie Bradley Jr. is ready to take over the center field gig, and maybe even help the club sneak into one of two Wild Card spots. The “do nothing” option, which is what this represents, is always available.

* * *

A year ago, Ellsbury was one of baseball’s hottest commodities as an elite player whose salary was still below-market due to the arbitration system. His injury-shortened and overall disappointing year turned what was supposed to be a slam-dunk contract extension into questions about his future with the team, however.

The Red Sox know Ellsbury better than anyone. They know his skills, his medical history, his personality, his work ethic, how much he likes Boston, everything. All of that factors into how they value him and the decision they make about his future. Both signing Ellsbury to a contract extension and dealing him for a package of players this winter makes sense given the club’s short- and long-term outlooks, and frankly there might not be a wrong answer here. Boston could improve either way, just as they could lose out either way.

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Mike writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues and baseball in general at CBS Sports.

11 Responses to “Jacoby Ellsbury’s Three Outcomes”

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  1. Bill says:

    I think Boras will be very disapointed. It’s quite obvious that spike in HR was a fluke, the HR/FB % was a major all time high for Jacoby in 2011. The speed is declining, health concerns, Fenway inflated BA. Away from Fenway he’s a .285/15 hitter who walks 7% of the time. Not enough power to hit 3-5, and enough OBP to hit 1 or 2? Can he steal 40 bases at 31, 32?

    No GM is going to give him more than 4 years, unless he comes out and hits 30hr again with another mid teens hr/fb, then I’ll eat my words.

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    • mike says:

      You bet you will eat your words, here we go again knocking Ellsbury, One his injuries were caused by others, He did exactly what the team wanted him to and healed, . two it seems to me that I herd the same things about Damon while he was with the sox and then look at his career, after the sox did not sign him because of the so called sport reporters who put the crap about Ellsbury in your heads. KEEP ELLSBURY AND GET OFF HIS BACK, The guy gives a 100 percent and No he has not slowed down, and I think his performance will show that. So try again. Just because you may not like him or his agent. please set that aside and realize that when the soxs lost in 2011 Jacoby was on a roll. And again the pitching was the problem. So stop blamming the so call injuries on Jacoby and Leave him alone. He is not your problem he is the solution along with better pitching. Thank you.

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  2. B N says:

    By my estimation, I’d order the value as:


    In terms of when they hit their contracts and their track record. I think that teams mainly consider consistency as hitters, upside, and age. For a big signing, I think teams have to imagine a magical run of years where the player approaches their ceiling. Otherwise they’d probably never shell out the kind of money they do.

    Ellsbury has 2 out of 3, having shown big upside at a reasonable age. Choo and Cabrera, even in their peak seasons, haven’t hit that kind of upside and weren’t consistent. Crawford didn’t have tantalizing upside but the consistency was there. Kemp is higher due to higher power upside and being a bit younger. Holliday was very consistent at a high level. Crawford is probably the best comp, having shown less hitting upside but more consistency when he hit free agency.

    As for valuation though, I thought Crawford got overpaid at the time. Ellsbury will probably also be overpaid, unless his big power spike was for real. I’ll guess he gets something close to or higher than Crawford due to inflation but I wouldn’t sign either of them at that price.

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  3. Sparkles Peterson says:

    I don’t think Ellsbury comes anywhere close to 7 years or $20 million per year without another HUGE season in 2013. I’m thinking like 3 years, $45 million if he has a typical .340ish wOBA season, and I think the team that gives him that contract will be roundly criticized within baseball.

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  4. The fourth outcome is Japan.

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  5. chuckb says:

    I think there is another option that hasn’t been considered and that’s play the season out, as is, and if he plays well, attempt to re-sign him next offseason. Your analysis, detailed though it is, seems to assume that if the Sox don’t sign him or trade him now, they won’t be able to re-sign him next offseason. I fail to see why that’s the case. The Sox just shed 11 bajillion dollars from their payroll and can support baseball’s 2nd highest payroll. They’ll be able to match or beat anyone else’s offer if they choose to so there’s no reason to believe that they have as few options as you suggest.

    In my mind, allowing him to play out the season is the way to go. I doubt that he’s going to want to sign a contract coming off of last season’s debacle and his trade value right now is so low that the team would be selling low if they traded him. So the Sox can play out the season and try to sign him if they want to based on how this season goes. There’s no reason to pay Boras prices if 2012 ends up being the rule rather than the exception.

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  6. PeaDub says:

    Why do you have a hard time defending the third option? The Sox have repeatedly said they intend to contend in 2013, so it makes sense they’d want to keep what is say a 2-5 WAR player on essentially a one-year deal. Seems like an ideal asset for a contender with a lot of payroll flexibility and a likely replacement who will be ready in 2014 (Jackie Bradley, Jr.). You may disagree that they’re contenders and that they instead should rebuild and trade him for prospects, but that isn’t what they’ve said so far (nor acted, as most non-contenders do not sign a 36-year-old backup catcher to a 2-year $6+ million deal).

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  7. Darren says:

    4. Keep Him This Year and Try to Sign Him

    Boras is pretty well known for taking guys to free agency whenever possible, and I’m guessing that he’s in no hurry to have Ellsbury sign at the nadir of his value. If the Red Sox want to keep him, then they’ll almost certainly have to wait until after 2013 to sign him.

    Also, 1.5 WAR in 1/2 a season doesn’t ‘just stink.’ It’s above average production.

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  8. james wilson says:

    There is no doubt Ellsbury hated breathing the same air with the team in ’11. No way he is getting over his experience in Boston even with the major offenders gone. Since he’s not worth much in trade as a rental after a bad year, the Sox clearly are going to keep him for to get the upside of a contract year, and the draft pick.

    Personally, I loved his MVP year and his bad attitude,but whoever thinks he is going to be an elite player going forward on either side of the ball needs to be separated from his money.

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  9. MustBunique says:

    Another, and I think best, option for the Sox:

    Keep him to start next year, let him play the first few months and hopefully raise his value due to good performance on the field, and then trade him during the season probably at the deadline. Downside to this is of course the chance that he doesn’t perform well. I would rather take on that risk because the added value from Ellsbury performing well could increase the return in a trade by an amount that outweighs what the Sox would lose in trade value due to poor performance.

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