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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.