Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury is in the middle of a resurgent season. It couldn’t come at a better time for Ellsbury, as he’s slated to be a free-agent once the playoffs end. Ellsbury may not add any more value to his regular season numbers, as a fractured foot threatens to keep him out until close to the playoffs. Even then, it’s tough to know whether he’ll be healthy enough to pad his free-agent case. Ellsbury should be an interesting case once he hits the market. The 29-year-old has flashed the ability to be one of the best players in the game, but injuries have limited his production over his career. Those issues make it difficult to determine how much Ellsbury will command on the market.
Over the last 10 years, only four outfielders have been better than Ellsbury between age-23 and age-29 according to WAR. A big reason for that is his defensive contributions, which give him a major boost in value. Strictly looking at offense, Ellsbury ranks 54th on that same list. That’s an important distinction, because elite defensive players may not be as highly valued on the market unless they can hit. Michael Bourn, for example, should have been paid more when looking at his WAR comps. But Bourn made less on the market likely due to his weak offensive numbers. Ellsbury is a better hitter than Bourn, and has shown the potential to be an exceptional hitter, but has been limited too often by injuries over his career.
Bourn actually ends up as an interesting comparison. Both players compiled similar plate appearance totals over the same period of their careers, were strong defensive outfielders and rated somewhat close to each other in WAR over that same period.
It’s not a perfect comparison, as Ellsbury is clearly the better hitter. Bourn is better on the base paths and on defense but it’s not like Ellsbury is a slouch in these areas. For this skill set, Bourn received a four-year, $48 million deal with the Cleveland Indians. Considering Ellsbury can hit better, there’s probably a fair argument to be made that he’ll receive more on the open market.
Problem is, there aren’t a ton of outfielders as good as Ellsbury that have hit the free-agent market in recent years. The Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth deals won’t be repeated, and Ellsbury isn’t going to make as much money as Josh Hamilton. If we go back to 2009, we have Matt Holliday and Jason Bay as options, but neither would be a good comp for Ellsbury.
That leaves B.J. Upton. Again, the comparison is far from perfect. Upton is only 28-years-old, and was a free-agent following his age-27 season. Upton managed to pull a five-year, $75 million deal from the Atlanta Braves. While Upton is a much different hitter than Ellsbury, they’ve both shown flashes of great offensive ability, but has struggled to sustain that level of performance. Even with those caveats, Upton’s .320 wOBA over that period is still much lower than Ellsbury’s .345 wOBA.
In a perfect world, Ellsbury gets as much money as Upton, if not more. But the injuries will likely play a big role in how much teams are willing to commit to Ellsbury. Consistently playing 140+ games per season does have value, and that’s where Ellsbury will be hurt. At the same time, it only takes one team to believe in Ellsbury’s upside, and offer a huge deal. And while that’s a major risk, Ellsbury has shown top-10, maybe even top-5, player in the league potential when on all cylinders. With his resurgent year, Ellsbury has made himself the most interesting player available this winter.