I've been thinking about Ellsbury lately. He's having a phenomenal season and is (seemingly) entering his prime. He's a stud player at an important position and well worth re-signing. As much as I like the potential of Reddick and Kalish, the Sox need to resign Ellsbury, in my opinion.
So, what's he worth, how much will he be offered (by the Sox and others), and what will he eventually sign for (and where)?
As a jump-off point, there's this: The Sox signed homegrown players Pedroia and Youkilis to a six-year $40.5 million contract and a four-year $40 million contract, respectively. They struck absolute gold with Lester on a five-year $30 million contract. Those contracts were all extensions, which is an interesting point because it means the Sox and the players/agents approached contract talks prior to free agency/arbitration, and the players seemingly accepted less money to stay with the Sox. I say "less money" in the belief that each of those three players would have been offered a larger (possibly longer) contract by another team had they hit free agency. It doesn't seem Ellsbury and the Sox will work out an extension before season's end.
When it comes to the Sox and free agency, they usually shell out more money and longer contracts. Julio Lugo, four-year $36 million (questioned at the time); Edgar Renteria, four-year $40 million (questioned at the time); JD Drew, five-year $70 million; John Lackey, five-year $82.5 million; Carl Crawford, seven-year $142 million; Gonzalez, seven-year $154 million (absolutely worth it so far); Manny Ramirez, eight-year $160.
Then there is this: Arbitration and Scott Boras. Ellsbury could accept arbitration, though his agent, Boras, usually frowns upon that. However, Boras' client Jon Papelbon accepted, and was rewarded handsomely for doing so ($12 million). Ellsbury may accept, if a respectable-enough contract with the Sox or another team isn't in the cards. Arbitration may come to fruition considering Ellsbury missed 144 games last season. The Sox probably want to see one more healthy season with numbers on par to this season before they sign him to a five+-year deal. However, other teams may not have qualms with throwing obscene amounts of money toward a 27 year-old center fielder with speed, power, and all-around skill.
Other outfielders in recent years (with Boras or other agents) have received the following contracts/extensions: Curtis Granderson (Yankees), five-year $30.25 million (massively underpaid due to recent performance); Jose Bautista (Blue Jays), five-year $65 million; Ryan Braun (Brewers), five-year $105 million extension; Vernon Wells (Angels), seven-year $126 million - highest paid outfielder per season; and then there are Carlos Beltran, Carlos Lee, Torii Hunter, Jason Bay, and a number of other outfielders who signed large contracts within the past ten years. It is arguable (and probably true) that Ellsbury, in the here and now, is the best of the group. He very well may be the best center fielder in baseball, and he is certainly essential to what the Red Sox do. He's the only true lead-off on the team and he is a run-producing machine. When healthy, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better outfielder.
So, what do the Red Sox do?
Now, I must admit that I am slightly confused by the process. I haven't been able to locate a thorough guide to MLB Free Agency online. If offered arbitration, I'm not certain one way or the other if Ellsbury can decline it and become a free agent. Perhaps you guys can clear this up. If Ellsbury is forced to accept arbitration for 2012, at which time he'll probably be awarded $10+ million, then my thoughts below would be pushed back to 2013 (considering he has a season equal to this year's).
Worth: As of today, he's worth a King's ransom. At 27 years-old, he's probably worth something along the lines of seven years, $120+ million. If in those seven years he puts up numbers equivalent to this year, that would be a solid return on investment. Now I understand this is $22 million LESS than what Crawford was paid, but Crawford fell into a windfall from the Sox, who may or may not have believed he was enticed by the Yankees and Angels. They over-paid Crawford, regardless of how well he performs. At that money he needs to win multiple MVPs (and World Series). In my opinion, Adrian Gonzalez will win those MVPs, and they'll win equal World Series.
Offers: Some team, whether it be the Angels, Rangers, White Sox, Cubs, or maybe even the Yankees, will offer Ellsbury a Crawford-like seven-year $142 million contract. In fact, I believe the contract will be closer to eight-year $148 million. But that's IF he ever reaches free agency. If he does, I believe the Sox will offer something around seven years and $128 million. The Sox save face when they lose free agents. They offer what they believe is true and right, and, heck, if another team out-bids them then another team out-bids them (and usually over-pays). Think Jason Bay. If the Sox have any hesitancy with Ellsbury's long-term health, then they'll let him sign elsewhere.
Prediction: The moment I'm sure you've all been waiting for...my prediction. I believe Ellsbury will resign with the Red Sox for a five-year $72 million contract, with player options on future years (probably padded with reachable incentives).
In the end, we're left with these truths:
1. The Sox try to lock up their homegrown stars with very reasonable extensions prior to free agency. With Ellsbury, they haven't (mostly due to that odd injury last season).
2. The Sox pay (overpay, you could say) for free agents. With Ellsbury, dependent on health, it's yet to be seen.
3. The Sox don't usually let their homegrown players get to free agency (where they'll more than likely have to overpay). They either trade 'em, reach arbitration, or reach an extension. With Ellsbury, he's most likely reaching free agency.
4. If you have an injury, the Sox may offer you a contract, but they'll draw a line in the sand. With Ellsbury, they will, but it'll be a generous line and he'll happily accept.
5. The Sox may not always get the guy they're going after (ARod, Texeira), but they'll get the guy they truly want in the end (Adrian, Lackey, resigning Pedey, Youk, and Lester). The Sox want Ellsbury. He's important to the team. He's homegrown, he's talented, he's producing, and the fans and front office love him.
Bottom line: The Sox will do what they have to to keep Ellsbury. And I think he'll be excited to stay. With him, Pedey, Lester, Crawford, Gonzalez, and others signed for years to come, we have a team to be reckoned with.