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Jacoby Ellsbury is a free agent in a year, but figuring out where he is going to play in 2013 is the issue at hand.
The Rangers are likely letting Josh Hamilton walk, unless they can all-of-a-sudden sign him to a deal that favors them. That will leave them without a center fielder (an established one, anyway), and potentially make them open to signing one of the many options at the position on the free agent market, or possibly to make a deal with someone they feel they can -- and should -- have around in the long run.
The Red Sox have Jacoby Ellsbury, who fits into the latter camp, as he has one year left on his deal before becoming a free agent. As there is "zero" chance that Ellsbury will extend his contract with Boston prior to becoming a free agent, the Red Sox need to make a decision: do they want to keep Ellsbury around for another season, then attempt to re-sign him, or should they deal him now in the hopes of getting something back they can use immediately, and in the future?
In the past, it would be an easy decision in many ways. At least, an easier one. The Red Sox could hold on to Ellsbury, then either offer him arbitration and receive two first-round compensation picks if he signed elsewhere, or they could hold on to him and trade him mid-season while attempting to pull a major return out of a team with playoff aspirations. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, neither of those paths are nearly as attractive as they once were.
Compensatory picks are now compensatory pick, as the team that loses a free agent gets just the one now, a sandwich round selection. That means that, if a team with an unprotected draft pick signs Ellsbury, the Red Sox won't get that draft slot -- the signing team will lose that pick still, forfeiting it in order to get Ellsbury, but Boston will receive a sandwich pick after the official first round, rather than within it. This shrinks the length of the first round, but isn't quite as satisfying as the old system, in terms of compensation.
Example: Let's say the Mariners are set to have the #11 pick in the 2014 draft, but with the old CBA rules in place. They sign Ellsbury, and surrender that selection to Boston, who also gets a pick in the mid-30s. That would give Boston three first-round selections, and, depending on how the Red Sox performed in 2013, possibly two in the top half of the draft. At the least, though, they would get the one, courtesy of the Mariners. [Edit: The #11 pick would have been protected under the old CBA. Same principal applies, though, to the first unprotected pick under the old CBA, #16.]
Now, though, under the new CBA, the Red Sox would get that mid-30s pick, and an increased draft budget due to that extra selection, but the #11 would simply go to whoever was next-in-line in the draft order. What used to be compensation now just vanishes into the draft ether. As good as it is to have extra first-round picks anywhere, one in the top half historically results in better major-league talent than sandwich-round selections. That pipeline has now been shut off.
Given the volatility of draft picks, a single selection -- and not even the more attractive of the two -- doesn't sound like a great return for letting Ellsbury walk. It's fewer lottery tickets than in the past, in what was already a game stacked against the selecting club.
In addition, the Red Sox can't trade Ellsbury to another team mid-season in order for the new club to get compensation, should he fail to sign, as compensation only applies to free agents who spent the entire season with the same team. That means that, if a team wants to have the insurance of compensation should Ellsbury not re-sign after 2013, a trade needs to happen before the 2013 campaign begins.
That's where the Rangers come in. Hamilton is likely to leave, and the Rangers plan to be competitive in 2013. There is a chance they want to go with Ellsbury for a year, and then attempt to re-sign him if he's closer to the Ellsbury of 2011 than the injured, 2012 variety. Failing that, they would at least get the combination of the 2013 season, along with draft pick compensation following his departure. (Assuming they give him a qualifying offer, anyway.) They have the financial resources to lock him up, if and when it comes to that.
Boston won't get a massive return for Ellsbury given the questions surrounding both his production and the chances of signing him long-term. The thing is, as was discussed before, they won't get a huge return from him by sitting on him for all of 2013, either. Either way, thanks to the new CBA, and Ellsbury's dislocated shoulder and uninspiring performance afterward, what Boston can receive as compensation for Ellsbury -- be it through trade or the draft -- is going to be less than what Red Sox fans are hoping for.
These are the options, given the above: Boston keeps Ellsbury for 2013, in the hopes of rebuilding the team enough that they can sniff a wild card. Then, they will attempt to re-sign Ellsbury, or let him walk, taking that single draft pick and thanking Ellsbury for his 2013 contributions on the way out. The other side is using Ellsbury as a trade chip with someone like the Rangers -- it doesn't have to be Texas, but they have shown interest, and are a fit. The expected return? A young starting pitcher. A young starter, one who can pitch in the majors now, can help Boston in 2013, and in the future. The popular name out there at present is Derek Holland, and while he might not be exactly who the Red Sox need, someone like that -- just 26, with four years and $26 million guaranteed left on his deal -- might be more important in the present and the future than Ellsbury, who might not even have a future here. That being said, that's also reason for the Rangers (or whoever) to want to retain Holland (or a different young hurler), and just go out to sign someone to fill center for them. It doesn't hurt to ask, though.
Retaining Ellsbury for 2013 might be less painful in the short term, especially if he has another monster season. But then there's the issue of re-signing him -- do the Red Sox want another huge outfielder contract on the payroll? Is Ellsbury the player to give it to, considering he's missed massive chunks of two of the last three seasons, and only seems to produce when he's 100 percent? If he isn't amazing in 2013, the price goes down, but then you're also retaining a player who might not be an impact piece, either. There are lots of reasons to hope this becomes someone else's problem, with Boston cashing in while they can to bolster an area of need besides center.
Plus, there are outfielders that can be signed for a one- or two-year deal while prospects like Jackie Bradley continue to develop in order to step in to center field in the future. Torii Hunter is 37, but still producing, and while center field might not be the place for him, the Red Sox have other options on the roster who could step in to play that position, with Hunter taking over a corner. Angel Pagan is available, and in the same situation. Would a year of Ichiro Suzuki fill the void enough, given his defense, and a hitter-friendly park he's not accustomed to? Ichiro performed well in 67 games with New York, posting a 114 OPS+ once he was in a stadium that didn't actively hate offense. Fenway could give him the same kind of boost, and if not, it's a short-term deal anyway. There's also trading for another team's center fielder, like Arizona's Chris Young, who is a stellar defender with a reasonable 2013 price of $8.5 million, and a club option for 2014. That's a 2013 center fielder, and Jackie Bradley insurance for 2014. Ellsbury, at present, doesn't have the ability to be insurance, even if his ceiling is much higher.
The point is, there are options to fill in the outfield, should Boston decide to deal Ellsbury for a starter rather than attempt to sign one. The question is whether or not that's the plan that the Red Sox are utilizing. There's almost no wrong answer, but whatever the answer is just needs to be found quickly. Figuring out what to do with Ellsbury will be one of the early and important pieces of the off-season, as the rest of what Boston needs doesn't fall into place until Ellsbury is either penciled in or playing elsewhere.