After his MVP-like season in 2011, Jacoby Ellsbury seemed ready to join the ranks of the superstars.
Red Sox fans, of course, were not about to complain too heavily about having a 30/30 player on the team. But as happy as they were to see Jacoby go from a solid young center fielder to one of the top players in the league, it came with the understanding that his time with the team might be short. Ellsbury, after all, is a free agent after 2013, and with Scott Boras as his agent, and a new superstar reputation, he was bound to be expensive.
Now, however, after one bad injury and a season of ineffectiveness, Ellsbury's situation isn't quite as clear.
So far, in 143 at bats, Ellsbury is hitting just .259/.310/.371. While that's brought down in part by his awful start to the season-he was hitting under .200 for the first week-he's not done very well since coming back, either. That power swing which earned him 32 homers in 2011 is almost entirely absent, with Ellsbury managing just the one so far this year, and with just six stolen bases on the year e'd be on pace for his lowest full-year mark even if he played a full season.
There are a few conclusions one could jump to given this season and Ellsbury's history. That he's injury-prone, a one-year wonder, a superstar bound to rebound, a or just a good player who's having a down year after a career year. With only so much time left to change the tone of his 2012 season, 2013 seems more and more likely to set the tone for his 2013 free agency, including what type of contract he'll draw, and whether or not the Red Sox will keep him.
1) The Injury Scenario
To call Ellsbury injury-prone is a bit harsh. Between 2008, 2009, and 2011, Ellsbury missed a total of 30 games playing for a team that was, at the time, fairly liberal with its days off. Yes, in 2010 he played in just 18 games, and so far in 2012, only 36 of 116, but it's hard to question the how of his injuries.
First there was Beltre, just one week into 2010:
Then, after a few months off and one more week of games, exactly two years ago today:
And, of course, earlier this year, this.
Certainly none of these are exactly a matter of pulling up lame at first with a muscle strain. Still, one more injury in 2013 and it kind of gets hard to ignore. And even Scott Boras can't get much value from a season two years past with little in between.
Boras, however, is never one to give up on the potential for a massive payday without a fight. Given this scenario, he'd be more likely to approach Ellsbury's offseason like he did Beltre's after 2009, when the Sox got him on a one-year deal.
It's hard to imagine that the Red Sox would not be at least interested in holding onto Ellsbury should this scenario come to pass, but it's also hard to imagine there wouldn't be other teams in the mix as well. Still, while Ellsbury hasn't always been the happiest person here, he could well end up staying in such a situation given the new rules for free agent compensation. Given that Boras got $10 million for Beltre in 2009 ($11 million with the buyout), it's hard to imagine Ellsbury would go for much less, and when the price tag is that close, the Sox could well be willing to tack on a couple million more to make Ellsbury the qualifying offer that would get them draft pick compensation should he go elsewhere. It's a risk, but a one-year risk that shouldn't be terribly inconvenient for a team like the Sox.
2) The Superstar Scenario
Wherein Ellsbury hits .300/.380/.550 again and earns that major payday. The question is, who from?
Can the Red Sox afford Ellsbury if he goes into free agency as the biggest name available? Of course, they're one of the richest teams in the game, but that doesn't mean they'll want to go all-out for him. Even with Beckett and Lackey both set to expire in the next offseason, the Sox will still have $42 million wrapped up long-term in Gonzalez and Crawford, and will need to deal with contracts for the likes of Lester and Pedroia either that offseason or the next.
It's also worth considering that the Sox will hopefully have a replacement ready for center field in Jackie Bradley. There's another outfield position to be filled beyond center and left (Crawford) of course, but that's something they'll need to solve for 2013 as well, which could easily involve a multi-year deal (say, Cody Ross).
A superstar Ellsbury is a player that comes around only once in a long while, but with the competition that's sure to come with such a season, the Sox may very well just take the draft pick and avoid committing to another massive contract in their outfield.
3) The One-Year Wonder Scenario
In which Ellsbury puts up a season like 2008 and 2009. Let's average it out to .290/.345/.405 with lots of stolen bases and little else.
Frankly, to me, this is the one situation in which the Sox are the least likely to keep Ellsbury for the simple fact that a lot of teams will overpay for speed. While an Ellsbury who performs on the same level as 2008-2009 Ellsbury is certainly valuable, he's not exactly worth breaking the bank for. Stolen bases only provide so much value, and while center fielders with average-or-better bats don't exactly grow on trees, it only makes so much sense for the Sox to open their wallet when there's hope that Bradley could match him in most areas and replace what's lost in baserunning speed with on base ability.
How much this version of Ells would cost will likely be determined by the free agency of Michael Bourn this offseason, and while we could hope that the price would come out affordable, more likely than not we'll be looking at a pretty serious price tag-one the Sox aren't likely to pay for such a player.
4) The In-Between
If the Sox are going to keep Ellsbury long-term after 2013, this seems the most likely scenario. Ellsbury finds some of his power again, but not all of it. Steals a good few bases again, but not 50. At the end of the year he's a .310/.365/.485 player with good defense in center field.
Of course Ellsbury's market will be significant in such a situation, but nowhere near as frenzied as it could be after a superstar year. In fact, the Carl Crawford deal might even be enough to scare some people off and push Ellsbury down to $18-20 million. It's still a ton of money to invest, yes, and the Red Sox might still be reluctant to do so, but at least in this scenario there's likely to be less insanity for them to deal with.
The biggest concern here would likely be years, actually. Knowing the Sox they would probably love to be able to keep this to four years so that it could end in synch with Gonzalez and Crawfords' deals, but Ellsbury isn't so young that a mid-length deal will really allow him to sign another big contract afterwards. More likely Boras will be going all out for a repeat of the massive Crawford deal, and if there's any team that has reason to hesitate before pulling that particular trigger again, it's the Red Sox. Ellsbury and Crawford are not the same player, but they might well be close enough to make the Sox balk.
Of course, all this could easily go out the window depending on what the Sox do this offseason. While Ellsbury's trade value isn't exactly at an all-time high, if they don't expect to re-sign him after 2013 then they've only got one season of indeterminate value to lose by trading him away. Depending on whether or not someone is willing to pay for the Ellsbury of 2011, they could well make this all someone else's problem come November.