Tacos. Jacoby Ellsbury is a hypertalented dervish of a baseball player with whom the Red Sox have won two World Series titles, but Ellsbury started in 2007 as the dude who got us all tacos as part of Taco Bell's "Steal a base, steal a taco" promotion. When he stole second in game two of that year's World Series against the Colorado Rockies, he became the Oprah of tacos, giving them away like she famously gave away cars, but extending his largesse beyond the walls of a television studio to an entire country. He got free tacos for America. Nobel prizes may have been awarded for less worthy pursuits.
Now Taco Claus is seeking a new contract in the $140 million range, and while it seems like a fait accompli that it means the end of his time in Boston, I've seen some Sox fans say they're holding out hope that he'll be re-signed. At the price that he's sure to command, $140 million or no, I wish the Sox wouldn't bother. It's possible that Jackie Bradley Jr. is a sub-par replacement, at least in the short term, but if you chalk his tough early 2013 up to inexperience it's easy to look past it, mostly because of his excellent defense. Like Ellsbury, the fact he's standing in center field is a plus for whatever pitcher happens to be honking it on the mound that day. The offense falls into the "suggested donation" category.
When Ellsbury isn't in one of his "ground ball to second every at-bat" streches, he can flat out hit the ball, and I can't remember the last player whom I saw that actually fell into every swing... all of which looks really cool when he laces a line drive and explodes back upright and through down the baseline. JBJ is a work in progress at that end, but Ellsbury was at this stage of his career, too: He was a pinch-runner in that 2007 World Series, not a full-time starter, working his way into a lineup that had use for all of his skills, including the ability to play cheap.
From a team's point of view, that's a skill, and JBJ has it now. The reason to go with him over Ellsbury is simple: Why bother having a farm team if you're not going to promote its best and brightest players? We haven't seen JBJ really do anything yet, but eight months ago at this time Sox fans were frothing at the mouth at the idea he'd start the season in Rhode Island instead of Massachusetts. He'll never put up a season like Ellsbury's 2011, but who will? (Besides Mike Trout.) Spending $140 million on the idea that if you don't, Ellsbury will stay healthy and rake through the end of his deal is a luxury the Red Sox don't have. If 2012 taught us anything, it's that bloat is the worst thing a baseball team can face, and it's important that we recognize that gastric-bypass level purges of fat like the Dodgers trade are exceptions, not rules. We can't afford to screw up that badly again.
Getting back to the field, the major issue with losing Ellsbury, if JBJ is merely his defensive whiz self, is the offense the team will lose with JBJ batting in his implicit shadow, and while that's not a sunk cost, they can replace his offense elsewhere for a whole lot less than $140 million. They already have, in a way: Xander Bogaerts already looks like a young Manny Ramirez at the plate and is playing for next to nothing. While young players have gotten savvier about the naked attempts to lock them up young and at a discount, there's no sense in holding back when it comes to getting Booger locked up. Any deal they sign with him will be better than one they sign for Ellsbury, almost by definition. With Ellsbury, they are utterly without leverage.
Building a team isn't an affair you can boil down to one or two players. The Sox have done everything they could do to be ready for Ellsbury's departure, and they hit the only real snag in the plan by, you know, winning it all. (Rats!) There's no reason to stick to the plan by the letter-if they re-sign Napoli, Salty, or Drew for a bit more than expected, that's cool: It happens. $140 million is too much money -- too many regular-priced tacos -- for my taste. This looks like the end of a book that has no sequel. The Jacoby Ellsbury Experience was wonderful and frustrating all at once, and now it's over. It's time to move on to a future that's already here. There's a big X in the Red Sox' lineup already. If we need to know where to spend our money, it marks the spot.