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On Trading Jacoby Ellsbury

Should the Red Sox deal their sometimes star center fielder? Would you believe me if I told you no?

J. Meric - Getty Images

With the worst Red Sox season in many of our lifetimes mercifully over, our attention has turned to the task at hand, rebuilding the Red Sox into the consistent winner they were in the mid-aughts. There are many different paths to take toward this goal and watching the Red Sox pick one and run with it should make for an interesting off season. One I'm pretty sure they won't take though is a total tear-down. With that in mind, I must admit, I don't understand the rush to trade Jacoby Ellsbury.

Ellsbury is a complicated topic because of his up and down production, what he means to the Red Sox, and the different gains they stand to make should they trade him at different points between now and his free agency at the end of the coming season. The whole thing is so complicated that I'm having trouble concentrating on it and instead keep pausing to play with my cat, answer the phone, or read about RG3 (OMG!!). But I'll buckle down.

Let's start with who Jacoby Ellsbury is. I don't know who Jacoby Ellsbury is. I doubt the Red Sox know who Ellsbury is. Is he the guy that hit .297/.350/.414 from his rookie year in 2007 through 2009? Is he the guy who played only 18 games in '08 after getting taken out by a vengeful Adrian Beltre? Is he the shoulda-been AL MVP who clubbed 32 homers while hitting an incredible .321/.376/.552 in 2011? Or is he the guy he was this season, a sub-.700 OPS guy with injury problems (agents from Beltre were sent to take him out!)? If you plotted Ellsbury's production on a graph it would look like the Rocky Mountains, or Tim Armstrong's hair.

Just to further complicate the picture, Ellsbury's defensive numbers are all over the place, too. Baseball Prospectus has him at, in order, good, amazing, bad, mediocre, terrific, and just below average. Just to be complete about this, his base-running bounces around too, though not quite as much.

So who is Jacoby Ellsbury? Is he...

  • a great hitter and a great defender who has had some bum luck?
  • a good player who had a lucky year and some bum luck?
  • an injury prone star?
  • an injury prone player who had a lucky year?
  • a sad clown?

Depending on which of those you believe, trading Ellsbury could be a good idea or not. The success or failure of any trade depends on what the return is, too, so that plays into it, but the idea is are the Red Sox better off with the prospects and/or players they could receive for Ellsbury, or should they hold on to him, meaning any acquiring team would not get a draft pick if they lost in him free agency? In theory this would decrease his trade value and thus the Red Sox would get less in a potential deal.

So I'll stop beating around the bush. Here's why I wouldn't trade Ellsbury.

1. Because the Red Sox can bounce back next year. Ellsbury is a good player, and they don't have anyone remotely ready to replicate his overall production next season.

2. The value the team gets in a one year contract. Look at the Adrian Beltre deal. Beltre came to Boston to, in essence, rehabilitate himself. He accepted a lot of risk by signing a one year deal and Theo Epstein was rightly lauded for the signing and the Red Sox were rewarded by Beltre's stellar play. Ellsbury is in the exact same spot. He needs to rehabilitate his image a year before free agency in a season and the Sox will end up paying him about the same money as they paid Beltre three seasons ago. Who wouldn't want to sign Jacoby Ellsbury for one year right now?

Also, Ellsbury made $8 million this season. Headed into this season many were worried he would cost Boston $20 million this coming season, even through arbitration. But now with his injuries and down year at the plate, that won't happen. Ellsbury will be a absolute bargain both in terms of salary and in terms of risk for Boston. According to Fan Graphs, Ellsbury was worth $6.7 million this past season, and he wasn't very good. There is almost no chance that Ellsbury isn't worth far more than he's paid in 2013. That's a reason to hold on to him, not to give him away.

3. It's unlikely another team will pay what Ellsbury is worth. Marc and I discussed this on the podcast last week and we disagreed on the topic, so you'd be wise to side with him. I doubt another team will trade full value for Ellsbury. What do I mean by full value? I mean they won't give Boston the value that Ellsbury can produce. If Ellsbury is healthy I believe he'll out produce his valuation on the trade market. If Derek Holland is the going rate (and he may not be) then I feel more strongly than ever that I'm right. Holland was excellent last year but has been kinda crappy this year.

I think there is a fair chance Ellsbury is that guy, but he was playing out of whack and/or injured this season. It's a risk I'd be willing to take.

OK, supposition time! Suppose they don't trade Ellsbury and he is the .900 OPS guy again but the team is lousy. Don't you think Boston could get more than Derek Holland at the deadline, even without the added carrot of draft pick compensation? I do.

Suppose again that Ellsbury is that .900 OPS guy again. (Again!) The rumors say he won't re-sign in Boston, but ask yourself this question: after this season, with the injury and Bobby V and all the garbage the players have had to deal with since last September, would you? I probably wouldn't. But! Ellsbury doesn't have the ability to leave now unless the Sox deal him, so they have another shot to woo him. Hire a good manager, create a good clubhouse atmosphere, win some ball games and see if Ellsbury doesn't want to stay with the team that drafted him after that.

It's true that if Ellsbury is bad the Red Sox will have lost the ability to deal him for the same value. But in a sense they already blew that opportunity by not dealing him last off season, so why not try to maximize the value? Just because you lost a few hands at the table and aren't the chip leader anymore doesn't mean you fold your hand now. Why not bet on the player who has already shown those skills to show them (or some high percentage of them) again? If Ellsbury plays well next year, everyone wins, even if he leaves after the season. The Red Sox will have received a great season at a bargain price from their center fielder and hopefully it will have helped propel them into the playoffs. (And they'll likely get a high draft pick back in the process.)

In the end it comes down to two things. Who comes back in return, and what you (or, actually, in this case, Ben Cherington) think the Red Sox will be able to do in 2013. If it's a rebuilding year and the organization decides to wait for Jackie Bradley, Jr., Bryce Brentz, Matt Barnes and company to arrive, then fine, trade him and cut your losses. But I don't believe the organization is thinking that way. I don't think they've given up on winning the AL East in 2013 and in the end, trading Jacoby Ellsbury probably makes that harder, not easier.