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Red Sox Need to Find a Creative Way to Keep Jacoby Ellsbury

Given his history of injuries and his potential, Jacoby Ellsbury is a difficult player to put a price on. If the Red Sox are hoping to lock him up for the near future, this off-season may be the last chance.

Bob DeChiara-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

If I were Scott Boras, visions of Grady Sizemore might be keeping me up at night right now. I might be tossing and turning on the huge pile of money I sleep on thinking about an Indians centerfielder I don’t even represent. Over the next year and a half months, Boras will be trying to land one of his most important clients a new contract and the last name he wants to hear mentioned in the same sentence with Jacoby Ellsbury is Grady Sizemore.

It is a few years back now, but there was a time when Sizemore was a bone-fide superstar. He played excellent center field, drew walks, hit for power and average and ran the bases as well as anyone in the game. From 2005-2008 he averaged 6.9 wins above replacement per year by Fangraphs’ system. He was nearly 30% better at the plate than the average major league hitter (by weighted Runs Created Plus). During that run, Sizemore was never quite as good as Ellsbury was in 2011, but he was far healthier and thus played much more than Ellsbury. Overall, he was more productive in his first four seasons than Ellsbury has been by a good margin. However, after two years of injuries and underperformance, Sizemore saw his $8.5M option for 2012 declined and signed for just one year and $5M for this past season and then failed to take the field entirely following multiple back and knee surgeries. The one-time superstar may end up signing a minor league contract at the age of 30 this off-season. For someone trying to secure a contract for the 28 year old Ellsbury, Sizemore is not a player you want to see brought up in comparison.

The comparison does make sense, however. Both play center field and combine speed, on-base skills and power with strong defense. Ellsbury has not suffered the type of injuries that should really earn him the tag of "injury-prone" as much as Sizemore but he still has missed substantial time in two of the last three seasons. Like Sizemore, he plays all-out, hard-nosed baseball and it has taken its toll. While he may not collide with Adrian Beltre again or have Reid Brignac land on his shoulder a second time, the effect of such injuries could linger. After returning from the DL this season, Ellsbury hit just .271/.313/.370 in 323 plate appearances. This is a serious problem for Scott Boras and a possible opportunity for the Boston Red Sox. With tens of millions of dollars riding on next season, the time for the Boston Red Sox to lock up Ellsbury may be now or never.

2013 will be Ellsbury’s final year of arbitration. Given his injury and subsequent performance, he will likely receive a fairly modest raise from the near-record $8.05M deal he received last season. As he typically does, Scott Boras has keep Ellbury away from signing a team friendly deal to buy out arbitration seasons along with a year or two of free agency like the one Grady Sizemore signed. This leaves Ellsbury with one season to show the world that he is still the MVP-caliber star of 2011. With Jackie Bradley Jr. looking like the star of the future for Boston, the Red Sox are less desperate to sign Ellsbury than in the past and with the salaries of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Nick Punto now off the books, they have more money to spend then we could have imagined. This gives them an opportunity.

Given his those injuries, his position and playing style, committing to Ellsbury for seven years and around $120M-$130M (or a deal similar to the one Carlos Beltran signed with the Mets starting at age 29 and the one Jason Werth signed with the Nationals) is looking like a stretch. He has a few peak years left, but the possibility of a Matt Kemp size contract now seems totally unrealistic. Given the very real possibility that Ellsbury could miss out on his chance for a substantial paycheck, the Red Sox could find a creative way to come to terms with him. Ellsbury will likely make around $10M next year through the arbitration process. The Red Sox could offer him a contract for five years/ $74M at $10M for 2013, $13M for 2014 and $17M a year from 2015-2017 with a mutual opt-out after the second year, effectively guaranteeing his service for one extra year and allowing both parties the chance to revisit things after the 2014 season. They could also forego the savings in 2013 to secure two to three years with a contract averaging around $15M a year for that short commitment. In either case Ellsbury will be certain of another premium paycheck and still able to test free agency before his mid-thirties.

As bold as Scott Boras typically is, this may not work, but if there is to be an extension or long-term deal for Ellsbury, now is probably the last chance. If Boston is going to hold off until 2013 on a push for the playoffs, Ellsbury should probably be traded now or, even better, during next season. Like Mr. Kory, I don’t think that is the best route, primarily because I think the Red Sox can compete next season. If a run at the playoffs is a consideration- and I think it should be- Ellsbury is one of a few core players that the team will be counting. If he stays and plays anywhere near his 2011 level he will command a deal on par with Beltran and Werth, which is very likely to be at least an overpay, if not an albatross. Ellsbury may well be a superstar, but I don’t see him being a player who maintains that level into his mid-thirties. He is too much like Grady Sizemore and not enough like Beltran for me see that in him. If he is injured or performs closer to his 2012 numbers, the team will almost certainly move on or offer a one-year deal at a fraction of what he will make next year (a la Sizemore).

The Red Sox have all the leverage here and if they believe in Ellsbury, now is the time to use it. Paying close to $45 over three years or even the extreme of $70M+ over five years is a risk that the team can now handle and even in the worst case scenario, it should not hamper their ability to spend with so many key players coming from within the system. There has been a lot of speculation about Ellsbury wanting to leave Boston, but with Boras as his agent, I think money is the real issue. He wants to test free agency and make his big splash, but I doubt his confidence is such that he would not entertain a solid offer. A deal like this may be less than what the best case scenario would earn Ellbury in free agency but it is still a guarantee of at least one major contract and a minimum for over four times what he has made to this point as professional ballplayer

I would like to see an Ellsbury deal happen provided that the team doesn’t radically over commit. If the days of Boston signing long term deals are truly over, I think this is the final chance for them to keep a productive Ellsbury past 2013.