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What To Do With Jacoby Ellsbury

The Red Sox need to figure out what to do with their center fielder in order to get the off-season going

J. Meric

As part of SB Nation United, you're going to be seeing some new voices at Over the Monster, SBN "Designated Columnists" writing about issues both local and national. Think of them as guests in the community. This time up, we've got Bill Parker, better known as one of the minds behind The Platoon Advantage, on the Jacoby Ellsbury situation.

You've probably seen and heard a lot of talk from Red Sox fans lately about what the Red Sox should do with Jacoby Ellsbury, 2014 free agent. They are no doubt excellent writers and analysts all, but they're also Red Sox fans and so there's a chance at least a little bias creeps into the proceedings.

I'm not a Red Sox fan. I'm a writer and a Twins fan. I have no special connection to that time the rookie Ellsbury dominated in the World Series, or that one catch he made, or that magical 2011 season. That being the case, here is how one outsider sees this situation.

I look at Ellsbury and I see a few things:

(1) an amazingly talented player.

(2) a player who has managed about one and a half seasons over the past three.

(3) a player who is really, really hard to project going forward.

(4) a player whose Baseball Reference page lists "Tacoby Bellsbury" as a nickname. Really? Tacoby Bellsbury? Has anyone ever said that out loud?

The key here is #3. Not only has Ellsbury missed huge chunks of time due to injury in two of the past three years, but that one year in between was totally unlike any other year of his career, big-league and otherwise. It's not just that he hit 32 of his career 56 home runs that year (although that's obviously a huge part of it); it's that for that one year, he was an MVP-caliber player, and he's never had another year where he was significantly better than an average MLB starter. Look through the list of highest-WAR seasons in a player's first six seasons over the past 30 years. There have been 77 occurrences of a player putting up a WAR of 7.0 or better during that phase of his career (Ellsbury's 2011 came in at 8.0). There are very few examples of players like Ellsbury who had no other truly strong seasons (by "strong" I mean borderline-star-level, or around 4.0) in their first half-dozen seasons. The ones I can find, or at least two of the three, are not encouraging:

  • Darin Erstad had had three reasonably solid years as a full-time starter, never topping 3.0 WAR, leading into 2000, his age-26 season, when he batted .355 with 25 home runs and was worth 8.2 WAR. After that, he never topped 10 home runs or had even an average offensive season again, though he was probably a better player than his hitting suggested thanks to his defense -- at least until his all-out-all-the-time style finally caught up to him.

  • Marcus Giles had two half-years with Atlanta, totaling 0.8 WAR, then exploded with a huge year both at the plate and (according to DRS) in the field at age 25, putting up 7.7 WAR. He followed up with 3.1- and 3.7-WAR seasons, at which point injuries swept his bat away and forced him out of the game before his 30th birthday.

  • John Olerud had a huge 1993, flirting with .400 for most of the summer and ending with a WAR of 7.4. The rest of his first six full years: 1.5, 1.6, 3.1, 2.9, 1.9. Olerud, of course, rebounded to have a long, productive, borderline-Hall-of-Fame career.

And that's all I can find. I don't think there's much to learn from that, other than that careers like the one Ellsbury has had so far don't come along very often, and that it's wise not to put too much stock in one great year, even if it's really, really great. Another comparable player I'd take a look at, while we're looking at comps, is Eric Davis, who actually had four very solid years (and one brilliant one), but whose power, speed, defensive ability, and difficulty staying on the field all remind me of Ellsbury.

Still, while comps are interesting, I go back to #3 in my list above: There's just no way to tell what the Red Sox have in Ellsbury right now. If he's healthy, he's at least a good player, but (a) is he healthy, and (b) if so, is he just pretty good (as in 2008-2009), or is he a potential superstar (like in 2011)? One simply has to accept that there's absolutely no way to know at this point, and make a decision based on that.

So given that, what should the Red Sox do? Here are their choices:

Extend Ellsbury right now (or try to).

On this site last week, Matt Sullivan argued that now was the time to sign Ellsbury, taking advantage of his injury and subsequent ineffectiveness to nab a handy discount; he saw the Sox offering him a five-year, $74 million extension.

The problem with that, though, is Scott Boras. Sullivan (I'd like to be friendly and call him "Matt," but there's another Matt-written post discussed just below) acknowledged Boras's involvement, but suggested Ellsbury's recent performance might blunt the agent's typically aggressive approach. I disagree; I just don't see any way Boras agrees to a deal like that one year removed from a season in which his client arguably should have won the MVP. It's hard, in fact, to see the deal Sullivan put forward as representing the other extreme -- the seven year, $120 million contract Carlos Beltran signed before the 2005 season -- getting it done. Salaries have continued to go up in the eight years since that deal was signed, and $120 million is not superstar money anymore. Boras was expected to be seeking a Matt Kemp deal (eight years, $160 million) after Ellsbury's 2011 season, and you'd have to consider a slight discount from that given Ellsbury's 2012... but I think it's very, very slight.

Consider the situation from Boras's perspective: If he thinks Ellsbury will be completely recovered in 2013, then that admits the possibility that the outfielder could go out and have another MVP-type year, after which he would become the most coveted free agent on the market. Alternatively, Ellsbury could be injured and/or ineffective again, and Boras would still have a 30-year-old free agent who is just two years removed from an MVP-level season, which some team would pay quite a bit for -- probably not 8/$160, but the 4/$64 that would be remaining on Sullivan's hypothetical deal certainly wouldn't be out of the question. There are darker possibilities - Ellsbury could have serious, Grady Sizemore-type problems, and will never be the same again -- but I'm comfortable assuming that Boras knows more about Ellsbury than we do and has already worked out all these possibilities.

That's why I strongly disagree with Sullivan's assertion that "the Red Sox have all the leverage here." As is nearly always the case, the leverage is on Boras's side. He has almost no incentive to agree to an extension now, when Ellsbury's value may well be at its nadir. The contract that "succeeds" in signing Ellsbury right now is very likely a serious overpay, considering the risks and uncertainties involved. Were I in Ben Cherington's shoes, I probably wouldn't even make an offer right now; if the Sox offered Sullivan's 5/$74 extension and Ellsbury accepted, I'd be awfully worried about the condition of the goods I just bought.

Trade Ellsbury right now (or try to).

Matt Kory discussed why this is a bad idea earlier last week. If I were a fan of another team (which I am), and my team needed a center fielder, I'd love to take a flyer on Ellsbury's final arbitration year -- but I wouldn't want to give up anything for it. I have a feeling that's how most GMs view the situation, too. Ellsbury is a high-upside gamble that you'd love to have around if it paid off, but the odds that it won't pay off seem very high right now. Uncertainty is not the kind of thing for which teams normally give up solid prospects. If Ellsbury comes out on fire in 2013 and the Sox are either out of contention or satisfied that Jackie Bradley, Jr. is the future and the future is now (doubtful, but who knows?), then you think about trading him. Now you'd be giving a potentially valuable piece away, and could make a better case for receiving value in return.

Do nothing until a year from now.

And so we're left with this. As Marc noted earlier last week (in arguing the Red Sox should trade Ellsbury; suffice it to say Marc and I seem to have very different ideas of what the Rangers or other teams would be willing to deal right now for the right to pay Ellsbury $10 million in 2013), the incentive for keeping Ellsbury is lower now than it would have been a year or two ago, in that under the current draft system the club would get only a sandwich-round pick as compensation, rather than the old two first-round picks they would have received under the system.

That stinks, but it doesn't alter this simple calculation: Would you rather have (a) Ellsbury for 2013 plus a sandwich pick, or (b) whatever the Red Sox are able to get in a trade for Ellsbury? I think I've made it pretty clear why I prefer (a), but I think that's true even if Marc is right and Ellsbury can bring back a starter like Derek Holland. The Red Sox have got to go to free agency somewhere, and I'd rather go in for a starting pitcher this year than for an outfielder. Marc mentioned three possible center-field stopgaps, all of whom are over 30 and only one of whom has recently played center; they'd all cost roughly what Ellsbury is likely to, if not more, and with a much lower ceiling. There will be pitching out there; there won't be an outfielder the caliber of what Ellsbury might be.

Which leads to another thing: the foregoing assumes the Red Sox let him walk after 2013, but what if he is his 2011 self again, or something relatively close to it, and shows absolutely no hint of a health issue? In that case, I think the Sox consider the Matt Kemp deal. Is it a likely overpay down the road, a potential albatross? Absolutely; all big contracts are. However, the Red Sox, especially after the Dodgers trade, are uniquely positioned to take on that kind of risk, and Ellsbury could be the kind of player whose first three or four years make it all worthwhile. I'd just want to take another year to decide how likely that is.

Ellsbury is too risky to sign right now, but also too potentially valuable to trade for as little as you would currently get for him. It's still possible that he spends the next four or five years as the best center fielder in baseball. How would it feel to have traded that away for a mid-rotation pitcher or (more likely, in my estimation) a B-level prospect or two?