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Replacing Jacoby Ellsbury

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First, let’s get one thing out of the way. The Red Sox cannot replace Jacoby Ellsbury. The Sox centerfielder was one of the game’s best players last season and even with regression, he is as irreplaceable as anyone in the game. It is not possible to find a four to five win player on short notice that can be acquired without selling the farm. Whatever arrangements the Red Sox make in Ellsbury’s absence, it will be a downgrade to some degree.

The issue here is minimizing damage. The Red Sox have lost an estimated six to eight weeks of an excellent player. They may get some help in replacing that lost production when Carl Crawford returns, but Crawford is hardly a lock to improve the situation. After all, he is returning from a wrist injury and coming off the worst season of his career. Even if Crawford returns strong and productive, the injury to Jacoby Ellsbury is a significant set back for a team that hopes to be in a very tight playoff race by year’s end.

The difference between an outfield that has Jacoby Ellsbury in center, Ryan Sweeney in right and Cody Ross in left and one that has Ross in center, Sweeney in right and Darnell MacDonald in left is around 30-50 runs over the rest of the season when you consider both defense and offense. With Ellsbury missing between one quarter and one third of that time, that difference pro-rates to approximately 7-17 runs*. That may not sound like a significant difference but it definitely is. It is possible that good luck, coming in the form of some incredible three of four week surge by Darnell McDonald could make up some of that difference. That difference could possibly be made up by six players all making slight improvements, but in the Major Leagues, and especially in the AL East, that is not the best way to approach the issue. The Red Sox need to find ways of making up some of those runs that goes beyond good fortune.

*. My methodology is simple, I took the Zips projections for the four players and incorporated their UZR/150, then pro-rated. Take issue with the numbers if you will, but they should be a reason approximation for our purposes.

Credit should be given to Ben Cherington and company for building a versatile team. It seems likely that the team is planning on Cody Ross taking over center, Darnell McDonald in left and Ryan Sweeney remaining in right until another solution is found (with some platooning and variations, of course). It is hard to say whether Sweeney or Ross is the better defender in center, but keeping Sweeney in right, where he has been playing the most, makes sense. Thanks to the versatility of Ross, Sweeney and McDonald, Boston does not need to find another centerfielder necessarily, but instead needs to add runs to the bottom line the next six to eight weeks. They have a number of options open to them

Option 1: The Lars Anderson Left Field Experiment

During Spring Training, GM Ben Cherington talked about trying to get long time first base prospect Lars Anderson playing time in left field. The 24 year now has little hope of breaking in at 1B with Adrian Gonzalez around, but he hit the ball great in spring training and most importantly, he is left handed. That means that he can platoon with McDonald.

Upside- Anderson could play against righties and get the best possible chance to succeed at the plate He has consistently shown the ability to get on base and while his power is not great, he could easily be a several runs better than McDonald when facing righties, since DMac has a career 63 wRC+ against righties.

Downside- I follow the Mets fairly closely when I am not watching the Red Sox and I vividly remember the Daniel Murphy in left experiment of 2009. It was downright painful watching the career infielder try to adjust to a new position at the major league level. Left field may be far down the defensive spectrum but the bar for performance is still set high. There is no telling how ugly the ‘Lars Anderson, left fielder’ experiment could get before it is all over. I have faith in his baseball IQ and work ethic but I would never want to see another player looking as lost as Daniel Murphy did in ’09. That doesn't help anyone except the guys in charge of making blooper reels.

Option 2- Che Hsuan Lin

Where is Nick Carfardo right now? Why is that man not calling for Che-Hsuan Lin to be named the new centerfielder of the Boston Red Sox. If up-the-middle defense is important enough to warrant Jose Iglesias, of the minor league career .260/.308/.312 batting line at short, surely it is important enough to call for Che-Hsuan Lin now. After all, Lin is a defensive wizard in center and he even has an almost respectable minor league line of .256/.351/.349. Free Che-Hsuan Lin! Free Che-Hsuan Lin!

Of course, no one is calling for Lin. People actually expect centerfielders to hit and Lin might not be able to do that just yet. He can go get it in center though and that might be reason enough to give him a more serious look.

Upside- The upside is simple. The Red Sox start three centerfielders in their outfield and nothing ever finds the grass.

Downside- As sexy as that plan sounds, it doesn’t really work for this team. Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester, Daniel Bard and Felix Doubront all have pretty strong ground ball rates. Even Josh Beckett is more likely to allow a grounder than a fly ball. So even if the defensive alignment is better, that alone isn’t going to make a major impact. The Sox will still need more runs on offense and Lin is not likely to provide them. He has an advanced approach at the plate, but he is an extreme ground ball, slap singles hitter and major league pitchers will attack the zone against him, challenging him to drive the ball. With no power potential, it is hard to see him getting on base enough to be an upgrade at this point.

Option 3- The Plan B’s- Daniel Nava, Jason Repko, Josh Kroeger

They are sometimes called Quad-A guys, organizational guys or most commonly in this sabermetric area, replacement players. These guys are amazing ball players, they would just own your local adult league. They would make a mockery of Sunday softball games the nation wide. Yet, at the Olympian heights of professional baseball, they are fringe players. They are capable of below average work, but they are good enough to survive on the edge of the Major Leagues. Could one of these guys fill some niche long enough to bridge this gap before us?

Upside- Not much. Among them Repko, who is currently with the team has the longest major league track record, but that is hardly an endorsement. He is right handed and in his 436 plate appearances against righties, he has been marginally better than Darnell McDonald, so it is hard to see what he offers the team other than insurance. He might be the best defender among these three, but that is about all.

Josh Kroeger is fairly similar to Repko, but left handed. He could make more sense long term because he is better suited to platooning with McDonald, but his bat isn't much and it is hard see how he could really be more than replacement level in any role.

If there is any upside with this group, it is in Daniel Nava. We all know Nava. He hit that thrilling grand slam home run in his first ever major league at bat against the Phillies. It was awesome. He is probably the best option among the three. He gets on base the best and his power is at least average-ish. He also switch hits, so he works in a platoon with both McDonald and Sweeney. If six to eight weeks go by without a significant move and Daniel Nava doesn’t get another major league at bat, I would have to question the team’s management.

Downside- If Nava does see serious time in left field, the trade off will come on defense. Nava is not Manny Ramirez out there, but he is a downgrade from Darnell McDonald and some of the other options. I could live with this trade off, but it does hamper any benefits the team will get on offense.

Option 4- Marlon Byrd

The Red Sox have started to look outside the organization for a replacement and among the most appealing options would be the Chicago Cubs Marlon Byrd. Byrd is an average or slightly above average player and that would be a significant upgrade for over McDonald and a number of the other options.

Upside- Byrd is an everyday centerfielder with an solid bat and an average glove. He probably won’t change much on the defensive side and even though he is a righty, he is a major upgrade over McDonald against righties, as he has almost no platoon split. With Ross and Sweeny on the team, Bobby Valentine and the front office can evaluate what they think is the best defensive alignment and maximize all sides.

Downside- Among the options I explore here, Byrd could be the most expensive trade-wise. He is currently the starting centerfielder for the Cubs and though they have Brett Jackson coming up, Byrd is still a fairly big trading chip. As much as the Cubs want to move him, they recognize that he has real value and they may get the best offers a bit later in the season when teams are more desperate. That said, Byrd is in the final year of his contract and new CBA rules work for the Red Sox here. If Byrd walks, he will not net the Cubs anything unless they offer him the new arbitration salary (approx. $12M) which is clearly more than he is worth. Because of that, Theo Epstein’s knowledge of Boston's system could work for the Sox. Instead of taking a risk trading for a player he doesn’t know, Epstein could take someone from the Red Sox he has helped develop.

Option 5- Coco Crisp

Coco Crisp, the player who preceded Jacoby Ellsbury in centerfield, might just be the perfect person to replace him now. Crisp is a switch hitter, a good base runner and an excellent defender.

Upside- It’s big. Crisp can’t replace Ellsbury’s offense, but he is probably the best short term solution all-around and when Ellsbury returns Crisp offers the team an upgrade on the bench. If he hits well, he can be a better option than Byrd, thanks to his defense.

Downside- Unfortunately, Crisp is in a very different place than Byrd, contract-wise. He is signed through 2014 and due $6M this year, $7M in 2013 and $7.5M in 2014. That isn’t the worst deal on the books right now, but it is not what the cost-conscious Red Sox are looking for in an emergency replacement. Still, that may mean his cost in prospects is low. After the deal that sent Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweenwy to Boston for Josh Reddick and two minor league players, the A’s are very familiar with the Red Sox system and Boston might just find the price is right on Crisp.

Option 6- Scott Podsednik

Currently playing at AAA for the Philadelphia Phillies, Scott Podsednik is a reasonable stop gap solution. He gives the team an additional left-handed bat to keep McDonald from seeing too many righties and he has been an very average hitter throughout his ten years in the Majors.

Upside- The cost should be pretty low as well. Unlike Byrd and Crisp, Podsednik is not an everyday player or even a Major Leaguer. The Phillies have him around for insurance and with their numerous injuries in the infield, they could be willing to swap him for a utility infielder for more depth there. Podsednik could add some offense and give Valentine another left-handed hitter for the outfield.

Downside- Podsednik was an average center fielder on defense at one point, but at 37, his glove is now a liability even in left. He has also been in AAA since 2010, and he hasn’t been coasting their either. The chances that Podsednik ends up being an average hitter again are not great. If he doesn’t represent an offensive upgrade from guys like Nava, Repko or Kroeger, he doesn’t really make sense for Boston. If they do acquire him at this point, it would seem to me to a ‘veteran leadership’ type move, since from a production standpoint, he is not the obvious upgrade that Byrd or Crisp would be.

There may be other options available to Boston as well, such as upgrading at shortstop or acquiring a bigger name outfielder in some kind of mega-deal, but these six options are probably the most realistic ways to replace some of Ellsbury’s production.

Among them, acquiring Byrd or Crisp would seem to make the biggest impact on the 15 or so lost runs. Both player could add 3-7 runs back into the equation during the time Ellsbury is out and a few more as the team’s fourth or fifth outfielder after he returns. Crisp would be my choice because he fits the fourth outfielder role a bit better and he is a switch hitter, but with the contract status factored in, Byrd probably makes the most sense. Either player would help to bolster Boston’s outfield depth, the team’s weakest area, now and throughout the remainder of the season. Lars Anderson is probably the most interesting in-house option, since he has the highest upside as a hitter, but he can only help the team if he can actually play left field and that is big question mark right now.

Whatever solution the Red Sox employ, it is going to be a bandage on a bullet wound if Ellsbury cannot return in the time frame currently being discussed. Should Ellsbury be out of a much larger chunk of the season, it will take multiple improvements to make up for the loss.