What to do about Ellsbury

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Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury is set to enter free agency following the conclusion of the 2013 season, leaving his current team with the decision to pursue a new contract with him or to let him find employment elsewhere. Which decision makes the most sense?

One year ago, the Boston Red Sox had issues. These tribulations have been well chronicled, as has the neat and efficient reversal of fortune that has taken place this season. GM Ben Cherington made a series of otherworldly moves that included a massive salary and talent dump, conservative free agent signings, and a continuous desire to promote from within to fill the voids. The organization has made decisions that have the benefit of proper prospective on their situation. These shrewd moves throughout the organization have paid off as the Red Sox have been at or close to first place in the AL East for the majority of the season.

The Sox most recent move was to extend second baseman Dustin Pedroia, essentially making him a Red Sox player for the rest of his career, while paying him at a rate that carries a reasonable about of risk going forward. Now that the team has resolved Pedroia's situation with the club, the next task to deal with concerns center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury.

Currently, Ellsbury mans center field for the Red Sox on a daily basis, but soon he will venture for the first time in his career into free agency. Due to his impending free agency, the Red Sox must once again make a personnel decision that deserves strict scrutiny. In order to grasp the situation properly, let's first get a sense for who Jacoby Ellsbury is a baseball player.

Drafted in the first round of the 2005 MLB draft out of Oregon St. University, Ellsbury quickly ascended through the Red Sox organization beginning first in high-A in 2006, winding up in the Majors on a full-time basis by the start of the 2008 season. Ellsbury is a speedster who makes the most of his on-base percentage, quickly swiped 120 bases in two seasons between 2008 and 2009. He quickly fit into the leadoff spot in the Red Sox order, moving himself into scoring position often, while doing a solid job roaming center field defensively. After a 2010 season in which he spent the majority of the time on the disabled list with rib fractures, Ellsbury came back with a fury in 2011, putting up 9.1 fWAR, the best in the Major Leagues. This outburst included 32 home runs, which represent more than 50% of his career total. The speed he always brings combined with the power numbers made Ellsbury look like the next gem of the Red Sox.

Unfortunately for Ellsbury, his 2012 season, a make or break one for the budding star, did not go as planned. Instead of


repeating his productivity from 2011, Ellsbury played only half the season due to a shoulder injury sustained while sliding into second base. Instead of proving himself through consistency, the Red Sox outfielder became known as an injury risk. The consensus seemed to be that if healthy, Ellsbury constituted a top-level player, but due to his injury history, he may not be worth the risk.

2013 has proved better for the now 29-year-old Ellsbury, who has come back from missing much of the 2012 season as a productive member of the baseball society. Through 100 games, Ellsbury has 39 steals, a 114 wRC+, and has been worth 3.8 fWAR. According to ZIPS, Ellsbury will finish the 2013 season with a 4.9 fWAR mark, while Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA forecasts him to finish with 4.0 WARP (currently he has 3.0), and Steamer projections has the outfielder finishing with a more optimistic 5.2 fWAR. He currently ranks seventh among MLB outfielders in fWAR, much of which derives from his superb base running. His 114 wRC+ is tied with the Rays Matt Joyce and his .275 TAv is similar to another AL East center fielder, Brett Gardner (.278).

Following his 9 WAR season in 2011, many thought Ellsbury would become the next sought after player, set to sign a huge contract. Since then Ellsbury has gotten older, increased his injury pedigree, and has yet to reproduce the same offensive stats of his 2011 season. All the while, he's aged to the point that while he currently stands in his prime, he will soon turn 30 and be on the back end of his career. None of this makes Ellsbury as attractive a catch in free agency as he once was, and brings about the question as to whether the Red Sox will seriously consider resigning him.

Next, let's consider what Jacoby Ellsbury might command from a pecuniary perspective in this upcoming offseason. Taking a look at the list of outfielders that have been as productive as Ellsbury since 2007 we get a list that looks something like this:

Name

WAR

Matt Holliday

35.9

Ryan Braun

32.4

Curtis Granderson

27.1

Josh Hamilton

24.8

Andrew McCutchen

23.9

Jayson Werth

22.3

B.J. Upton

21.8

Michael Bourn

21.8

Jacoby Ellsbury

21.6

Carl Crawford

20.9

Shin-Soo Choo

20.8

Matt Kemp

20.7

Carlos Gonzalez

19.6

Adam Jones

15.7

Looking at this list, it becomes clear that Ellsbury's production, injury-riddled or not, places him in the upper echelon of MLB outfielders. More importantly, a number of the other players on this list have recently signed contracts that we can use to determine a solid estimate of a contract for Ellsbury. Let's add in the two factors that matter most in a contract, the length in years and the average annual salary.

Name

WAR

Years

AAV

Matt Holliday

35.9

7

17.14 M

Ryan Braun

32.4

5

21 M

Curtis Granderson

27.1

N/A

N/A

Josh Hamilton

24.8

5

25 M

Andrew McCutchen

23.9

6

8.58 M

Jayson Werth

22.3

7

18 M

B.J. Upton

21.8

5

15.05 M

Michael Bourn

21.8

4

12 M

Jacoby Ellsbury

21.6

N/A

N/A

Carl Crawford

20.9

7

20.29 M

Shin-Soo Choo

20.8

N/A

N/A

Matt Kemp

20.7

8

20 M

Carlos Gonzalez

19.6

7

11.43 M

Adam Jones

15.7

6

14.25 M

As you can see, Ellsbury's value places him squarely in between two other speedy outfielders that recently signed contracts as free agents. Michael Bourn signed as recently as last year with the Cleveland Indians after a drawn out free agency period during which it seemed as though every team rebuffed Bourn's high asking price. Bourn, like Ellsbury produces his value through his speed and defense, making him high risk and not always high reward. Bourn was 29 years old when he signed the contract, but unlike Ellsbury, Bourn has never shown the ability to put produce any power numbers or even a wRC+ as high as Ellsbury's current 2013 numbers.

Carl Crawford represents a solid comparison as well. He, like Ellsbury and Bourn, heavily incorporates speed into his overall productivity on the field, but Crawford also adds a more consistent and well-rounded game. He's never achieved the success Ellsbury did in 2011, but prior to signing his contract in 2010, Crawford had eight consistently productive seasons in Tampa Bay, which goes a long way when negotiating a contract worth north of $100 million. Crawford signed the deal going into his age 29 season, making him one year young than Ellsbury will be when he signs his contract this offseason. On the other hand, Jacoby plays a more premium defensive position than Crawford, giving him some extra value added. If we take the number of years and the AAV of the players listed about and find the mean for both, we get six years and $16.61 million per season.

The rest of the outfielders on this list make up the range of different contracts. Some have worked out thus far, while other seem like overpays. With the infamous Scott Boras as his client, Ellsbury's asking price will most likely be higher than any team will want to pay him. Boras will claim that at worst Ellsbury is a four fWAR player and at best a 9 fWAR player, making his AAV value somewhere between $20 and $25 million per season. The injuries are a concern, but to Boras and his client such are the results of a player who gives it his all, a winner who performs at the top of his game on a daily basis.

The market this offseason for center fielders, and outfielders as a whole, is somewhat thin. Two players on the previous list will be free agents come November, the Yankees Curtis Granderson and the Reds Shin-Soo Choo. Choo currently mans center field for the Reds, but few other teams consider him a true center fielder, while Granderson hasn't played center on a regular basis for a year or two. This makes Ellsbury the best centerfielder on the market, a different story from last year when Bourn, B.J. Upton, and Angel Pagan were all possibilities.

So, what should the Red Sox do? The team has two obvious options from which to choose. The first option is to negotiate a contract with Ellsbury, and sign him to a deal. Depending on other suitors for Ellsbury's services, the contract could range from a B.J. Upton like deal in the neighborhood of $15 million per season to as high as the $18 million AAV that Jayson Werth currently receives from the Nationals. The second option for the Red Sox is to allow Ellsbury to leave, offering him the obligatory qualifying offer that he almost certainly will not accept, collect the extra draft pick, and insert young outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. in as their opening day 2014 center fielder.

Option No. 1 costs the Red Sox money, and encompasses all of the inherent risks that come with signing a 30-year-old to a $100 million contract, injury concerns or not. It does however give them security at a vital position. Going with Option No. 2 also has risks, as Bradley is an unproven commodity who could very well flop, leaving the Red Sox with the option of either trading for a center fielder or possibly moving Shane Victorino back to center field.

According to Kevin Goldstein, formerly of BP and currently with the Houston Astros, in 2008 Jacoby Ellsbury ranked as the No. 2 prospect in the Red Sox organization. In discussing Ellsbury, Goldstein remarked that,

"Ellsbury's top tools are his speed and glovework, but he's a very good hitter as well. He makes good contact, uses all fields, and projects as a consistent .290-.310 hitter annually in the big leagues."

He went on to say that,

"Ellsbury needs to develop better secondary skills to move into the elite category as a hitter. He doesn't have much power, though most feel he'll grow enough to be good for 10-15 home runs annually."

Overall, Goldstein's praises of Ellsbury were high, saying that he could very well become an above-average center fielder who, at times, would prove himself All-Star worthy. Now, what does the man who currently has Goldstein's former job have to say about Jackie Bradley Jr.?

BP's Jason Parks ranked Bradley as the Red Sox's No. 2 prospect going into the 2013 season, one spot behind Xander Bogaerts. Parks noted that Bradley has speed, although it isn't elite, but plays center field at a level that could bring him numerous defensive accolades in the future. He goes on to say that while Bradley needs to improve at the plate, he isn't offensively deficient and should turn into an everyday center fielder.

The Red Sox look prime to bring up Xander Bogaerts either towards the end of this season, but more likely to start the season with the big league club in 2014. Bradley has already played a bit this season with the Red Sox, showing positive and negative signs. If the Red Sox decided to forgo signing Ellsbury to a contract, they could then use some of the money not spent on Ellsbury to improve their pitching staff, add depth at other key positions, or lock up young talents long-term. Signing Ellsbury doesn't completely limit the team's options, but the more money concentrated towards just a few players means either dipping further into the bank or limiting future possibilities. The Red Sox may very well decide that looking at the other options for spending money, including less than attractive 2014 and 2015 free agent classes, that signing Ellsbury and looking to use Bradley as a trade chip might constitute the best option going forward. Still, this writer is all about options, and the choice that provides the club the most overall flexibility is to offer Ellsbury a qualifying offer, allow him to move on, replace him with Jackie Bradley Jr., and spend the money elsewhere.

This isn't an easy decision and, more than likely it will constitute one of the more interesting developments of the offseason. One fact remains certain; the Red Sox seem to have gotten back to sensible, efficient, and knowledgeable management of the organization. The ball is in their court, and from what I can tell, that's exactly where they want it.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs Baseball Prospectus and Baseball-Reference.

Ben Horrow is a writer at Beyond The Box Score and That Ball's Outta Here. You can follow him on Twitter at @Summerpastime.

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