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John Farrell is the new manager, and David Ortiz is in line to get that two-year deal he has coveted for so long. The Red Sox front office is getting the job done in swifter fashion this offseason, as they have acknowledged their failures to do so last year. With the managerial signing out of the way and the re-signing of their biggest offensive name soon to follow, the decision makers can turn to a new question: what should be done with Jacoby Ellsbury?
In a historical financial upheaval, the Red Sox may now have the flexibility to re-sign their star center fielder to the contract he and agent Scott Boras will be looking for. In a rebuilding process, would it be the right decision to re-sign Ellsbury long term? In order to answer that question, it would be important to look at his full body of work since getting drafted in 2005.
During the 2007 season, the Red Sox were making a late charge into the post-season, and Coco Crisp was having some offensive struggles in center. When management decided to call Ellsbury up to try to make a run at the World Series, he proved up to the task. In 33 games, Ellsbury showcased a little bit of everything, hitting 14 extra base hits and driving in 18 while posting a stat line of .353/.394/.509/.902 (BA/OBP/SLG/OPS). Riding his hot bat and an excellent team dynamic, the Red Sox won the World Series and Ellsbury cemented his place as no longer the center fielder of the future, but as the starter.
Following a stellar 2007, Ellsbury posted two straight years of good numbers. Over that span, he scored 192 runs, had 83 extra base hits, and stole 120 bases while posting a stat line average of .290/.346/.405/.751. In 2008, he came in third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. If Ellsbury would have continued to put up seasons like this, the Red Sox would have had a perennial all-star, but that was not exactly how his career played out.
Since 2010, Ellsbury has only managed to play in 250 of a possible 486 games. He has suffered from two injuries that on the surface seemed like minor problems but turned into season ruining injuries. In 2010, the Red Sox pushed Ellsbury to left field after the acquisition of Mike Cameron. Within the first few weeks, Adrian Beltre and Ellsbury got crossed up on a shallow fly in the outfield and collided, knocking Ellsbury out of the game with significant pain in his rib area. Months of controversy between the media and the Red Sox medical staff unearthed a misdiagnosis and a mistreatment of the injury, as it had actually been more serious than initially thought. Ellsbury ended up playing in only 18 games that season. I personally attended his first game back in the middle of that season in which I presumed that his aggressive style of play may lead to problems with this type of injury. A few games later, sure enough, he aggravated his ribs while diving for a ball in the outfield and missed the rest of the season.
This past year, Ellsbury was landed on awkwardly while breaking up a double play, which led to a shoulder subluxation and promptly derailed his year. He only managed to play in 74 games while posting numbers similar to the first two full years of his career (.271/.313/.370/.682). All of the numbers were down, but that can be attributed to the injury; people would have said nothing of the drop in statistics had he not had his 2011 season.
In 2011, Jacoby Ellsbury was a force to be reckoned with; if not for the monumental collapse of the Red Sox coupled with the brilliance of Justin Verlander, he would have run away with the MVP award. After projecting as a .300/.350/.400/.750 hitter for his career, Ellsbury exploded to the tune of .321/.376/.552/.928 all while crushing a career high 32 home runs and driving in 105 RBI. Before this season, Ellsbury had never hit double digit home runs, and then in no time he was hitting third in the order on a team that was falling apart down the stretch. He earned his first All Star berth and won the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove award for center field in the American League. At this point, his value was the highest it could possibly be, and the Red Sox were planning on riding his emergence right into the following season.
After analyzing his career, the question remains: which player should Red Sox fans expect in 2013. Sure, it is going to be a contract year, so you could see numbers like 2011, but does anyone really think he could sustain that kind of pace for the extent of a contract that it would take to sign him? It is going to take a major deal to get Ellsbury to sign long term before free agency, but if the Red Sox can convince him that with his injury history, he would be better served signing for what he could get now than risk getting hurt again, they could get very good value for a player they already know can handle the rigors of playing for Boston.
If the Red Sox go to Ellsbury with an extension, I wouldn’t go any higher than five years at $14-16 million per year. If Ellsbury returns to the player he was in his first two seasons, then that would be great market value for a playmaker at the top of your lineup. If he turns into the player from 2011, then he comes in at a bargain. Of course, there is always the chance as well that the real Ellsbury is the one that can’t stay on the field for a whole season. If that is the case, then they could be stuck in a very familiar situation.
Scott Boras would have you believing that the 2011 Ellsbury is the guy, and that he is worth at minimum what Carl Crawford made when he signed his deal (seven years, approx. $20 million per year). This is not a safe signing for the team, so they would have to come up with other options.
By no means am I saying that I do not like Ellsbury or do not want him to be a part of the future for this team, but the Red Sox now have the flexibility to keep an open mind. If something comes around that really wows them, I absolutely pounce on the deal at the first opportunity. This would leave the team with a hole to fill in center field, but that is arguably the most fruitful free agent class of the year, with players like Michael Bourn, Shane Victorino, and BJ Upton all hitting the open market. If the Sox and garner a good prospect or two for Ellsbury while also signing a player of a similar calibur (if you are comparing them to the 2008-09 player), then they would be in great shape.
There is a good possibility that Ellsbury will never reach the trade potential he has after the 2011 campaign, and with hindsight being 20-20, it may have been a good opportunity to part ways with the center fielder. After missing the majority of two out of three seasons, teams may be wary to part with anything of significant value for him. In this case, it may be wise for the Red Sox to keep him and try to bolster his value on the market with a strong first half. The problem with this route is that under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, a player needs to be with a team for a full season before being eligible for draft pick compensation. In order to get something of significant value here, he would have to have a monster first half, and that may very well tempt the Red Sox to ride out the year with him. If he is traded mid-season, the team would have to fill in internally, which could cause some problems if Jackie Bradley Jr. is not ready for the call yet.
If the Sox choose to ride out the season with him, they can make one of two choices: let him walk and acquire draft pick compensation or use 2013 as a barometer for contract talks. If he does leave at the end of the year, the team will receive a supplemental pick for him, and they may be able to call up Bradley for the following season.
If I was managing the Boston Red Sox, I would value one trait in a player over everything else, and that is the ability to play in Boston. Some players just do not have what it takes to play in this town, and it definitely shows. Ellsbury has proven that when he is on the field, he can get the job done. I believe that it is important that the Red Sox do not undergo more subtraction, and focus on addition. There are enough holes in the starting nine that the team should focus on getting Ellsbury through arbitration or a one-year deal and coming back to it at the end of next year. For a team that is sorely lacking star power, Ellsbury would certainly be a guy they would like to have back.
Statistics courtesy of BaseballReference.com