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Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury is set to become a free agent after the 2013 season and the Sox need to re-sign him. Now in his 7th MLB season (all with Boston) Ellsbury has proven himself as one of the best defensive players in the league and having a quality defender in center is vital. He is one of the leading base stealers not only in total steals, but also in percentage. Catchers and pitchers can’t stop Ellsbury even when they know he’s going. Simply put, he’s a game changer.
Ellsbury gives himself plenty of opportunities to use that speed too. He is a consistent .290-.310 hitter in the big leagues who has also reached base in exactly 35% of his career plate appearances. His 32 homerun power from 2011 hasn’t quite come back, but he is still capable of reaching double digit home runs. Plus, the Red Sox wouldn’t be paying him for homeruns, they are just an added bonus. He will make the big bucks due to his fielding, running and batting average. When Ellsbury is healthy and hot, a case for him can be made as an elite contact hitter with decent pop in the prime age of his career.
It would be oblivious of me not to point out the risks of re-signing Ellsbury. Two of his last four seasons have been basically non existent due to injuries. I don’t know how to assess these because both major injuries came on collisions, but he also took long recovery periods during those years, which caused some to question his toughness. If you want to knock Ellsbury for not knowing when to take his foot off the motor, fine. However, I don’t consider him an exceptional injury risk because his ailments have been dings from hard play, not pulls and other non contact injuries that are often associated with being out of shape.
The other issue associated with Ellsbury is Scott Boras, his super agent. Boras is known for getting the maximum contracts for his clients, and Ellsbury leaves him with plenty to bargain with. In all likelihood, it will take at least a six year deal worth upwards of $15 million annually. Jackie Bradley Jr. (The Red Sox number two prospect) is also a center fielder, so trusting him to step in would save big time money that could be used to bolster the pitching staff or other positions.
No matter if you love or hate Jacoby Ellsbury, fact of the matter is he has what it takes to excel on the big Boston stage. You really just don’t see players like him anymore. I have a tough time assuming that either Bradley Jr. or a signed replacement can step in and give the same type of production. Let’s take Carl Crawford for example. He was a similar type of player as Ellsbury. He spent several years in Tampa playing great defense, owning the base paths, and hitting for great average with decent power. Then he signed the infamous $120 million contract with Boston. Crawford just couldn’t handle it here. He went as far as telling ESPN Los Angeles last week that playing in Boston was the worst experience of his life, and Crawford had a pretty rough childhood by almost any standard.
I would put this decision under the if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it category. This situation came up two off seasons ago when the Sox were deciding whether to re-sign all-star closer Jonathan Papelbon. He wanted more than the Red Sox were willing to pay him, so they let him walk. To replace him, they signed four different pitchers that ended up costing more if you combine the salaries, and the production was a far cry from Papelbon’s.
I think letting Ellsbury walk would create a similar scenario. His contract demands will absolutely exceed what the Red Sox would like to pay him. But it isn’t like they can acquire a player of his caliber for much less. Even if they do, who says that player can handle Boston? Jackie Bradley Jr. wasn’t exactly an all-star in his limited action this season, so there’s no guarantee he steps in and makes us forget about Jacoby.
The bottom line is that the Red Sox have one of the elite center fielders in the game. He is arguably the best base stealer in the league, plays gold glove defense in center field which is a premium position, and he hits for elite average. That is what will always be there. As if that isn’t enough, he could manage to re-capture the power that allowed him to reach the 30-30 club (homeruns and steals) and finish second in the MVP voting just two seasons ago. And he still hasn’t reached his 30th birthday. Another fun fact is that the Sox have missed the playoffs twice in Ellsbury’s seven seasons. Those seasons were 2010 and 2012, the same seasons that Ellsbury basically lost due to injury. This is a big invesment in a proven commodity that the Red Sox need to make.