The Boston Red Sox laid low at the trade deadline. They were rumored to be looking at some big-name players and there were also rumors about them shipping out some of their own big-name players, but in the end they only made a couple of minor moves.
At the time, there was a notion out there that this Red Sox team wasn't really worthy of any big moves. Time has lent that notion some creedence, as the Red Sox have lost seven of nine games in August. The death rattle is starting to shake.
It stands to reason that Ben Cherington and the club's brass are already looking forward to the offseason, which promises to be one of the busiest offseasons in the club's recent history. The Red Sox will surely bring players in, but all signs point towards the emphasis being on getting certain players out of Boston.
One guy who could go is Jacoby Ellsbury, the 2011 AL MVP runner-up.
The 2012 season hasn't exactly been a lost season for Ellsbury, a la the 2010 campaign when he missed all but 18 games due to various injuries. This certainly hasn't been an easy season for Ellsbury, though, as he basically missed the first three months of the season and has yet to revert back to his MVP form since he was activated off the DL immediately following the All-Star break.
Meanwhile, on the horizon is Ellsbury's walk season in 2013. His up-and-down fortunes over the last few years complicate the possibility of him signing an extension. Further complicating matters is the fact that Ellsbury is represented by notorious money-magnet Scott Boras. If he stays true to his track record, he'll arrange things so that Ellsbury will test the free agent waters after the 2013 season is over.
So it's no wonder the Red Sox fielded calls about Ellsbury at the trade deadline. Most notably, Rob Bradford of WEEI.com reported that the Texas Rangers were interested in Ellsbury, Josh Beckett and Kelly Shoppach. According to Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston.com, the Cincinnati Reds checked in as well, which makes sense given their desperate need for a leadoff hitter.
But indications are that nothing serious ever materialized. Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe has said that this is what could change when the offseason rolls around:
Despite a few inquiries on Jacoby Ellsbury the Sox will likely wait until the offseason to seriously consider deals for him.— Nick Cafardo (@nickcafardo) July 30, 2012
The Red Sox won't have a shortage of suitors if they decide to get serious about trading Ellsbury. And since it's pretty obvious that the club needs some serious retooling, it's very much in their interest to see what they can get for Ellsbury in a trade.
But therein lies a dilemma: How much is Ellsbury actually worth in a trade?
Had we been asking this question, say, last November, the answer would have been obvious: a lot. Ellsbury posted a .928 OPS with 32 home runs, 105 RBI, 119 runs scored and 39 stolen bases in 2011. He also won a Gold Glove.
The total package gave Ellsbury a WAR of 9.4, according to FanGraphs. That was the highest mark among all major league players. Statistically speaking, he was the best player in all of baseball in 2011.
So this past offseason, Ellsbury could have fetched the Red Sox an impressive trade haul. Blue-chip prospects could have been had if the Sox so desired. They also could have traded Ellsbury for some star-level major league players, ideally pitchers.
Now? Not so much.
Ellsbury's trade value probably isn't much higher than it would have been following the 2010 season, when the book on him was that he was a mere speedster, and a frail one at that.
Actually trading Ellsbury following the 2010 season would have made little sense, but it's doubtful that the Red Sox would have been able to get blue-chip prospects or a star major leaguer or two. The risk of trading for Ellsbury would have overshadowed his talent.
And this was back when Ellsbury still had three years to go until free agency. He now has only one year to go until free agency, and the Boras factor could lead clubs to view him as a one-year rental player.
That restricts the list of potential suitors to clubs that have their eye on doing big things in 2013. The Rangers and Reds will probably still be in play, the Rangers especially seeing as how they could end up parting ways with Josh Hamilton this winter. Other teams that could (and I stress could) be looking for center field help include the Miami Marlins, San Francisco Giants, Philadelphia Phillies, Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves.
Of those teams, the only one that boasts a truly exceptional farm system with plenty of dealable assets is the Rangers, which is just another reason that they could end up being the most sensible trade partner if the Sox make Ellsbury available.
The other clubs have pieces to deal, but they'll be easily scared off if Cherington demands several blue-chip prospects or major leaguers for Ellsbury. He'll really be pushing his luck if he insists on Ellsbury and Beckett being a package deal. A trade for those two will go one of two ways: Roaring success or total disaster.
The only way Cherington is going to have the leverage he requires to pry top prospects from clubs interested in Ellsbury is if Ellsbury heats up in the last few weeks of the season. If he flashes his MVP-level talent, Cherington will be able to market him as a superstar-level player well worth paying a high price for.
Ellsbury has shown flashes here and there since coming off the DL, but on the whole he has just a .688 OPS and six stolen bases in 26 games, according to Baseball-Reference.com. For the most part, he's looked more like his 2009 self, which doesn't help his trade stock.
If Ellsbury doesn't heat up before the season is over, Cherington might be able swing a deal centered around one blue-chip prospect. It's either that, or Ellsbury could be packaged with several expendable players and used in a trade meant to fill several minor needs all at once, sort of like what the St. Louis Cardinals did with Colby Rasmus in 2011.
If this is to be Ellsbury's value on the trade market, the question begging to be asked is this: Why not just keep him?
The Red Sox are only going to keep him if they think they can contend in a significant way in 2013. The tricky part there is that it's abundantly obvious that a lot of changes need to be made in order for the Red Sox to contend in 2013, and spending big bucks on free agents is the last thing the club wants to do right now given its recent history with big-name free agents.
The Red Sox are going to be better off making changes via trades, and the fact of the matter is that Ellsbury is going to be their most valuable trade chip regardless of how far his value has fallen throughout the course of the year.
Additionally, making him and Beckett a package deal may be the only way to get rid of Beckett, and the Red Sox should very much want to get rid of him at this point.
The team could start the 2013 season with Ellsbury and then look into trading him at the deadline if they're out of contention, but at that point he'll be a two-month rental and his value will be even lower if he's still not hitting like he was in 2011.
That possibility of Ellsbury's value plummeting even further is a key reason why the Red Sox should trade him sooner rather than later. The other thing putting pressure on them to deal him is how little they stand to gain if he walks as a free agent.
In the past, teams received a pair of compensatory draft picks if they lost top free agents to other teams. Under MLB's new CBA, teams are only entitled to draft pick compensation if they present a player with a one-year qualifying offer equal to the average salary of the league's top 125 players.
Ellsbury would surely reject a qualifying offer if the Red Sox were to make him one, and in return the Sox would get a draft pick at the end of the first round.
It all boils down to three options. The Red Sox can either attempt to sign Ellsbury to a massive contract extension, trade him this winter, or watch him leave as a free agent and get a single draft pick as compensation.
Given the circumstances at play, trading Ellsbury this winter is basically the safest move the Red Sox can make.
Will trading Ellsbury equip the Red Sox with the pieces they need to get back to being World Series contenders?
Not a chance. Trading him won't allow Cherington to solve all the team's various shortcomings in one fell swoop. He'll be able to bolster the club's future if he plays his cards right, but dealing Ellsbury would be just one part of a much larger retooling process.
And that would be the point. Boston's dynasty is dead. It's time for the club to build a new dynasty, and they're going to be faced with plenty of difficult decisions before they get to where they want to be.
If they trade Ellsbury, they'll only just be getting started.
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