Andre Ethier Trade Rumors: Analyzing His Potential Impact on the Boston Red Sox

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Andre Ethier Trade Rumors: Analyzing His Potential Impact on the Boston Red Sox
Josh Hedges/Getty Images

The Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers did one of the biggest bits of business in baseball history in late August, as the Red Sox sent Nick Punto and a couple other notables worth around $250 million to Southern California in a waiver trade.

The two clubs may do some more business this winter. It depends on whether or not the Red Sox want to capitalize on the possibility that ESPN's Buster Olney reported last week:

Before you ask, there hasn't actually been any serious chatter about the Red Sox possibly making a play for Ethier, but it's been speculated that he could find his way onto Boston's radar before long. For example, Jason A. Churchill of ESPN.com recently tagged the Red Sox as a possibility for Ethier in ESPN's "Rumor Central" section.

This isn't the first time Ethier has been noted to be a possible option for the Red Sox. In July of 2011, Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reported that Ethier viewed Boston as a good place to escape from the financial mess that the Dodgers were going through. He was apparently enthused about the possibility of teaming up with former Arizona State teammate Dustin Pedroia, and it helped that the Red Sox were actually winning at the time.

Be this as it may, it's also worth noting that Heyman has heard that the Dodgers aren't actually considering trading Ethier at this point. Olney's report and the speculation that followed could be much ado about nothing.

But for the sake of discussion, let's assume that the Dodgers could change their minds if the Red Sox were to come calling. Here's a look at why it could happen and how Ethier would fit in Boston.

 

First of All, Here's Why This Makes Sense

The Red Sox don't have to worry about their DH spot after re-signing David Ortiz to a two-year deal this week, but Sox GM Ben Cherington still has plenty of areas on the roster to address before he can breathe easy.

The need for a corner outfielder is one of the more glaring holes Cherington has to fill. Complicating matters is the fact that the one guy the Red Sox were looking to retain is playing hard to get.

According to Buster Olney, Cody Ross is seeking a three-year deal worth $25 million in free agency this winter. That's $4 million more than the Minnesota Twins gave to Josh Willingham last winter.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Cody Ross and the Green Monster were BFFs in 2012.

Ross is pushing his luck asking for a contract like that on the open market, as teams won't be blind to the fact that much of his success in 2012 was the result of him hitting balls off and over the Green Monster. He was a .298/.356/.565 hitter at Fenway Park, but a mere .232/.294/.390 hitter on the road.

As such, Ross has more value in Boston than he does anywhere else. This does not, however, mean that the Red Sox are about to give him a contract worth $25 million. They want to be more disciplined with their spending going forward, and giving Ross a $25 million contract would certainly be stretching the definition of the word "disciplined."

Now, I know what you're thinking. If giving Ross $25 million is undisciplined, why would taking on Ethier's $85 million contract make any sense?

We'll get to how smart it would be soon enough, but the Red Sox would be able to justify taking on Ethier and his contract because he's younger, more accomplished and generally better than Ross.

Ethier is younger than Ross by more than a year, and he has far better career numbers to his name. Ross is a .262/.324/.460 career hitter with a 107 OPS+, and Ethier is a .290/.362/.476 career hitter with a 124 OPS+. 

According to FanGraphs, Ross has only had two seasons in which he's posted a WAR of better than 2.5. Ethier has done that four times in the last five seasons.

These numbers all say that Ethier is the more reliable player of the two, and reliability is surely something that the Red Sox are valuing more now than ever before. 

Granted, none of this changes the fact that Ethier would be a far more expensive investment than Ross, as his contract calls for him to make an average salary worth twice as much as the average salary Ross is looking for. His career numbers say that he's not worth that much more than Ross.

If the Red Sox were to agree to take on Ethier's contract, though, it's not like they'd be setting themselves up for a massive failure. They want to play things safe these days, but they have enough payroll space to live with Ethier's contract if it were to turn into a bust.

 

What Ethier Would Bring to the Table

Ethier does not have the track record of a truly great hitter. He's not Miguel Cabrera. For that matter, a good comp for him at this stage of his career would be J.D. Drew.

That's the kind of comparison that's liable to make Red Sox fans groan, but let's be fair here. Drew was a solid hitter for the bulk of his career, and "solid" is as good a word as any to describe Ethier.

Ethier has yet to post an OBP under .350 in his career, and he's finished with an OPS over .800 every year he's been in the league except 2011. That was also the only year in the last five seasons in which he finished with fewer than 20 home runs.

Even despite his poor 2011 season, an average campaign for Ethier over the last five years has consisted of a .288/.364/.480 triple-slash line, 21 homers and 83 RBI.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Ethier is more of an overrated defender than a bad defender.

In addition to his solid bat, Ethier is a decent defensive right fielder. He really had no business winning a Gold Glove in 2011, but he has rated as a slightly above-average defender in the last two seasons as far as the Defensive Runs Saved metric is concerned. Per FanGraphs, Ethier finished with a plus-four DRS in 2011, and a plus-two DRS in 2012.

One thing that would come in handy at Fenway Park is the fact that Ethier is used to playing a big right field at Dodger Stadium. He's also had to handle himself in right field at big NL West parks like AT&T Park, Petco Park and Coors Field on a regular basis.

If Ethier's defense were to get worse over time with the Red Sox, they could always move him to first base. Because they don't have a long-term solution at first base, that's a move they could actually make right away if they were to trade for Ethier.

The bigger concern regarding Ethier's transition is not that his glove would be a problem, but that his bat may not be the best fit for Fenway Park.

Fenway can be kind to lefty hitters, but only if they have power to the opposite field. That's not really Ethier's game, as his power stroke is to right field and center field rather than left field. He does have a .329 career average when he hits the ball to left field, but only a .464 slugging percentage. He slugs .524 on balls to center field and .818 on balls to right field.

So if he were to play half his games at Fenway Park, it's doubtful that Ethier would see an uptick in his home run production. He'd be more likely to hit more doubles and triples.

As for where the Red Sox could stash Ethier in their lineup to help boost his numbers...

 

How He Would Impact the Lineup

If Ross doesn't end up re-signing with the Red Sox, they'll find themselves in rather desperate need for a middle-of-the-order hitter. David Ortiz is a lock for the middle of John Farrell's batting order, but the only potential middle-of-the-order guy the Red Sox would have besides him is Will Middlebrooks.

This is a dilemma that a trade for Ethier would solve. He spent the bulk of the 2012 season as the Dodgers' cleanup hitter, and it's a job he handled quite well. In 76 games (75 starts) batting out of the cleanup spot, Ethier hit .297/.368/.486 with 10 homers and 50 RBI.

That's a pretty good RBI count for a 75-game sample size, and it's a testament to Ethier's capacity to capitalize on run-scoring opportunities.

In addition to posting an .886 OPS with runners in scoring position, Ethier led the Dodgers with a 29.8 RE24 (a stat that measures how many runs a given hitter added over the expected amount according to the situations he faced). Ethier basically made a habit of coming up with clutch hits throughout the course of the 2012 season.

Bob DeChiara-US PRESSWIRE
Pedroia knows from his time at ASU what it's like to share a lineup with Ethier.

Ethier wouldn't have to bat fourth in Boston's lineup. He could potentially bat third in front of David Ortiz and behind Dustin Pedroia. He has an .821 OPS for his career when he bats out of the No. 3 hole, and it's not hard to imagine him getting more pitches to drive with Big Papi batting behind him.

Ethier could also fit lower in the order if Farrell were to bat Middlebrooks in the cleanup spot behind Ortiz. Ethier has an .831 OPS in his career when he bats fifth, and an .840 OPS for his career when he bats sixth.

In fact, the only batting order position that hasn't been so kind to Ethier in his career is the No. 9 hole, where he has a .671 OPS for his career. The only place he's not accustomed to hitting in at all is the leadoff spot.

Lineup flexibility is an asset that the Red Sox should be attracted to after watching Carl Crawford fail so miserably to adjust to being in different spots in the lineup in his two years in Boston. If the Red Sox were to add Ethier, Farrell wouldn't have to worry about stashing him in a single spot on a daily basis just to make him feel comfortable enough to hit.

As for how adding Ethier would shake up the big picture in the AL East...

 

How He Would Impact the Red Sox's Standing in the AL East

Presently, the Red Sox aren't being looked at as a potential threat to win the AL East in 2013. They've definitely moved on from a dark chapter in their history, but they don't have the talent of other teams in the division.

Greg M. Cooper-US PRESSWIRE
John Farrell can't be any worse than Bobby Valentine...Right?

However, it's not like the Red Sox are as bereft of talent these days as, say, the Houston Astros. They have the makings of a good offense with Jacoby Ellsbury, Pedroia, Ortiz and Middlebrooks in the mix for 2013, and there's hope for the club's pitching staff now that Farrell is back in town. He could revive the careers of Jon Lester and John Lackey, and he could get Clay Buchholz back to where he was in 2010.

If the Red Sox make only small improvements to their roster, they could still end up being a .500 team in 2013. If they add Ethier, his track record suggests that he'd be worth a few extra wins, which would put a fair expectation for the 2013 Red Sox at right around 85 wins. They could easily make a push for 90 wins if luck is on their side and a few players overachieve.

Granted, that probably still won't be good enough for the Red Sox to win the division. The Yankees will make the improvements they need to make this offseason to be good for right around 95 wins in 2013. The Tampa Bay Rays will be right there with them if their pitching staff holds up and Evan Longoria manages to stay healthy for the bulk of the season.

The Baltimore Orioles are likely to be back in 2013 as well. They'll be returning many of the players who helped them make the playoffs for the first time in 15 years in 2012, and they could actually become a true powerhouse team if their starting pitching is more consistent and Manny Machado and Dylan Bundy make good on their considerable potential.

The Toronto Blue Jays are the dark horse in the division for 2013. They had one of the scariest offenses in the league when everyone was healthy in 2012, and their pitching staff had plenty of talent before it, too, was destroyed by the injury bug. Better health in 2013 could send the Blue Jays the way of the 2012 Orioles.

Of course, it wouldn't necessarily be a disappointment if the Red Sox were to miss the playoffs in 2013. Red Sox Nation seems to understand that the Red Sox are building for the not-so-foreseeable future.

As such, the bigger question here is how adding Ethier would affect those plans.

 

How His Contract Would Impact Payroll and Future Spending

Even after signing Ortiz to a deal that will pay him $14.5 million in 2013, the Red Sox only have about $60 million in salaries committed for next season.

If they don't make any more expensive signings this winter, it's therefore hard to see Boston's payroll climbing much higher than $100 million in 2013. That would sit just fine with the club's button-pushers, as they're trying to make sure the team has as much payroll flexibility as possible for as long as possible.

Adding Ethier wouldn't force the Red Sox into pushing these plans aside. Adding him would, however, force them to recalculate things a little bit.

Ethier is owed $13.5 million in 2013, which would be a fair price for the Red Sox to pay so long as they got production in line with that of his career track record. However, Ethier's salary is going to increase to $15.5 million in 2014 and $18 million in 2015.

Between 2015 and 2017, Ethier is owed $52 million. His $17.5 million salary for 2018 will be guaranteed if he reaches 550 plate appearances in 2017.

The most expensive player on the Red Sox right now is John Lackey, who is owed $15.95 million in 2013 and 2014. Ethier is owed an average of $16.2 million over the next five seasons, meaning he would become the most expensive player on the Red Sox if they were to trade for him.

The title has to belong to someone, but the Red Sox would no doubt prefer to have their highest-paid player be their most dependable player. Just as there's no such guarantee with Lackey, there'd be no such guarantee with Ethier.

To be sure, the Red Sox could make it work. They have more than enough payroll space to afford Ethier now, and the lack of long-term commitments on their payroll now will allow them to mix and match around Ethier in the future even if his contract were to become an albatross.

The presence of his deal wouldn't necessarily stop them from offering extensions to players like Ellsbury, Pedroia, Middlebrooks, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and whoever else the Red Sox want to retain in the near to distant future.

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Despite the fact it could work, though, my question is why the Red Sox would prefer Ethier over Nick Swisher. He's also a fit for their hole in right field and he's also a solid hitter who plays solid defense. The difference between him and Ethier is that Swisher's bat offers more versatility and he may not be that expensive to acquire.

A big fuss was made when Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reported in August that Swisher was looking for his next contract to be a carbon copy of Jayson Werth's contract with the Washington Nationals, but that ship has long since sailed. This week, Heyman wrote that Swisher is more likely to get $67 million over five years or $39 million over three years.

Either one of those contracts would fit better into Boston's plans than Ethier's five-year, $85 million contract. To boot, they wouldn't have to part with any top prospects in order to get Swisher, as they will likely have to if they pursue a trade for Ethier. Because the Yankees made him a qualifying offer, all signing Swisher would cost the Red Sox (besides money) is a draft pick.

And of course, there's always Ross. He's not as good as Ethier or Swisher, but paying Ross about $8 million per year for three years doesn't seem so bad in light of what the Red Sox would have to pay Ethier or Swisher.

So as intriguing as Ethier may be for the Red Sox, it doesn't make a ton of sense from an economic perspective for them to pursue him. It doesn't fit with their disciplined approach.

And indeed, it's not like they owe the Dodgers any favors just because they did the Sox a whopper of a favor in August.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. Salary figures courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.

 

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