The rumors seemed curious, considering that the Dodgers signed Ethier to a five-year, $85 million contract extension last June. That locked up the right fielder before he became eligible for free agency following the 2012 season.
But above all, the Dodgers need Ethier in their lineup. While he may not be a MVP-caliber player like Matt Kemp, Ethier has been extremely productive in five of the past six seasons. When his numbers took a dip in 2011, it was because of a knee injury that eventually required season-ending knee surgery.
When Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal reported that the Dodgers were looking to trade Ethier in late December, the belief was that the team was looking to make an opening for free-agent outfielders Michael Bourn or Nick Swisher. Though that won't happen now, the circumstances which may have led the Dodgers to consider trading Ethier still apply.
Misjudged the Market
Looking at the 2013 free-agent market, it's pretty clear that Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti overestimated Ethier's value and thus overpaid him with the five-year contract extension.
Ethier is arguably a better hitter than Upton. He has a higher career batting average, hitting .290 compared to Upton's .255. His .838 OPS surpasses Upton's .758. Ethier has also averaged 18 home runs and 76 RBI per season, while Upton has averaged 14 homers and 56 RBI.
But Upton has more speed, stealing 200 more bases during his eight major league seasons. As mentioned above, he plays better defense at a more difficult outfield position. Additionally, Upton is two years younger and potentially offers more upside.
With a .256 career batting average and .828 OPS, Swisher has lower numbers in those categories than Ethier. However, he's averaged 23 homers and 75 RBI. Swisher is also a switch-hitter and can play both corner outfield positions in addition to first base. But he is two years older than Ethier.
Trading Ethier to make room for Swisher would have made sense for the Dodgers, as they likely would have gotten more offensive production and defensive versatility for $3 million less per season and one fewer year on his contract.
Saving money doesn't seem to be a priority these days for the Dodgers. But the team could have gotten better value here and maybe picked up a couple of prospects in the process.
Upgrades Available in 2014
If the Dodgers still believe they would get better by signing a center fielder and moving Matt Kemp to right field, the 2014 free-agent market gives them another opportunity to do so.
The top position player available looks to be Boston Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury. In his final year before free agency, Ellsbury will have to prove he's capable of repeating his MVP-caliber performance from 2011. He hit .321 with a .928 OPS, 32 home runs, 105 RBI and 39 stolen bases that year.
With him in center and Kemp in right, the Dodgers would have two players that could potentially hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases in their lineup. The team's outfield would also be better defensively, as advanced metrics like FanGraphs' ultimate zone rating (UZR) say Ellsbury plays better defense in center field than Kemp.
Other center fielders on the market include the New York Yankees' Curtis Granderson, though he would not be an upgrade over Kemp defensively. Even if he were to play right field, the Dodgers probably have a better player already with Ethier. Granderson could come cheaper, but that's not an issue for the Dodgers.
Another option could be Chris Young, who was traded from the Arizona Diamondbacks to the Oakland Athletics this winter. While he only hit .231 with a .745 OPS last year, Young does have 25-homer power and could be another right-handed bat to go with Kemp and Hanley Ramirez.
Most importantly, Young is an excellent defensive center fielder, according to UZR. He might even be better than Ellsbury, saving 11 more runs on defense than the average player at his position. Young was even better in 2011, when he played a full, injury-free season, saving the D-Backs 14 runs with his defense.
Better Fit Elsewhere
Yet the best reason for the Dodgers to trade Ethier is because he would be in demand by any team looking for a power-hitting corner outfielder.
In Rosenthal's initial report, he talked to a source who said the rumors of the Dodgers shopping Ethier came from two American League teams who had inquired about him. Perhaps those teams were hoping to push the Dodgers into making a deal by cranking up the rumor mill.
Unfortunately, we don't know who those AL teams were. It's possible that the Seattle Mariners, Cleveland Indians or Texas Rangers could have been among those clubs, but that's purely wild speculation. Well, we do know that the Mariners were pursuing Ethier, according to ESPN's Buster Olney.
But plenty of other teams could use Ethier in their lineup. The Baltimore Orioles would be one. The Red Sox could be another, if they decided to trade Ellsbury and move Shane Victorino to center field.
The Mets might not want to commit to Ethier's contract. But could they find a better player on the free-agent market next year? While the Phillies are apparently committed to Delmon Young, he signed a one-year, $750,000 contract. That's not much of a commitment. Young could also be shifted over to left field to accommodate Ethier, if it came to that.
That's a pretty large potential market for Ethier, which is likely why the Dodgers felt they had to lock him up to a five-year contract extension in the first place.
But with new ownership taking over, Colletti can aim a bit higher if he'd like to. With so many teams possibly interested in Ethier, the Dodgers have to strongly explore what trading him could yield in return.
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