5 Reasons Why the Boston Red Sox Should Lock Up Jacoby Ellsbury Long Term
With the Boston Red Sox shifting their business model toward a low-cost rebuild, impending free agent, Jacoby Ellsbury, seems like an unnecessary expense. Despite his immense talent, his potentially astronomical price tag has turned off most fans and analysts to a contract extension.
Contrary to popular opinion, letting Ellsbury go would be a mistake. Here are five reasons to keep the speedster in Boston.
He's Still Young
For most of us, Ellsbury’s presence at the top of Boston’s batting order seems like a foregone conclusion. However, it wasn’t too long ago that Ellsbury was languishing in the minor leagues, awaiting a chance to showcase his copious talent in Boston.
Ellsbury joined the Red Sox near the end of the 2007 season, and even saw some playing time in Boston’s successful World Series run later that year, often being used as a pinch-runner.
Since then, his legs have not slowed down a bit, and his skills have done nothing but improve. He’ll be 29 during the 2013 season, right in the heart of his prime years.
It’s true that a long-term deal would take Ellsbury to his mid-30s, where he may begin to regress. However, Ellsbury is an elite athlete in every sense of the word. It is certainly not unprecedented for a player’s physical prowess to protect him from the rigors of aging, even while playing at a grueling position. Just look at Ichiro or Derek Jeter.
The Cost May Not Be as High as You'd Expect
In the spring of 2011, if you had told anyone remotely involved in baseball that Ellsbury would be a potential $100 million player, you would have been laughed at. What a difference a season makes.
In 2011, Ellsbury put up monster numbers, going 30-30 and posting a .321/.376/.552 slash line. Despite being shafted in the MVP vote, Ellsbury’s 2011 performance was truly a season for the ages. As a result, Ellsbury’s reputation around baseball went from “solid leadoff hitter” to “legitimate superstar.” Thus, with free agency around the corner, and with Scott Boras running the negotiations, everyone expected the young speedster to cash in on the open market
The model contract envisioned for Ellsbury at the time was Matt Kemp’s 8-year, $160 million deal. However, unlike Kemp, Ellsbury has several flaws that will drive his price tag much lower.
For example, his health is a major concern. He’s has only managed to top 600 plate appearances three times in his six-year career. When the injury bug strikes, Ellsbury is almost always a casualty.
An even more concerning issue is Ellsbury’s inconsistency. While no one questions his speed, on-base percentage or his defense, Ellsbury has only shown an ability to hit for power only once in his career. There is no way to know whether he will be able to mash anywhere near 32 round trippers again, especially if he moves to a more pitcher-friendly ballpark.
If a team hands him a $100 million-plus contract, only to find out that he doesn’t have any power, they will have vastly overpaid.
With that in mind, any team that comes to the negotiating table will begin with a framework of BJ Upton’s recent five-year, $75 million deal. Upton’s contract was not based on his performance in recent years, but rather on his potential to perform at a high level at some point in the future.
Ellsbury is in a similar situation. No one in baseball is at all sure whether Ellsbury can come close to his 2011 production ever again. The team that pays his next contract will pay him based on potential, not proven success. Thus, the price will be much lower than people think.
He's the Best Availabe Option
Let’s say for example Ellsbury leaves. Who takes his place? The gap in center is easily filled with the internal option of either right fielder Shane Victorino or prospect Jackie Bradley Jr., but both will be downgrades compared to Ellsbury.
Although his speed and defense are certainly plus, Victorino lacks Ellsbury’s power potential and consistent on-base skills. Victorino is also two years older, suggesting that his legs will slow down much sooner. Ellsbury would be a much more desirable option in center field.
Ellsbury’s talent is also superior to that of Bradley. Don’t misunderstand me, I am a huge fan of Bradley. In fact, I love his defensive tools so much that I think he will be better in the field than both Ellsbury and Victorino.
Defensive issues aside, however, Ellsbury does have a leg up in two key categories: speed and power. While both players should get on base at an excellent clip, Bradley’s speed is only above average, while Ellsbury is often considered one of the fastest players in baseball. Bradley also has no power to speak of, whereas Ellsbury’s power potential, although uncertain, is vastly superior to Bradley’s.
If Ellsbury were to leave, there would be a very capable internal replacement in Boston. However, neither player who could take Ellsbury’s place can produce at the same level.
Ellsbury’s greatest gift as an athlete is his blazing speed.
His ability to get on base and wreak havoc on the basepaths not only expediates his movement around the diamond, but it also distracts opposing pitchers to such a degree that they tend to make fatal mistakes whenever Ellsbury is on first.
One of the most overlooked culprits of Boston’s disastrous 2012 season was a lack of speed in the lineup. Boston’s two speedsters of a year ago, Ellsbury and Carl Crawford, both missed significant time, leaving platoon players like Scott Podsednik to try to pick up the slack.
So what does this have to do with John Farrell?
Among other things, Farrell is well known for his very aggressive running game. Ellsbury has already led the league in swiped bags twice in his short career. With John Farrell sending the steal signs from the dugout, we could see Ellsbury earn a repeat victory in that category.
He Does It All
Never underestimate the value of a five-tool player.
When Mike Trout had his epic breakout season this past year, the baseball world exploded when he became the first rookie ever to reach 10.0 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) and the first player of any age to do it since Barry Bonds.
What made him so great? Simple, there was nothing he couldn't do.
In his first 139 games in the big leagues, Trout nearly won a batting title, mashed 30 bombs, stole nearly 50 bases and his defense...well I'd say this pretty much sums it up.
That's how he did it. That's how Trout posted the highest WAR in nearly a decade. By performing at an elite level in nearly every aspect of the game, Trout provided vastly more value than anyone else in baseball.
What does it have to do with Ellsbury? Well, remember that monster season he had in 2011? Turns out, Ellbsury led the league in WAR that season at 9.4. That’s right, Ellsbury was just a minuscule .6 wins above replacement away from tying Trout and Bonds. In fact, Ellsbury’s 9.4 WAR was the highest mark in baseball since Alex Rodriguez’s 2007 season where he managed a 9.7 WAR.
Yes, believe it or not, Ellsbury’s 2011 season is comparable to the performances of juicing superstars like Bonds and Rodriguez. His production that year places him on a whole new level as a baseball player. And the best part, he could do it again. It may not be a foregone conclusion, but the talent is there for Ellsbury to have a near repeat season.
If the Red Sox can manage to extend Ellsbury to a contract under $100 million, as I suggested in the second slide, they should jump at the opportunity to retain their superstar center fielder.
All statistical information obtained from Fangraphs.com unless otherwise specified.