MLB Teams Most Likely to Give Jacoby Ellsbury a Big Payday in Free Agency
The biggest obstacle to Jacoby Ellsbury signing an extension that would keep him in Boston long-term might not even be agent Scott Boras’ influence and the likelihood that he’d advise his client to test free agency. Even if Ellsbury and his camp were open to an extension, who exactly would the Red Sox be signing?
The fact is that the 29 year-old Ellsbury is an enigma. He was second in AL MVP voting after a huge season in 2011 (.321 BA, 32 HR, 105 RBI, 119 R, 46 2B, 39 SB). Are they setting a price based on that performance? I’m almost certain that’s what Boras would ask for.
What about Ellsbury's injury-plagued seasons of 2010 and 2012, when he played just 92 games and hit .238 with four homers? The Red Sox don’t want to sign that guy to an extension.
He was a good player in his first two full big league seasons (.729 OPS in 2008, .770 OPS in 2009), but not a superstar-caliber player. Maybe the fair thing would be to pay him as if he’ll be that guy for the next five years.
The point is that it’s hard to see both sides coming to an agreement on how much Ellsbury is worth anytime soon. He’ll likely listen to his agent, play out the season and hope that a bidding war will drive up his price next offseason.
Here are the five teams I think will have the most interest in Ellsbury next offseason.
Boston Red Sox
Just because the Red Sox aren’t likely to sign him to an extension during the season doesn’t mean they can’t negotiate after the season when Ellsbury's value is clearer.
The Sox were one of the busier teams of the offseason, signing several veteran free agents and trading for closer Joel Hanrahan. Not one of the new acquisitions, however, is signed beyond 2015, and they already had plenty of payroll space freed up by the blockbuster deal with the Dodgers that took the contracts of Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez off the books. They can afford him, even if he has another huge season.
Jackie Bradley Jr. (pictured) appears to be a more-than-capable replacement in center field, but without a clear-cut option in left field, there’s room for both. The question is whether Ellsbury will be enough of a priority to outbid several other interested teams.
- CF Jacoby Ellsbury
- SS Starlin Castro
- 1B Anthony Rizzo
- LF Alfonso Soriano
- RF David DeJesus
- C Welington Castillo
- 3B Ian Stewart/Junior Lake/Josh Vitters/Luis Valbuena
- 2B Darwin Barney
Even if the Cubs opted to pick up David DeJesus’ $6.5 million club option for 2014, he could slide back over to right field and the center field job would be wide open for Ellsbury.
Like the Red Sox, the Cubs had a busy offseason without handcuffing themselves with a bunch of long-term deals. They’ll have enough money next offseason to sign Ellsbury and probably add much more to the roster in year three of the Theo Epstein era.
Prospect Brett Jackson (pictured), an impressive athlete with power and speed, should get one last chance later this summer to prove he can be the team’s center fielder of the future. He failed badly in his first attempt in 2012 (.175 BA, 59 strikeouts in 142 plate appearances) and is a long shot to keep the Cubs from finding a center-field upgrade next offseason.
Here’s a sneak peek at a possible Cubs lineup with Ellsbury at the top:
New York Mets
- CF Jacoby Ellsbury
- 2B Daniel Murphy
- 3B David Wright
- 1B Ike Davis
- C Travis d’Arnaud (pictured)
- RF TBD
- LF Lucas Duda
- SS Ruben Tejada
The Mets need outfield help, maybe even three of them. There’s no question that will be their top priority heading into next offseason. They should have some payroll flexibility for the first time in a few years next season.
If they want to address center field by signing a big name, it will likely be either Ellsbury or Curtis Granderson, two players very familiar with playing in New York.
Even in a tough NL East, things are starting to look up for the Mets, so it probably won’t be tough to sell Ellsbury as long they can pay him the most money.
A young and potentially very good starting rotation, led by Matt Harvey and Jon Niese, will also include top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler. A Mets lineup with Ellbsury could look something like this…
- CF Jacoby Ellsbury
- RF Michael Saunders
- 3B Kyle Seager
- DH Jesus Montero
- 1B Justin Smoak
- C Mike Zunino
- 2B Dustin Ackley
- LF Eric Thames
- SS Nick Franklin
Offseason acquisitions Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse can both become free agents after the season. Starting center fielder Franklin Gutierrez (pictured) can become a free agent if the M’s choose not to exercise his $7.5 million club option for 2014.
That leaves plenty of holes in the starting lineup and payroll space to go out and make a splash in free agency. Targeting Ellsbury, who is from the Pacific Northwest (Oregon) and starred at Oregon State University, makes a lot of sense as the M’s try to fill a hole in center field and the leadoff spot.
They’ve already spent a lot of money, $175 million on “King” Felix Hernandez, to solidify the top of their rotation for years to come. They’ll likely be willing to spend in the six figures to sign someone who could be the face of the lineup for the next several years.
Center field won’t be the only spot they’ll need to fill next offseason, but here’s a glance at what the lineup would look like with Ellsbury.
- 2B Jurickson Profar
- SS Elvis Andrus
- CF Jacoby Ellsbury
- 3B Adrian Beltre
- 1B Ian Kinsler
- DH Mitch Moreland
- RF Mike Olt
- C Robinson Chirinos
- LF Leonys Martin
Leonys Martin, a high-profile signing out of Cuba in 2011, is getting his chance to be the man in center field for the Rangers. So far, he’s just 3-for-17 without an extra-base hit or stolen base.
It’s still way too early, so the 25-year-old Martin should have plenty of time to rebound and make an impact in the majors this season. The Rangers, however, also have two free-agent-to-be outfielders, Nelson Cruz and David Murphy, so a breakout season from Martin doesn’t necessarily mean that Ellsbury is off the table next offseason.
The good news for the Rangers, if they were to pursue Ellsbury, is that they likely won't be competing against the Dodgers or Angels, both of whom outbid them this past offseason for top free agents (Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton). Neither team appears to need help in center field.
If they decide to go big again next offseason after a very uneventful one in 2012-13, expect Ellsbury to be a target. A Texas lineup with Ellsbury in the top third could look something like this…