It's long been assumed that current New York Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano is going to be paid more handsomely than any other free agent this winter. He hasn't done anything to change that expectation in 2013, as he's once again been one of the league's most productive players.
But after all that's transpired this season, it turns out there's another position player in line for a nice multiyear deal of his own: current Boston Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury.
You'll recall that Ellsbury was a wild card on the roster of free-agents-to-be at the outset of 2013, when the memory of his injury-shortened 2012 season was still fresh. But his walk year has been outstanding enough for us to ask the question.
Better long-term investment: Cano or Ellsbury?
Without giving too much away, here's where we start making our way towards two answers. One of these guys is going to be deemed a safer bet for a long-term deal, and thus more deserving of such a deal. The other, however, is going to be deemed a bet with a higher potential payout.
Put Cano and Ellsbury side-by-side, and the major edge Cano has is his track record. He's a five-time All-Star who has finished in the top six in the American League MVP voting three years in a row, and will probably do so again this year. And per Baseball-Reference.com, Cano's 125 career OPS+ is an all-timer for second basemen through the age of 30.
But the reason we can even so much as tip-toe into this discussion is this: Ellsbury has proven all over again in 2013 that when he's right, he can be pretty awesome too.
By FanGraphs WAR, Ellsbury was the best player in baseball in 2011, a year in which he hit .321 with 32 homers and 39 steals while providing excellent defense in center field. The power he showed off that season hasn't returned in 2013, but Ellsbury has still done enough to place himself among the league's most productive players.
Check out FanGraphs' WAR rankings for the American League now, and you'll see Ellsbury in eighth place with a WAR of 5.8. Just ahead of him is Cano with a WAR of 6.0. When it comes to value, the two are neck and neck.
Ellsbury can't match Cano's hitting prowess, as Cano has comfortable edges in on-base percentage and power production. But Ellsbury has the legs to make up for those edges, as he's stolen 52 bases and has generated more value on the basepaths than any other AL player. He's also shown off more range than any other AL center fielder.
If free agency only judged players according to the most recent season, Ellsbury would be in line for just as much money as Cano this winter. If it considered the last three seasons, it would still be pretty close:
Of course, Ellsbury won't be in line for a contract as big as Cano's if the reports are to be believed. Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com has reported that Cano is looking for as much as $275 million. As for Ellsbury, Heyman has indicated that the speedster's free-agent contract will fall somewhere in the $100 million range. He could end up signing for $100-150 million less than Cano.
Considering that Ellsbury is just as good as Cano when he's right, he comes off as the better buy on the surface. And we haven't even mentioned the fact that he's a year younger than Cano, as Ellsbury just turned 30 and Cano will turn 31 next month.
That's significant. J.C. Bradbury concluded in a study for Baseball Prospectus several years back that modern ballplayers peak at the age of 30. Cano is just exiting his age-30 season, while Ellsbury's will take place next year.
But now comes the point when we have to stop considering what these players are and start considering what they might be later. These are long-term deals we're talking about, so prospective buyers will be thinking about what Ellsbury and/or Cano can do in, say, a five-, six-, seven- or even eight-year window rather than what they can do in a two- or three-year window.
That's a matter of determining how well their special skills are likely to age. In Cano's case, that means his power. In Ellsbury's case, that means his speed.
Some of you might already know where this is going.
Ellsbury's free-agency prospects call to mind two recent free agents: Carl Crawford and Michael Bourn. Both players went into the open market with their speed as their primary selling points, and were ultimately well paid. Crawford got $142 million from the Red Sox, and Bourn got $48 million and a vesting option for $12 million from the Cleveland Indians.
Crawford has stolen fewer bases (38) in three years than he did in his final season in Tampa Bay (47). After swiping at least 40 bases each year between 2008 and 2012, Bourn won't even make it to 30 in his first season with the Indians.
Alas, Crawford and Bourn aren't the only ones who can vouch that speed doesn't age well.
Per Baseball-Reference.com, Ellsbury is one of over 40 Integration Era (since 1947) players to rack up at least 240 steals through the age of 29. Exclude active guys like Crawford, Bourn, Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez and B.J. Upton, and you're left with a solid sample of 40 players with which to study the effect aging has on the ability to steal bases.
And it's not pretty. Of the players we're looking at, only 10 went on to steal as many as 200 more bases after the age of 30. Close to half of them didn't even make it as far as an additional 100 stolen bases.
It gets more distressing after the age of 32. Of our players, only eight stole as many as 100 bases from age-33 on.
We'll get to why Ellsbury could be one of the lucky ones later, but for now the data suggests pretty clearly that elite speedsters are more likely to lose their speed in their 30s than they are to keep it, especially once they get to their mid-30s. There's a legit chance that Ellsbury has already done the bulk of his career base-stealing.
Now, how about Cano's power?
Cano already ranks among the best power-hitting second basemen in history through the age of 30, as a Baseball-Reference.com search revealed his .196 ISO (Isolated Power) to be fifth best among Integration Era second basemen with at least 3,000 plate appearances through the age of 30.
The question: Did fellow second basemen around Cano on that list gain or lose power with age?
Take the top 40 players on that list and cut away the active guys who aren't far enough past the age of 30, and you're left with only 27 players to look at. Only 23 of those racked up at least 1,000 plate appearances between the ages of 31 and 33.
I've highlighted the guys who lost a notable amount of power in that span:
Out of 23 second baseman, only eight lost a notable amount of power between the ages of 31 and 33. Things are already looking better for Cano than they were for Ellsbury.
If we look at the next three-year grouping, we lose a few subjects because of how few of our original 23 went on to log 1,000 plate appearances between the ages of 34 and 36. That's not ideal, as it signifies that we're talking about an age range in which second basemen have either stopped playing every day or have stopped playing altogether.
But if we look at the 10 survivors who are there to study and focus on how their 34-36 power relates to their pre-30 power:
Between the ages of 34 and 36, seven of the 10 survivors were still hitting for more power than they had been earlier in their careers. If I'm a prospective buyer of Cano's, I'm encouraged by that. If he survives as an everyday player into his late-30s, his power could very well survive too.
I'm also encouraged that six of the seven guys who saw their power last—Jeff Kent, Bret Boone, Ray Durham, Bobby Grich, Craig Biggio and Lou Whitaker—were able to stick around at second base. Alfonso Soriano didn't, but hey, if a position switch worked for him, it could work for Cano too.
This is what makes Cano a (surprisingly) safe bet for a $200-plus million contract. His track record demands a contract as big as that, and the fact that there have been second basemen who have survived as quality power hitters deep into their 30s suggests he might be able to live up to such a contract.
The catch, obviously, is that living up to such a contract is the best Cano will probably be able to do. The notion of him outperforming a contract as huge as, say, $250 million or $275 million is ridiculous. He'd have to be better than he is now, and that's simply asking too much of him.
But Ellsbury potentially outperforming a $100-plus million contract? That's not so ridiculous.
Presumably, you've already noticed that I've neglected to dive into Ellsbury's injury history, which is indeed a significant one. Baseball Prospectus' records specify that Ellsbury lost 143 games in 2010 due to rib injuries. He lost 79 games to a shoulder injury last year. He's been out since September 5 this year with a compound fracture in his foot.
Frankly, Ellsbury's injury history does worry me. It's going to worry prospective employers too, and it will help keep his price tag low this winter. Whereas Cano might get an eight- or 10-year deal, I can't imagine anybody going over five or six for Ellsbury out of fear of his injury history.
But that doesn't mean there's no silver lining in Ellsbury's injury history.
Leave it to Scott Boras, Ellsbury's agent, to point out the truth of his client's injury history. He told Heyman: “The only [significant] injuries he's had are collision injuries. They were due to exterior forces.”
And this is true. Ellsbury was originally hurt in 2010 because Adrian Beltre barreled into him in an outfield collision. He was hurt last year because Reid Brignac fell on him on a play at second base. He hurt his foot this year because he fouled a ball off it.
So "injury-prone" isn't the right label for Ellsbury. He's more "accident-prone." It's not like his legs are already starting to break down. If anything, his injuries have served to preserve his legs.
To date, Ellsbury has only played in 712 major league games. Bourn, another notable fellow speedster, had played in 871 games through his age-29 season. Crawford, the other fellow notable speedster, had played in over 1,300 games by the end of his age-29 season. Relative to them, Ellsbury is fresh.
That's also true relative to virtually all of the other Integration Era players who have racked up at least 240 steals through the age of 29. The only players to do so in fewer games than Ellsbury were Kenny Lofton and Alan Wiggins.
Lofton is an encouraging comp for Ellsbury. He lost some speed in his 30s, but he was able to play until the age of 40 while racking up close to 300 additional stolen bases and sticking around in center field. Even at the age of 40, he was still a productive leadoff man and a decent defensive center fielder.
Also worth mentioning are Otis Nixon, Davey Lopes, Maury Wills, Eric Young and Dave Roberts. All were well-preserved in their 20s and went on to be productive speedsters in their 30s. Speed may not age well, but there is something to the notion that it ages better if it isn't abused early on.
This is what should intrigue prospective buyers of Ellsbury's. The fact that speed doesn't tend to age well means that handing him a $100-plus million contract could indeed result in money going down the drain. But if he's able to avoid further accidents and his legs prove to have been preserved, he might be able to be the player he is now deep into his 30s.
And that, of course, would result in him more than living up to his contract.
More deserving of a long-term deal? That's Cano. He has his noteworthy track record, and it's also a fair bet that he'll be able to hold onto his power as he advances deeper into his 30s.
But a potentially more rewarding long-term deal? That's Ellsbury. He may only get $100 or so million over five or six years, but in that time frame he could be worth Cano money.
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