Is Jacoby Ellsbury's Upside Enough to Override Huge Free-Agent Risks?

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Is Jacoby Ellsbury's Upside Enough to Override Huge Free-Agent Risks?
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Jacoby Ellsbury will be one of the most sought-after free agents this offseason, but teams should be wary of overpaying him.

What a way for Jacoby Ellsbury to go out. If he is, in fact, going out, that is.

The longtime Boston Red Sox center fielder and leadoff hitter was a key part of the team's 2013 World Series-winning season, the second championship in Ellsbury's seven years with the club. So if Ellsbury, who is one of the elite names on the free-agent market this winter, does wind up leaving Beantown, at least he'll be going out on top.

From Ellsbury's perspective, his walk year went about as well as he possibly could have hoped. The lefty swinger batted .298/.355/.426 with 96 runs, 48 extra-base hits and 52 stolen bases (against only four caught stealing), thus marking the third time he led the American League in steals and second time he topped the entire sport.

Ellsbury also stayed healthy enough to play 134 games, and even when he battled a bone bruise in his left hand, per Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, and missed a few weeks in September with a fractured right foot, he came back in time for the playoffs. Speaking of the postseason, Ellsbury stepped up his game another notch by hitting .344/.408/.438 with 14 runs and six more steals—both tops in October—over 16 games to help the Red Sox celebrate another title.

All of which is going to make him a very wealthy man this offseason.

To that end, perhaps the three easiest and quickest comparisons to what Ellsbury might have to look forward to are the contracts given to fellow leadoff hitting speedsters with multiple stolen base titles to their names in Carl Crawford ($142 million over seven years), Jose Reyes ($106 million over six years) and Michael Bourn ($48 million over four years). Crawford landed his monster deal in the winter of 2010, Reyes' came in the offseason after 2011 and Bourn inked his just last year.

Jason Miller/Getty Images
Boston didn't get what it paid for with Carl Crawford, whose career arch was similar to Ellsbury's at the time their respective free agencies.

While it's interesting that each of those three contracts was a step (or two) down from the previous one in terms of both total amount and number of years, it's likely that Ellsbury will break that trend. He's widely expected to approach or even surpass the nine-figure mark, thanks in part to agent Scott Boras and Ellsbury's allure as a dynamic performer.

But as good as he was in 2013 and has been in the past, Ellsbury is not without flaws and faults.

For one thing, he has never been a bastion of health. In the six seasons since his debut at the end of June in 2007, he's topped 130 games only four times and 140 just thrice. In addition to this year's foot and hand problems, Ellsbury suffered a multiple rib fractures in 2010 and then a right shoulder dislocation in 2012, limiting him to 18 and 74 games, respectively.

For another, speedsters, appropriately enough, decline rather rapidly after reaching 30 years old. In related news: Ellsbury turned 30 this past September. Of course, he isn't purely a steals-only type; he does have the ability to sting the ball more than Bourn and similarly to what Crawford and Reyes showed prior to their big-money pacts.

Yet even Crawford and Reyes never had a campaign quite like Ellsbury's incredible 2011. During that year, he hit .321, stole 39 bases and smacked 83 extra-base hits, including 32 homers, and finished second in American League MVP voting to Justin Verlander.

It's that season and that potential of such upside that, in many ways, is like the sirens from Greek mythology, calling out to suitors, disarming them with melodic enchantment and seducing them with a reminder of what once was—and could be again.

But like succumbing to those sirens, buying into that particular Ellsbury would be a mistake. While agent Scott Boras will be sure to recall those halcyon days of '11 in an attempt to get the biggest, fattest contract for his client, it's up to the teams eyeing Ellsbury to know better.

Yes, Ellsbury's 2011 was both real and spectacular, but it's pretty clear now—two years later—that his surprising and unexpected boost in power production was an outlier. Consider some numbers from that season:

  • His 32 homers is more than three times more than his second-best total of nine (in 2013 and 2008)
  • He hit more homers than any other season's doubles total (closest is this year's 31 two-baggers)
  • His .552 SLG is more than 120 points higher than any other season's mark
  • His .230 ISO is more than 100 points higher than any other season's mark
  • His 16.7 percent HR/FB ratio is almost exactly twice as high as his career mark
  • Without 2011, his career OPS+ (league- and park-adjusted OPS) would be under 100 (below average)

By the way, all of what Ellsbury did in 2011 happened in what was not only his healthiest year (he played a career-high 158 games), but also his age-27 season, which is typically considered the start of a player's peak. Undoubtedly, then, as he enters the second half of his career, Ellsbury will never be that great again.

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Still, will some team find Ellsbury so tempting, so enticing that he lands a $100 million-plus contract on the strength of his elite speed and baserunning, strong defense, leadoff skills and championship pedigree? Probably.

And yet, although we can't exactly take Ellsbury's 2011 away from him, it doesn't mean he should be rewarded with a contract that (over)pays him in the future for an outstanding—and outlier—season that happened two years ago. 

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