From Wade Boggs to Luis Tiant to Johnny Damon, there has been no shortage of talented Red Sox players who have left Boston to join the "Evil Empire." Jacoby Ellsbury became the latest Red Sox star to follow this trend this offseason, signing a seven-year, $153 million contract with the Yankees to play center field and lead off for the foreseeable future.
It’s the type of massive contract the Red Sox have sworn off of in the aftermath of the "Nick Punto deal," and it's the type of deal the Yankees needed to make given the dearth of talent in their farm system. Ellsbury was slated to face the Red Sox for the first time since his defection Tuesday, but then we learned the following:
Reports out of Tampa indicate that Ellsbury (calf muscle) won't play vs. Sox Tuesday night. Unlikely to make trip to Fort Myers Thursday.— Sean McAdam (@Sean_McAdam) March 17, 2014
It's news that, while ultimately meaningless, underscores the risk involved in signing a player with a checkered medical history. In a vacuum, the Red Sox are worse off for losing Ellsbury, and the Yankees are a better team for adding him. But once you factor in the cost of Ellsbury compared to his replacements, Boston's decision to let Ellsbury walk becomes far less cut and dry in favor of New York.
With that in mind, let’s look at the three areas of the game in which Ellsbury had the biggest impact and assess how the Red Sox can move forward without their former center fielder.
Ellsbury has served as the Red Sox's primary leadoff hitter for the vast majority of the past six seasons, using plus speed, solid contact rates and a decent OBP to serve as a catalyst for what’s been one of the better offensive forces in baseball during that time. The Red Sox don't have another player who can come in and do exactly what Ellsbury did, but that doesn't mean they lack some appealing options at the top of the lineup nonetheless.
Shane Victorino would be the most logical choice from a profile perspective, as he doesn't strike out much and has plus speed. Daniel Nava has the sort of impressive OBP that would appeal to sabermetric-types despite his lack of speed. Possible direct Ellsbury replacement Grady Sizemore is an option as a hitter who's shown good speed and contact ability in the past. And even Xander Bogaerts' name has been bandied about as a possible leadoff hitter, though he also lacks speed and might put up a lower OBP than Nava in 2014, too. Jackie Bradley Jr., Boston's other possible Ellsbury replacement, isn't ready to lead off yet, though he could one day in his prime.
Ultimately, the Red Sox would probably be best off with a platoon of Sizemore first and Nava second against right-handers and Victorino first and Bogaerts second against lefties. This would keep last year's middle of the order of Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Mike Napoli intact and bolster the back end of the lineup as well.
Ellsbury stole 52 bases in 2013, finishing first overall in raw number of steals and second overall in stolen base efficiency with a success rate of 92.86%. According to FanGraphs, he added 11.4 base running runs above average, and he's been an outstanding baserunner and base stealer throughout his career. While Ellsbury is entering his age-30 season, there's no reason to think he'll slow down quite yet, and he could have another few seasons of 40-plus and many seasons of 20-plus steals on the horizon.
Simply put, the Red Sox cannot replace his speed. Victorino is the team's best base stealer now, as he went 21-for-24 in attempts last season. Pedroia is also capable of nabbing 15 to 20 bases per year, but when it comes to speed on the current roster, that's about it. Sizemore was a true five-tool talent capable of swiping 30-plus bases a year once upon a time, but he wasn't terribly efficient in his prime and one would guess that the Red Sox would want him to be conservative on the bases now. Bradley has the center field profile that's often associated with speed, but in reality he's just an average runner, and it's tough to see him swiping more than 10-15 bags a year.
This is the area in which the Red Sox are perhaps best equipped to replace Ellsbury. Sizemore is a bit of a wild card when it comes to center field defense. He both passed the eye test and was usually rated favorably by defensive metrics early in his career, but, at 31 years of age, there's no real way for the Sox to know what kind of defender Sizemore will be moving forward. He's appeared fine in center so far this spring, and the Red Sox do have the luxury of employing perhaps the best defensive right fielder in baseball in Shane Victorino. But it's not hard to envision Sizemore as a downgrade from Ellsbury, who's been criticized for his adventurous routes to the ball but still had enough speed to earn 27 defensive runs saved since 2011, according to FanGraphs.
With Bradley, however, the Red Sox wouldn't skip a beat defensively in center field. Graded as a 6+ defender on the 2-8 scale by Baseball Prospectus this offseason, Bradley has long been lauded for his exceptional ability in center. While he's significantly slower than Ellsbury, Bradley is a more instinctual player, getting great reads on the ball and providing enough in the way of speed to have plus range. Bradley's arm is also significantly better than Ellsbury's, making him a more complete and possibly better defender in the outfield than Ellsbury.
In the end, the Red Sox are going to be unable to make up for the loss of Ellsbury's speed. He's one of the most dynamic and efficient base stealers in the game and should continue to be so for the next two-to-four seasons, and there simply aren't many major leaguers with that skill set. However, Boston is well positioned to replace most of Ellsbury's offensive value and all of his defensive value, and given the massive savings they'll gain by relying on Bradley and Sizemore, it's a trade-off that's more than acceptable if the remaining salary is allocated properly.
It will be tough for Sox fans to watch Ellsbury in a Yankees uniform, and Boston will miss Ellsbury for the next several seasons. But this is a loss from which the Red Sox can recover, and on a pure dollars-per-value basis, the decision to let Ellsbury walk could actually be a good one.