Jacoby Ellsbury was the best part of the Red Sox' 2011 season. He was consistently excellent -- an MVP candidate who combined his known speed with some surprising power to be one of the most dynamic players in baseball.
And while that's all well and good, we have to wonder -- with his free agency just two years away and a very lucrative contract awaiting him, what's the best plan of attack with Jacoby Ellsbury? There are three options I can see:
1. Keep him over the next two years and do everything we can to re-sign him in the 2013 offseason.
2. Keep him over the next two years and let him walk.
3. Trade him now to get help for both the current and future Red Sox.
I'll look at each of these options, but it's the last one I'm most interested in. Let's get started after the jump.
1. Keep him and try to re-sign him
First thing's first: Ellsbury is a Scott Boras client. You can forget about a fourth option of offering him some sort of deal now that buys out his arbitration years as well as a free agent year or two. The Sox tried this back when he was hurt and/or struggling, and Boras wanted nothing to do with it.
Second, his price is going to be high. When Carl Crawford signed his 7-year, $142 million deal with the Red Sox, that was probably Boras' starting point. Matt Kemp has since signed an 8-year, $160 million deal with the Dodgers, so you'd have to assume that's where he'll start, given that they are similar players (i.e., a mix of power and speed, play CF, MVP candidates).
So if you're in this camp, you have to be all in on Jacoby. You have to believe he is a franchise player -- the complete package who will be durable, and whose power is not a one-year wonder. I am not in this camp, but it's reasonable to be.
2. Keep him for now and let him walk
I'd say this is the most likely option. I don't see the Red Sox signing yet another nine-figure deal to a player whose chief attribute is speed. Crawford's signing was perplexing enough, but to duplicate it would be pretty confusing.
Meanwhile, Ellsbury likely represents a significant value over the next two years. He'll make just over $8 million. FanGraphs had him worth 9.4 WAR last year, and projects a win to be worth $5 million for this year, meaning a repeat year would be worth $47 million by that calculation. (Baseball-Reference, which usually has more conservative WAR numbers, had him at 7.2.) Even if Ellsbury drops off and is still a very good 6-7 WAR player, he's giving you much more production than he's worth on the free agent market (at least based on these values).
So the Sox can collect that value -- and they're built to win now anyway, so there's no shame in that -- and hope that the draft picks they get for him when he leaves develop into good players. It's the safest move by far.
3. Explore the trade market
Here's the argument for trading him: His value couldn't be higher right now. He just finished off an MVP-caliber year. He's 28 and is under contract for two more years, so it's not a true rental. He's smack dab in the middle of his prime.
If this sounds familiar, it's very similar to Mark Teixeira's situation a few years ago. Texas shipped Teixeira and Ron Mahay off to Atlanta in a franchise-altering deal, getting back Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Neftali Feliz, Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison, and Beau Jones. Four of those guys have turned into legit big-leaguers, albeit Salty is now in Boston. The Rangers cashed in at the right time, though, and turned a year and a half of Tex into a dozen or more years of Feliz, Andrus, and Harrison, who are all important parts of a now perennial contender.
Might the Red Sox be able to pull a similar move? It's possible, although Ellsbury doesn't have Tex's pedigree. Teixeira was a first-round pick, with prototypical power and a Gold Glove at first base. He was a can't miss, and he didn't. He also had been amazingly productive over his four years in the bigs, while Ellsbury is much streakier. Jacoby wouldn't gather the same kind of bonanza that Tex did, but he might get close.
We all know these types of deals can backfire -- Rob Neyer pointed to a Baseball Prospectus article about the Mets' Johan Santana deal from a few years ago that was essentially a disaster for both sides. Sometimes trading players for prospects yields a bounty (think Bartolo Colon), and sometimes you get next to nothing (think the Pedro Martinez steal).
Still, we know the farm system isn't what it was after the Adrian Gonzalez trade, not to mention moving lesser parts like Josh Reddick and Jed Lowrie. We've talked about the lack of sustainability of the Sox organization in recent posts -- this could be a way to fix that issue. Assuming a deal would happen at the deadline, you could conceivably deal a year and a half of Ellsbury for many more years of productive players across several positions, like the Rangers did, and have resources left over to be spent however Cherington deems fit.
The last piece to mention with this line of thinking: the Red Sox are more than likely to be buyers at the deadline, and this is more of a seller move. It's awfully hard to deal one of your better players during a playoff push -- especially when you have an immature clubhouse and a crazed fan base (plus the pink hats, who of course love Jacoby) to think about. Also: If they even float the name out, they probably have to follow through on it. Can you imagine what a month of Ellsbury rumors would do to the team and the fans? It could be a major distraction.
All in all, trading him doesn't seem likely, and I don't even know if I think it's the right strategy. But it's a bold move -- and one Ben Cherington and the brain trust should at least consider when thinking about how to position the franchise over the next decade.