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Tyler Maher | Beantown Beat

Kiss Ellsbury goodbye

Published: Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, December 4, 2013 02:12

Jacoby Ellsbury, a key member of the Boston Red Sox’ 2013 World Series championship team, is a free agent. And an attractive one at that, drawing interest from multiple teams so far this offseason. He’s about to become very rich very soon. But Boston has shown little interest in re-signing its star leadoff hitter, making Ellsbury’s departure a near-certainty. 

It does seem strange that a team as rich as the Red Sox — who began last season with the fourth-highest payroll in baseball — is making so little effort to retain one of its best players. Ellsbury’s not only a two-time World Series champion, but also an All-Star, a Gold Glove winner and a former MVP runner-up. He’s an above average hitter, elite baserunner and plus defender in center field. According to FanGraphs, he was the most valuable player on the Red Sox this year, worth close to six wins above replacement level.

And yet, it would be in Boston’s best interest to let him walk. Ellsbury and his agent, Scott Boras, are reportedly seeking a deal in the neighborhood of seven years and $142 million. Red Sox fans know those figures well, for they are the terms Carl Crawford agreed to when he signed with Boston prior to the 2011 season. Crawford slumped and struggled with injuries from the start, and before long, his contract was regarded as one of the worst in baseball. Realizing their mistake, the Red Sox traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers during the second year of his deal, saving themselves a lot of money and headaches in the process.

Boston doesn’t want to make the same mistake again. 

Ellsbury’s track record isn’t nearly as impressive as Crawford’s was before he came to Boston, but they’re very similar players nevertheless. Like Crawford, Ellsbury’s greatest asset is his speed. Since the start of the 2008 season, Ellsbury ranks third in stolen bases despite missing nearly all of the 2010 season and more than half of 2012. He also covers a lot of ground in center field, making plays that less-athletic outfielders could only dream of making.

But he’s 30 — a tricky age for ballplayers — and injury prone, so his best days are probably behind him. Once his speed starts to diminish, Ellsbury won’t have much value because he can’t hit for power (his fluke 32 home run season in 2011 notwithstanding) and doesn’t get on base often enough to compensate. Suffice it to say that Ellsbury probably won’t be worth the money, especially if his recent injury woes persist.

Furthermore, as good as Ellsbury has been for the Red Sox, he’s not irreplaceable. Last year they had Shane Victorino, a natural center fielder, playing right field, so it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to move him back to center and sign somebody (Carlos Beltran?) to man right. Or they could try to work out a trade with the Dodgers for Matt Kemp, the 2011 NL MVP runner-up. If that doesn’t work out, they have Jackie Bradley, Jr., a speedy prospect comparable to Ellsbury, waiting in the wings. 

The point is that the Red Sox have options. Losing Ellsbury will hurt, but it won’t cripple the team. Depending on how Ben Cherington invests the money he’s going to save, it could actually help. Letting Ellsbury leave allows the Boston GM to re-sign Mike Napoli, find a new catcher and pursue other free agents such as Beltran. Cherington can upgrade the roster in several areas, putting the Sox in prime position to make another title run in 2014.

So, I say let Ellsbury go. Let him earn as much money as he possibly can. He’s earned it, and he deserves it, but he won’t be getting it from Boston. 

 

Tyler is a junior who is majoring in economics. He can be reached at Tyler.Maher@tufts.edu.

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