2014 Free Agent Preview: Jacoby Ellsbury

USA TODAY Sports

Jacoby Ellsbury offers teams tremendous upside but he is also a very risky investment. There is a big market for his services but it is hard to access just how much that risk will impact the bidding.

Jacoby Ellsbury is one of the most intriguing players on the free agent market but he is also possibly the most difficult free agent to accurately value going forward. He is represented by Scott Boras and he shunned extension talks during his arbitration season as Boras’s clients typically do. His talent is still obvious and he has incredible upside, but injuries and inconsistency make him a significant risk. How teams evaluate that risk with have a major impact on his earnings.

Ellsbury exploded onto the major league scene in 2007 with an eye-catching .353/.394/.509 line down the stretch for the World Champion Red Sox. He followed that up with two strong seasons in 2008 and 2009 transitioning from left field to his natural position in center in his second full season.

That transition to center was not particularly smooth despite his obvious talent for the position, however. As a result, the Red Sox even acquired Mike Cameron during the 2010 off-season to play center to keep Ellsbury in left. As it turned out, Ellsbury would see little time at either position, missing almost all of that season after a collision with third baseman Adrian Beltre.

Ellsbury rebounded with a monstrous 2011 season, hitting .321/.376/.552 and flashing previously unforeseen home run power with 32 dingers to go with his 39 stolen bases and 46 doubles. He finished second in the 2011 AL MVP vote and appeared destined for a enormous payday when this off-season finally arrived.

Then he met Reid Brignac. In April 2012, Ellsbury collided with the Ray’s shortstop at second and Brignac landed on him, dislocating his shoulder. Ellsbury missed more than half the season and returned to hit a dismal .271/.313/.370 in 323 plate appearances. He began the 2013 season off slowly, but caught fire in June and he is currently hitting .299/.355/.424 and once again leading majors with 52 stolen bases. Unfortunately, he has not shown any of the over-the-fence power he flashed in 2011, hitting just eight home runs in 624 plate appearances. Worse yet, he is once again out of the lineup, this time with a fracture in his foot.

Given his strong season in 2013, Ellsbury should be able to command a substantial multi-year deal. However, his injury history is a real concern. None of the injuries he has suffered are likely to recur or cause long term problems, but it is impossible to overlook the fact that he has not been on the field for almost one and half of the last three seasons. Different teams will weigh that risk differently, but it is going to be a factor in every negotiation.

The same is true of his power potential and that may be an even bigger factor. Teams were extremely reluctant to pay Michael Bourn (another Boras client) for his mix of strong defense, elite base running and good on-base skills last off-season. Ellsbury is a better contact hitter than Bourn and even ignoring his 2011 season, he has had slightly more power, but if teams were wary of how Bourn might age, they are likely to have some of the same concerns about Ellsbury.

On the other hand, most players typically add more power in their thirties and the 29-year-old Ellsbury has already shown that his line drive swing can generate enough pop to put the ball in the bleachers. Scott Boras recently made the comparison to another former client of his- former Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon. Damon averaged about 10 home runs per season in his first 6 full seasons and then averaged just under 17 in his next eight with Boston and New York. Teams aren’t likely to overlook the park factors involved in Damon’s case and buy that comp wholesale, but it isn’t such an outlandish comparison. A healthy Ellsbury may well produce better than Damon did during that period and that kind of value is hard find on the market this off-season.

175753301Bob Levey

Top Suitors

Red Sox

The Red Sox been hedging against Ellsbury’s departure since last off-season when they acquired Shane Victorino for three years/$36 million and their refusal to trade away top center field prospect Jackie Bradley Jr. at the deadline only cements their hard line in negotiating with Ellsbury and Boras. Still, there is no reason to believe the Red Sox don’t want Ellsbury back. Bradley still has work to do to become a solid big leaguer and the combination of Ellsbury and Victorino at the top of the line up and in the outfield has been a force for Boston in 2013.

The issue for Boston is cost. After their mistakes with Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez, GM Ben Cherington and his team are gun-shy about long term deals and the potential for overreaching on their budget. If Boras can find another club that is willing to pay top dollar for Ellsbury, the Red Sox are ready to let him walk. Not many teams can simply outbid the Red Sox, however, and if they do, there is very good chance they will be overpaying.

Mariners

The Mariners have already been connected to Ellsbury by a report from Ken Rosenthal which described them as "well-positioned." The Mariners are indeed well-positioned in a few ways actually. They have money, with under $40 million committed to next year’s payroll before a very small list of arbitration decisions. That leaves them with more than $40 million available if they merely maintained their 2013 payroll and given their market size, they can likely spend at least $20-$30 million more than that without hurting their bottom line. They also have a talented young, cost-controlled core of players that has begun to show some signs that would justify a "win-now" attitude from the front office. Add to that GM Jack Zduriencik entering the final season of his current contract and a winter spending spree looks almost inevitable.

If that spree happens, Ellsbury is a good starting point. The Mariners rank 28th in center fielder fWAR this season. Incumbent Franklin Gutierrez has missed most of the season with injury and he will be a free agent if the Mariners don’t exercise his $7.5 million option. Youngsters like Dustin Ackley, Abraham Almonte and Michael Saunders have all seen time there and none of them done enough to earn a place in the position full time. While the farm system is poised to pay off well in the infield and on the mound, there isn’t much in the pipeline to help the outfield in any major way. Inking Ellsbury would be a message signing to fans, to other free agents and perhaps most importantly, to those young Seattle players.

Rangers

The Rangers have some solid options in center field. Both Leonys Martin and Craig Gentry are excellent defenders. Gentry’s extreme lack of power hurts his chances at ever really being a full-time player but the 25-year-old Martin is still developing and has looked like a quality regular at times this season. If the Rangers were still sitting comfortably atop the AL West, they could probably live with those two for some time. Unfortunately, they are currently looking up at the Athletics and several other teams are gearing up to pass them as well.

The Rangers have lost too much on the offensive side to keep pace with Oakland. Adding Ellsbury would be a big step in rebuilding that offense. He is an upgrade in center and if he were to shift back to left, which has been a black hole for the Rangers this year, he would also greatly improve their outfield defense. Arlington is also an excellent fit for him, boosting LH home runs by 20% over the spacious right field of Fenway. The Rangers aren’t quite as flush with cash as some of the other bidders, but given their market they can certainly go big if Ellsbury is their guy.

Giants

The Giants will have a great deal of payroll coming off their books and after a disappointing 2013 season, they may be looking to grab some headlines back from the playoff-bound Athletics across town and the hated Dodgers down south. The outfield wasn’t an issue for San Francisco this season, but with Hunter Pence potential leaving via free agency and Angel Pagan slowing down in center they have a possible opening.

Even if the Giants do re-sign Pence, Ellsbury could still be within their price range and his athleticism seems to fit in with GM Brian Sabean’s MO. Angel Pagan or Gregor Blanco could be offered up in trade to help the back of the rotation. With few can’t-miss pitchers on the market this off-season, pumping up the offense with free agent acquisitions and bartering for pitching might be a winning strategy by for the Giants. The park is just about as bad as it gets for lefties though and that could discourage Ellsbury and Boras.

20130813_ajl_ss9_114John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY

Potential Dark Horse Bidders

Mets

Much like the Mariners, the Mets have some young talent coming of age and money to spend but no one ready to help out a woeful outfield offense. I like them better for Shin-Soo Choo, since Juan Lagares’s glove makes him worth further examination as a full-time center fielder. However, New York got froze out on a much deeper outfield class last year and Lagares shouldn’t stop them from at least kicking the tires on Ellsbury. CitiField would an interesting fit for his skill a shift back to left may not be out of the question for him either. With Matt Harvey out for next year, it difficult to gauge how aggressive the Mets will be this off-season and issues with the Wilpon’s finances might keep them away from the highest priced players.

Cubs

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer were at the head of the team that drafted and developed Ellsbury and they know him better than anyone outside of the Boston front office. Add to that a big market hungry for success and a payroll that will come in under $30 million before arbitration raises and they look like strong contenders for the Red Sox star’s services.

The big questions are need and ability to land him. The Cubs aren’t ready to compete in 2014 at this point and that could make convincing Ellsbury to sign their difficult, especially if he is choosing between teams like Texas, Boston and San Francisco. Chicago also has some quality prospects in center in their system. 23-year-old Matt Szczur, who was ranked the 64th best prospect in baseball by Baseball America, hit a respectable .281/.350/.367 in Double-A this season. Epstein and Hoyer could use him and Brett Jackson to bridge the gap to 19-year-old Albert Almora, who was ranked 33rd by Baseball America before this season if they believe their window is still three or four years away. If they are looking to turn things around quick, however, they will need to spend and Ellsbury is a very good place for them to start.

Phillies

The Phillies brought in Ben Revere via trade before the 2013 and he was solid enough hitting .305/.338/.352 before losing the second half of this season to a broken foot. However, the Phillies core players are past their prime and a role player like Revere isn’t really enough vault them back into contention. They need impact players on offense and Ellsbury would substantially upgrade to an outfield that was 5% worse than league average at the plate and last in the National League in fWAR.

The Phillies are probably close to their max payroll however with almost $120 million committed to the team before arbitration raises. They need help behind the plate, in right field, in the bullpen and in the back of the rotation and signing one of most expensive players on the market will limit their options in those other areas.

What will he get paid?

Ellsbury is an extremely tough player to gauge. His upside is easily comparable to a player like Carl Crawford, who landed a seven-year/ $142 million deal with the Red Sox in 2011. Per this report from Jon Heyman, Scott Boras, was quick to try to make that something of a floor for Ellsbury’s deal. Sadly for Mr. Boras, the Crawford deal now looks like a major overpay and Ellsbury’s injury history is probably going make it hard for teams to justify that kind of expense.

Other executives are pointing to B.J. Upton’s five-year/$75 million deal according to Heyman and that maybe a more reasonable starting point. Thus far, Ellsbury hasn’t been healthy enough or consistent enough to give teams the kind of confidence it would take to match a deal like Crawford’s. He has been better than Upton when healthy, however and his skills are more projectable as well. I see him landing a deal around six years/ $110-115 million, possibly with vesting options or incentives that push the possible value past Jayson Werth’s seven year/$126M. However, the market for his services could swing wildly in either direction depending on just how many teams are bidding and how they view the risks around him.

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