There are two dates in baseball I look forward to. The first is the day the Red Sox win the World Series. The second is the day the Yankees are eliminated. That makes last Tuesday especially notable as it was the day the Yankees limped through their elimination game with the Astros, eventually succumbing 3-0, though it never felt as if the result was in doubt. One of the more surprising aspects to what was a pretty unsurprising game was the Yankees lineup, in that it did not include $153 million center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury. Ellsbury instead sat on the bench as the Astros starter, Dallas Keuchel, was and presumably still is left handed. Ellsbury did eventually get a pinch-hitting appearance (he popped up weakly to shortstop, if memory serves) but the fact that he wasn’t starting was quite an indictment of his season, as well as a statement on his place with the Yankees.
So much so, in fact, that there has been some speculation the team could look to move him. It’s not been speculated by anyone like Ken Rosenthal saying “the Yankees are looking to move Ellsbury.” That has NOT happened. But there have been whispers. And with Ellsbury in New York for another five seasons at $111 million in total, you can probably see why. So here’s what I think: the Red Sox should trade for him!
Okay, it’s never going to happen. I’m going to acknowledge that off the bat (<- baseball pun!). The Red Sox did deal Stephen Drew to New York a season ago, but prior to that they hadn’t made a trade with the Yankees in decades. Ignore the standings and understand that these two organizations are the deepest of rivals. They’re not in the habit of making each other better. Of course, the idea isn’t to trade for Ellsbury to help the Yankees, it’s to trade for Ellsbury because his value is at a low point, making him cheap to acquire and worthy of doing so because he’s still quite good. So let’s make that case first.
The idea is to trade for Ellsbury because his value is at a low point, making him cheap to acquire and worthy of doing so because he’s still quite good.
For years before Ellsbury was a free agent it was seemingly a foregone conclusion that he would sign elsewhere. Scott Boras was his agent and he had steadfastly refused to sign the kind of extension that teammates like Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz, and Jon Lester had to keep them in Boston past six or seven seasons. Like Jonathan Papelbon, Ellsbury wanted to see what was out there for him on the market. But when he became a free agent the Red Sox didn’t just let him walk like they did with Papelbon: the Red Sox reportedly offered Ellsbury around $120 million to stay in Boston! There’s a huge difference between $153 million and $120 million so in that sense it wasn’t a competitive offer, but $120 million isn’t chump change by any means. In fact, had Ellsbury signed that deal to stay in Boston, he would now be the Red Sox’s highest paid player. The point is the Red Sox valued him very highly, just not as highly as the Yankees.
Last season, his first in New York, Ellsbury hit .271/.328/.419. That looks rather pedestrian, but with his defense and base running, combined with the league’s overall level of anemic offense, the whole package came out to four wins via FanGraphs WAR. Baseball Reference put it a tad lower, at 3.3, while our WARP split the difference at 3.6. No matter which you prefer, they all agree Ellsbury was a very valuable player in 2014, as he had been throughout his career.
So what about this season? Well, it’s not a complicated story, really. Pretty simply, Ellsbury hurt his knee and spent almost two months on the DL. Then he came back quite possibly a bit too soon and was never right (his swing mechanics were a bit messed up, as Owen Watson noted at JABO). Before his injury, so from April 1 through May 19, he hit .324/.412/.372. That’s almost an .800 OPS from an above average defensive center fielder. That’s very good! After the injury, though, things went in the tank. From July 8 when he came back from the DL to October 4 (the end of the season), Ellsbury hit .224/.269/.332. Yuck.
For all the crap Ellsbury always got for being soft, he actually played through a whole lot of bumps and bruises and outright pain. The Boston Globe’s Alex Speier put it this way in a recent column.
He will forever be labeled as soft, even though the only significant stretches he missed with the Red Sox resulted from taking a human wrecking ball to the ribs and another to the shoulder. It’s easily forgotten that he raced back from a still-healing broken foot to spearhead the Red Sox lineup through its 2013 championship run. It’s easily forgotten that he played through a lot of strains and sprains and twisted ankles without complaint or visible on-field impact.
It’s tough to give him a total pass for lousy production, but then it’s tough to play major league baseball injured. It’s not hard to see that the skills which make Ellsbury valuable, speed, ability to drive the ball, defense, and some pop, are all still there. Ellsbury, like many players who play high-stress positions, does get hurt from time to time, but he has actually played a lot of games. In years when he didn’t have his season ended by a charging Adrian Beltre or something similar, he’s averaged 142 games played per season (that’s excluding the two seasons ended prematurely by blunt force injuries). That’s more than Dustin Pedroia has average over his nine full seasons in Boston.
What’s more, Ellsbury isn’t old. His age-32 season will be next year. Imagine if the Yankees would take back a bad contract from Boston, say Allen Craig, and kick in some money on Ellsbury’s deal. Jacoby Ellsbury for five seasons and (I’m making up numbers now) $80 million. That has the potential to be a damn bargain.
So the next hurdle is figuring out where he fits in with the Red Sox, who happen to have quite the young outfield. As well as the Red Sox played down the stretch, and as well as the outfield of Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley, and Rusney Castillo fielded the ball, there is some room to wonder what the trio would put up in a full season. Castillo especially struggled with the bat. In 80 games this season he hit .253/.288/.359. That’s atrocious. Bradley was overall a spectacular player with the bat and glove this season, but if you look at his games, after cooling off, he was essentially the same awful Jackie Bradley of old at the plate. Warning: cherrypicking ahead! From September 8 through the end of the season Bradley hit .138/.247/.263 in 94 plate appearances over 25 games. I’d love nothing more than to go into next season with Bradley and Castillo and watch them both exceed expectations at the dish. There’s certainly reason to think that they can do it, but we have to acknowledge there is reason to think they can’t as well.
Acquiring Ellsbury would open up the team to move Bradley or Castillo (not Betts, never Betts) in the search for pitching, be it of the starting or bullpen variety.
The Red Sox are expecting to win next season, but there are clear questions as to whether the outfield as currently constructed can produce enough to help them do so. Jacoby Ellsbury can hit and he can play the field, and it’s possible the team could get him from one of their main rivals for less than they were willing to pay him on the market just two seasons ago. So how about weakening the enemy while strengthening yourself in the process? Let’s bring back Jacoby Ellsbury!
You may now fillet me in the comments. Thank you.
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