Ellsbury's future with Red Sox near top of team's to-do list

Ellsbury's future with Red Sox near top of team's to-do list
October 10, 2012, 3:47 am
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As might be expected for a team with 93 losses and a last-place finish, the Red Sox' off-season to-do list is a lengthy one.

The team must attempt to re-sign free agents David Ortiz and Cody Ross, then turn its attention to re-making a starting rotation which ranked 12th out of 14 teams in the American League.

But another item, one not necessarily tied to this off-season, may require their attention: outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury.

Ellsbury remains under the team's control for another season and will be eligible for salary arbitration for the third straight off-season. But he will be eligible for free agency after the 2013 season, meaning a decision on his future isn't too far off.

In fact, because Ellsbury is represented by Scott Boras, there's reason to address the issue this winter.

Historically, Boras advises against his clients signing contract extensions with their original teams. The reason: supply-and-demand.

Boras believes that a player can best maximize his salary value only when all 30 teams can bid. By contrast, re-signing with a team before free agency means, by definition, a player isn't taking full advantage of all the market has to offer.

The Sox could, of course, make Ellsbury an offer this winter to gauge his interest in staying in Boston. But to get Ellsbury to agree to an extension, the Sox would almost certainly have to present something seven or eight years in length, with an average annual value in excess of 20 million.

(Boras cited Matt Kemp's eight-year, 160 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers as a benchmark last spring).

After ridding themselves of more than 260 million in salary in their mega-deal with the Dodgers last week, the Red Sox appetite for nine-figure contracts may well be non-existent.

Then there's the matter of Ellsbury's durability. Though Boras has contended that the injuries suffered by Ellsbury -- broken ribs in 2010; separated shoulder in 2012 -- were major and unavoidable, the fact remains that, in the last three seasons, Ellsbury has played just 250 of the last 486 games, or 51 percent.

Further, regardless of Ellsbury's loss in leverage over his games played, some believe getting him signed to a contract a year before he qualifies for free agency would be virtually impossible.

Asked last month about the chances of the Sox locking up Ellsbury this winter, a team source answered: "Zero."

With that acknowledged, the Sox have two choices with Ellsbury: settle on an arbitration figure -- somewhere around 10 million, most agree -- and hope he enjoys a career year in anticipation of free agency; or trade him this winter.

Keeping Ellsbury is the safe choice. He's one of the team's most popular players and there exists the possibility that Ellsbury could duplicate his magical 2011 season, when he finished second in the American League MVP voting.

But toward what end? Few expect the Red Sox to be legitimate playoff contenders next year. Keeping Ellsbury might help the team win 87 games instead of, say, 82.

And, should the Sox roll the dice and keep Ellsbury, they'd be given no special advantage in re-signing him a year from now. That, after all, would violate the central point of Boras' theory on supply-and-demand, which presumes that he would go the highest bidder among 30 teams.

Trading Ellsbury would come with plenty of risks. They could further alienate the team's fan base, while inviting speculation that the team doesn't plan to reinvest the more than quarter billion in payroll it saved with the Dodgers' deal.

But Ellsbury also represents one of the few marketable chips the Sox have on their major league roster. If the Sox find the right trading partner -- a contending team which believes it's only a player away from a World Series - the Sox could land a quality starting pitcher, or perhaps, address their never-ending shortstop problem.

The Texas Rangers would seem to make some sense. The Rangers have reached the post-season three straight times. Texas may lose free agent outfielder Josh Hamilton this winter and Ellsbury could serve as a one-year replacement.

Texas might be willing to move shortstop Elvis Andrus, who is signed through 2014 for a total of 11.2 million. (The Rangers have baseball's best shortstop prospect, Jurickson Profar, to replace Andrus).

Or, Texas might be willing to move a starter -- Matt Harrison? Derek Holland? -- in return for a package involving Ellsbury.

Other contending teams with a need in center field: Philadelphia, Washington, Atlanta, and San Francisco.

It's possible the Sox could hold onto Ellsbury then re-assess the trade market -- and their own position in the standings -- next July. But if they wait until after the 2013 season begins, Ellsbury's value will decline since no player traded in the final year before reaching free agency can result in a compensation draft pick for the team obtaining him.

Given the uncertainty, then, if the Sox want full value for Ellsbury, their best bet may be in dealing him this winter.