It wasn’t long ago that outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury looked like the face of the Boston Red Sox. His All-Star campaign in 2011 was highlighted by a .321 average, 32 home runs, 105 RBIs and 39 stolen bases. His five-tool prowess had finally developed, and he looked firmly entrenched as Boston's center fielder for years to come.
Only a season later, things have spun 180 degrees. Ellsbury slogged through an injury-marred 2012 season, still managing to hit .271 in just 303 at-bats, but that 2011 season now seems long ago. Further, Ellsbury is eligible for free agency in a year and is represented by agent Scott Boras, who owns a healthy track record of taking his clients to free agency to maximize their financial opportunities.
Considering that, it looks like the Red Sox have three options:
1.) Settle with Ellsbury on a one-year deal
2.) Take Ellsbury to arbitration, where he will make about $9.5 million on a one-year contract
3.) Trade Ellsbury
While Boston would love to sign Ellsbury to a long-term deal and keep him at Fenway Park, they most likely will have no choice but to test the trade waters to see what they can get for Ellsbury. With the Red Sox a couple seasons away from contention, this move makes sense.
But first, Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington must identify the teams that need a center fielder, would be willing to trade for a “rental” player and could afford to add a $9.5 million player to its payroll.
Because Ellsbury will be a one-year rental, Cherington probably knows he won’t get equal return. However, he will start with a high asking price -- in some cases unreasonable -- and negotiate downward. And the Red Sox could have another shot at Ellsbury after the 2013 season since Boras will make certain he reaches the free agent market.
Here are seven conversations Cherington should have with teams:
1. Atlanta Braves | trade targets: SS Nick Ahmed, RHP Julio Teheran
The first place to look is the NL East, where the Braves, Washington Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies are all looking for short- and long-term solutions for center field. The Braves are set at shortstop for years to come with Andrelton Simmons, which makes Ahmed expendable. Ahmed, 22, was the Braves’ second-round pick in the 2011 draft and had a solid year at high Class A Lynchburg both offensively and defensively. He stole 40 bases. Teheran remains the Braves’ top pitching prospect, and once his command and control arrive, he should be a solid No. 2 or No. 3 starter for years to come.
If the Red Sox could add Teheran to the young starters they acquired in the blockbuster deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers last summer (Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa), it would be a huge step forward in their retooling. Ellsbury would take Bourn’s spot in center field and keep the Braves primed for another postseason berth in 2013.
2. Los Angeles Angels | trade target: 1B C.J. Cron, OF Peter Bourjos
How about an Angels outfield of Mike Trout, Jacoby Ellsbury and Mark Trumbo, with all three combined making less than Torii Hunter made in 2011? The Red Sox would get their long-term solution to first base in Cron and a middle-of-the-order bat that they can count on for years to come. Bourjos would give them Gold Glove defense in center field, and perhaps his bat would develop enough to eventually hit at the top of the lineup. Ellsbury for Cron straight up might even be fair value.
3. Los Angeles Dodgers | trade target: OF Andre Ethier
This deal would give the Red Sox cost certainty and their long-term right fielder, as Ethier just signed a six-year $95.5 million deal through 2017 with a vesting option for 2018. The Red Sox have top center field prospect Jackie Bradley Jr. waiting in the wings to eventually take over the position long term. The Dodgers would then have an outfield of Matt Kemp, Ellsbury and Carl Crawford. When healthy, it would be the best in the National League with an incredible combination of speed and power. More importantly, the Dodgers would have their leadoff hitter.
4. St. Louis Cardinals | trade targets: RHP Trevor Rosenthal, OF Jon Jay
Rosenthal has ability and potential to be a Craig Kimbrel or Aroldis Chapman-type closer right now, and Jay could take over in center field in Boston. The Red Sox should stop dreaming about Andrew Bailey, Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves taking care of the final three outs of the game. Rosenthal can do that now with his 100-mph fastball. Odds are this discussion goes no further than the phone call, as the Cardinals love Rosenthal (who they might also try as a starter) and seem happy with Jay.
5. San Francisco Giants | trade targets: OF Gary Brown, RHP Heath Hembree
The Giants have a chance to win three World Series in four seasons, and Ellsbury would help that cause immensely. He would give them a dynamite leadoff hitter and table-setter for Pablo Sandoval, Buster Posey and Hunter Pence in the middle. He’ll be able to run down balls in center field and will give them the additional power they have lacked. Brown is supposed to be their leadoff hitter of the future, but if they were willing to trade top pitching prospect Zach Wheeler for Carlos Beltran, they should consider this deal, too. The Red Sox should also ask for Hembree because he throws in the high 90s, and if his command in the zone ever arrives, he could be a candidate to be Boston's closer down the line.
6. Seattle Mariners | trade target: RHP Taijuan Walker
The Mariners have had the worst offense in the American League for three straight seasons, and they have approximately $30 million dollars to spend. Do they trade one of their top pitching prospects for offense as they did last year when they shipped Michael Pineda to the New York Yankees for catcher Jesus Montero? The Red Sox should ask for Walker, but my gut says Cherington would get a polite “no, thank you” from Mariners GM Jack Zdurinecik, who will then counter with an offer of one of lefties James Paxton or Danny Hultzen. If that happens, the Red Sox certainly should consider it.
7. Washington Nationals | trade targets: OF Brian Goodwin and RHP Alex Meyer
Goodwin has been wowing scouts in the Arizona Fall League with his range, defense and bat. Meyer was very impressive in his pro debut last season in A-ball, where he went a combined 10-6 with a 2.86 ERA in 25 starts. Meyer was the Nationals’ first-round choice in 2011, and the Red Sox have been following him closely since they selected him the 20th round of the 2008 draft but weren’t able to sign him. Ellsbury would allow the Nationals to put Bryce Harper in one of the corners with Jayson Werth. A deal of this magnitude would put them among the NL’s early favorites to reach the World Series.
In the end, it’s doubtful any of these trade discussions will end up in a deal. The most likely scenario is Ellsbury ends up with a one-year deal at $9.5 million, and the Red Sox will revisit the trade market for him at next July’s trade deadline. That said, perhaps then we’ll revisit these trade discussions again when the probability of one of them happening will have increased significantly.