Originally posted on The Sports Post  |  Last updated 9/17/13
Jacoby Ellsbury made his major league debut on June 30, 2007 to give Terry Francona and the Red Sox some flexibility in center field with a banged up Coco Crisp trying to avoid the disabled list.  The rookie would eventually overtake the veteran, even getting playing time in the Red Sox World Series run. Ellsbury is approaching free agency at the end of this season and his career so far has been a journey of highs, lows, and a few injuries.  How does he compare to the recent crop of elite outfielders? For Ellsbury’s first three seasons in Boston he was a gifted athlete who sometimes needed more work on his routes, but was a threat on the base paths.  In 331 games from 2007-2009 Ellsbury hit .297/.350/.414 with 129 steals, leading the league in 2008 and 2009 with 50 and 70 steals, respectively. Mike Cameron was brought in in 2010 to provide veteran insight into the center field position after Coco Crisp was traded, shifting Ellsbury to left, but a collision with Adrian Beltre would limit Ellsbury to just 18 games that year. In 2011, Ellsbury was back and better than ever: .321/.376/.552 with 39 steals and 32 home runs. After hitting a total of 20 home runs in the major leagues to that point, Ellsbury found his power stroke. He won a Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, and finished second in MVP voting.  With just two years remaining until free agency, Ellsbury looked like a player in his prime who might have just added a new aspect to his already strong game. Unfortunately 2012 would be another injury-plagued season. In 74 games Ellsbury would hit just .271/.313/.370 with only four home runs and 14 stolen bases. In a season where everything that could go wrong for the Red Sox did, Ellsbury’s injury and step back in performance hurt a bit more. With just two years remaining until free agency, Ellsbury looked like a player in his prime who might have just added a new aspect to his already strong game. His 2013 reversed the tide: .299/.355/.424 with a league-leading 52 steals before fouling a ball off his foot and not appearing in a game since Sept. 5. He’s only hit 8 home runs this year, but with 31 doubles and 8 triples, has recovered the value he had outside of his MVP-caliber season in 2011. As a fast, Gold Glove center fielder and an elite leadoff hitter, Ellsbury, even with an injured foot, is among the premier free agents this fall. Johnny Damon, to whom Ellsbury has drawn many comparisons, hit free agency at 31 before signing a 4-year, $52 million contract with the New York Yankees.  Until that point in his career, Damon had hit .290/.353/.431 while averaging 12 home runs and 26 steals per year. Ellsbury’s career .297/.350/.438 line compares quite favorably to the sought-after leadoff hitter, and Ellsbury just turned 30 on Sept. 11, so he hits free agency a little earlier. Of course, salaries for MLB players aren’t exactly what they were in the winter of 2005 when Johnny Damon signed with the Yankees.  B.J. Upton signed a 5-year, $75.25 deal with the Atlanta Braves last year. With the Rays, Upton averaged .255/.336/.422 with 20 homers and 39 steals per year. There were ups and downs: Upton hit over .273 just once and totalled 20 home runs over two full seasons in 2008 and 2009. He posted his best OPS (.894) in 2007 and hasn’t came within 100 points of that mark since. To make matters worse, Upton has been dreadful this season, hitting under .200 and finding himself on the bench at times even as the Braves cruise to victory in the NL East. Ellsbury hasn’t had the consistent power of Upton, but his skills are more well-rounded and he has never had the low seasons Upton has in his career. Another center fielder signed this past offseason as well: Michael Bourn. A late signing by the Cleveland Indians, Bourn has been a speed-first player throughout his career. Bourn lead the league in steals three times from 2009-2011 and has averaged 49 steals per season during his career. Again, Bourn is not a perfect match for Ellsbury because while Ellsbury has maintained a slugging percentage over .400 in three seasons, and .394 in a fourth, Bourn has little power to speak of, slugging just .362 in his eight-year career. Which brings us to the target Ellsbury and his agent, Scott Boras, will likely try and compare him to: Carl Crawford. Crawford turned 29 in August of 2010, the year he hit free agency, so he was actually a year younger than Ellsbury when he signed a 7-year, $142 million dollar deal with the Red Sox. The difficulty for Ellsbury in comparing him to Crawford, who was a .296/.337/.444 hitter coming off a career year, comes from the latter’s power and durability. During his nine years in Tampa Bay, Crawford hit double digit home runs six time, hitting 15 or more on four occasions. While he was known for his speed, stealing at least 46 bases seven times, Crawford also brought some power. Sometimes, as with his triples, his speed and power worked together, letting the left fielder collect double-digit triples five times. The difficulty for Ellsbury in comparing him to Crawford, who was a .296/.337/.444 hitter coming off a career year, comes from the latter’s power and durability. Crawford played at least 151 games six times in Tampa. Ellsbury has accomplished the feat just twice. Crawford also has the stigma of being overpaid. When the Red Sox traded Adrian Gonzalez to the Dodgers, it wasn’t because they were desperate to move their first baseman, but to move what had quickly become a massive overpayment to Crawford.  In a relatively healthy 2013, Crawford has hit .280/.330/.395 with 5 home runs and 13 stolen bases in 108 games. While this production is valuable, the cost of $20 million is not in line with the production. Ellsbury is an interesting player to hit free agency. He has shown legitimate power, elite speed, the ability to hit for average, defense, and patience, but not all at the same time. Recent free agents like Crawford and Upton have seemed like good signings, only to quickly lose value. The Red Sox will certainly make Ellsbury the $14 million qualifying offer this winter and may even make a sizeable contract offer to their leadoff hitter.  While Ellsbury has missed time with injuries, he’s had broken bones and collisions take him off the field, not nagging soreness in a hamstring or shoulder, so he might actually be a more durable player going forward who simply has had bad luck. Depending on how the market reacts to Ellsbury’s career numbers, and whether he is able to make a strong return this season from a broken bone in his foot, will decide how much and for how long the outfielder is signed.  With a low end of Bourn and a high of Crawford, Ellsbury may have a lot of negotiations before he finally chooses his next team.

This article first appeared on The Sports Post and was syndicated with permission.

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