By Jeff Louderback
Multiple media reports out of the general managers meetings in California indicate that the Red Sox are reluctant to trade center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, though it is unlikely they will re-sign him before he becomes eligible for free agency next November.
The reason makes sense. Ellsbury is the only starting outfielder who currently occupies the 40-man roster.
Top prospects Bryce Brentz (who projects as a right fielder in the majors) and potential center fielder of the future Jackie Bradley will likely not be Major League ready until 2014, and they are not yet on the 40-man roster.
Ryan Kalish, who is still just 24 (he will be 25 in March), has significant upside, but since his last two seasons were interrupted by injuries, he will benefit from spending at least the first half of 2013 getting regular at-bats at Triple-A Pawtucket.
Jerry Sands, the 25-year-old slugger who Boston acquired in the blockbuster trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, is intriguing, but he is best suited as a right-handed bat off the bench and someone who can play left field and first base in a reserve role.
Ryan Sweeney, who the Red Sox received with Andrew Bailey in the Josh Reddick deal last offseason, is a non-tender candidate, and at best he is a platoon outfielder. Sweeney can play all three outfield positions, but he has little power. Kalish can play all three outfield spots, so Sweeney is expendable.
The Red Sox would be wise to keep Ellsbury, who will surely be motivated to produce prodigious numbers in his final season before a big free agent payday. Since Bradley will likely be Major League ready for 2014, Boston can make a qualifying offer to Ellsbury next offseason and collect the draft pick compensation when he declines the offer and signs elsewhere.
Here is a glance at names the Red Sox are reportedly targeting to join Ellsbury in the team’s 2013 outfield:
Torii Hunter – Though he is no longer one of the elite players in the game, the 37-year-old Hunter (he will be 38 in July) is an above-average defensive outfielder who hit .313 with 16 home runs, 92 RBI and a .817 OPS with the Los Angeles Angels in 2012. He is close friends with Ortiz and is known as a well-liked teammate and a positive clubhouse presence. Since Brentz and Kalish represent in-house options who can eventually fill the right field role long term, signing someone like Hunter to a one-year deal or a two-year contract makes sense.
Cody Ross- One of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal 2012 campaign for the Red Sox, Ross is a free agent and is reportedly asking for three years and $25 million. That is a hefty price for a right-handed hitter who struggles against right-handed pitching and is best suited as a platoon outfielder. Ross did have 22 home runs and 81 RBI for the Sox last season, so he would be a valuable asset if he returns on a two-year deal. If he requires a third season, it is best for the Red Sox to look elsewhere.
Shin-Soo Choo – Like Ellsbury, the 30-year-old Choo can become a free agent after the 2013 season, and like Ellsbury, Choo is represented by Boras. If the Red Sox can quickly reach a long-term deal with Choo, dealing for him would bolster the outfield because he is an above-average defensive right fielder and a run-producing bat who has speed on the basepaths.he would likely cost multiple prospects though.
Alex Gordon – Would the Kansas City Royals be interested in 25-year-old left-hander Felix Doubront and a prospect for the 28-year-old Gordon? The Red Sox reportedly covet Gordon, who is a plus defensive left fielder and features a run-producing left-handed bat. Kansas City wants starting pitching, and the Tampa Bay Rays could match up better with the Royals as trade partners.
Jason Bay – The New York Mets made headlines this week when they reached a buyout on Bay’s final two years. The 34-year-old outfielder will be paid $21 million over several years and is now a free agent. Though he has been hampered with two concussions and was an extreme disappointment during his three-year tenure with the Mets, Bay represents an ideal low-risk, potential high reward signing if he is willing to ink a one-year deal. At the least, Bay can serve as a platoon left fielder who can face left-handed pitching. He hit a total of 26 home runs in his three years with the Mets after belting 36 for Boston in 2009. If the Red Sox can sign a big bat like Adam LaRoche to play first base and perhaps Hunter for right field, then they can afford to take a gamble on Bay to platoon in left field with someone like Kalish or a free agent.
Ryan Ludwick – After a bounceback season that saw him club 26 home runs with 80 RBI, a .275 average and a .877 OPS, the 34-year-old Ludwick understandably declined his part of a $5 million mutual option with the Cincinnati Reds. Like Ross, Ludwick wants a multi-year deal. If Ross insists on three years and Ludwick is open to two, the latter would be ideal for the Red Sox, especially since he is a pull hitter.
Josh Hamilton – The 31-year-old Hamilton is reportedly asking for seven years and $175 million. He is not likely to get that from the Red Sox, which are reluctant to commit to long-term deals to that degree after shedding the cumbersome contracts of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. Yet Boston could be willing to give Hamilton five years and vesting options for more seasons. Or perhaps the Red Sox would be open to giving the left-handed slugger four years with a vesting option for a fifth if he doesn’t get a more palatable offer elsewhere. Though Hamilton has a history of injuries, and there are questions about how well he would perform in a big market considering his history of substance abuse, he is one of the most prominent hitters in baseball when healthy. Boston’s lineup would look formidable with Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Josh Hamilton and perhaps Will Middlebrooks occupying the two through five spots.
Grady Sizemore – Like Bay, Sizemore has battled injuries and has seen his numbers and games played markedly decline. Since 2008, when he appeared in 157 games and had 33 home runs, 90 RBI and 38 stolen bases, Sizemore has played in 106, 33 and 71 games respectively over the last three seasons, batting .248, .211 and .224 in those campaigns. As is the case for Bay, the Red Sox could afford to give Sizemore a chance if they sign LaRoche to play first base and Hunter to fill the void in right field.
Michael Bourn and B.J. Upton are high-profile free agent outfielders on the market, and Arizona is reportedly open to trading Justin Upton for the right package of players in return. The Red Sox are on Upton’s recently submitted no-trade list, though he is willing to waive that for a deal to Boston, according to the Boston Herald.
Bourn and Upton will command a costly long-term commitment. Since Upton is young and under team control, the Red Sox might be willing to trade a package of prospects to get him.