By Jeff Louderback
When healthy, Jacoby Ellsbury is one of the most dynamic players in baseball. He can hit for average and power, steal bases in bunches and play exceptional defense in center field. Yet this is likely his last season in Boston, as it should be if his agent, Scott Boras, demands a long-term deal of $20 million a season or more.
The 29-year-old Ellsbury, who has refrained from signing an extension with the Red Sox, is eligible for free agency for the first time when the 2013 campaign ends. On Thursday, he once again appeared content about hitting the open market.
“I think I’m focused on just playing,” Ellsbury told reporters. “I’m focused on helping the team win. Any questions about contracts or anything like that, I think it’s best to just call my agent and do it that way.
“Like I’ve said a lot of times, I love playing here,” he said. “I love the fans. I appreciate the Red Sox obviously giving me my opportunity early in my career in the draft and selecting me. I love playing here.
“Any contract stuff like that, just kind of like I said last year, if there is anything that comes on the table, if I’m presented with something, we’ll go from there.”
Translated in paraphrase form, “I will sign with the team that gives me the most years at the highest annual salary.”
Fans should not begrudge Ellsbury or any Major League player for desiring to enter free agency and get the biggest payday possible. After all, professional baseball careers don’t last forever, and overall there is a limited time frame for earning multi-millions.
Fans should also not begrudge professional sports franchises for refusing to give popular players the contract they want and let them sign elsewhere.
The Red Sox appear to have learned a valuable lesson about doling out high-dollar, long-term deals. The club was bailed out by the Los Angeles Dodgers, who bestowed a prominent gift when they decided to take on the cumbersome contracts of Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett.
The aforementioned three players are prime examples why long-term deals are risky. Beckett is a key reason why the Red Sox won the World Series in 2007. He was one of the best starting pitchers in baseball for a few years, and then injuries took their toll and he is a shell of his former self. Injuries also hampered Crawford, but his lack of production in Boston can be mostly attributed to his inability to perform in a high-pressure market. As for Gonzalez, perhaps his sore shoulder sapped some power, but like Crawford, Gonzalez appears best suited for a place like Los Angeles, where fans don’t remotely care as much about baseball as they do in Boston. Gonzalez’s numbers did not match his annual salary, and his overly sensitive demeanor was not a good fit for the Red Sox.
After being freed from those contracts, now the Red Sox are confronted with an important decision about Ellsbury. Do they sign him to a long-term deal, trade him before the July 31 deadline or make him a qualifying offer, watch him decline and then get draft pick compensation when he signs elsewhere.
The latter choice makes the most sense. Boston has top prospect Jackie Bradley almost Major League ready. A supplemental first rounder out of the University of South Carolina in 2011, the 22-year-old Bradley hits for average and steals bases (though he is not as fast as Ellsbury). His defense is superior to Ellsbury in center fielder, and he is a high-energy and affable guy who will have a more positive impact in the dugout and clubhouse.
Detractors will point to Bradley’s status as a prospect. He has yet to play a game in the majors, they say. Well, that is the case of every Major League All-Star. What is the purpose of developing a deep and talented farm system if you don’t give the high-ceiling prospects a chance? The Red Sox did so with Ellsbury in 2007, and he helped the club when a World Series.
This offseason, the Red Sox were wise to pass on Josh Hamilton because signing him would have cost a draft pick and hamstrung the payroll for several seasons. Fortunately, the club’s farm system is stocked with guys like Bradley, Bryce Brentz, Ryan Kalish and Brandon Jacobs – names who can make an impact for several seasons.
Barring another freak injury, Ellsbury will likely have a monstrous 2013, and the Red Sox will benefit from his motivation to earn an enviable payday when the Hot Stove League arrives. And when that happens, the decisions by both parties will be justified.