For teams looking to sign Jacoby Ellsbury to a long-term contract -- and Buster Olney suggests that it will be at least a $100 million long-term contract -- the risks are obvious: Ellsbury played just 74 games in 2012 and 18 games in 2010. Between those two injury-plagued seasons, however, he had an MVP-caliber year in 2011, powered by a career-high 32 home runs, and an excellent 2013 season, ranking 11th among American League position players with 5.8 wins above replacement.
Ellsbury turned 30 in September, and his 2013 season seems a pretty good match for his ability: He hit .298/.355/.426 compared to career averages of .297/.350/.426. With the Red Sox possibly set on giving the center-field job in 2014 to Jackie Bradley Jr., Ellsbury is one of the most attractive free agents this offseason.
Let’s look at the glass-half-full and glass-half-empty scenarios for Ellsbury’s future.
The positive outlook is that when relatively healthy, as he was in 2011 and 2013, Ellsbury has been one of the best players in the league. Even dismissing his power surge in 2011 as a fluke, he maintained a high level of value in 2013 thanks to solid on-base skills, moderate power (48 extra-base hits) and the dimensions his speed brings: defense and baserunning. He stole 52 of 56 bases, leading the AL in steals, and ranked second overall in the majors to Elvis Andrus in overall baserunning value (plus-9 runs). Defensively, he ranked fourth in the majors among center fielders in defensive runs saved with 13.
Historically, speed players age well. Even if Ellsbury loses a step over the next five years, he’ll be an above-average baserunner. Think of a guy like Ichiro Suzuki, who was able to hold on to a regular job at age 39. Because of his speed, Ellsbury should continue to be an above-average center fielder for at least a few more years; again, if he loses a little speed, he should be fast enough to hold down center field through age 34.
That’s an important consideration, because not many players can play regularly in center field past their early 30s. In the past 10 seasons, for example, just 14 players played 100-plus games in center field at age 33 or older, and at least a few of those should not have been out there (Ken Griffey Jr., Bernie Williams). Torii Hunter moved to right field during his age-34 season. Carlos Beltran moved to right field at 34. But Ellsbury is faster than any of those players were.
The other thing to like about Ellsbury is that he’s not a big strikeout guy, whiffing 92 times in 636 plate appearances in 2013, or 14.5 percent of the time. That’s not necessarily impressive -- it ranked 43rd among 140 regulars -- but it’s not excessive. That puts Ellsbury in a different light from another speedster like Michael Bourn, who fanned in 22 percent of his PAs in 2012. He hit the free-agent market at the same age as Ellsbury and eventually signed with Cleveland; his wOBA fell from .326 to .300. As a higher-strikeout guy, there’s less margin for error for a player like Bourn.
A glass-half-full comp would be a speed player with moderate power, a guy like Kenny Lofton who averaged 4.4 WAR per season from ages 30 to 34. From a cost-per-win value, if we estimate that one win on the free agent goes for about $5.5 million -- as many sabermetricians do -- that means 21 wins would be worth about $115 million, making that five-year, $100 million contract a pretty reasonable estimate for Ellsbury.
Aside from the obvious injury, the half-empty approach looks something like this. Here are the 10 players over the past 25 years who accumulated the most WAR from ages 30 to 34 while playing at least 75 percent of their games in center field:
Jim Edmonds, 2000-2004: 31.8
Kenny Lofton, 1997-2001: 21.6
Bernie Williams, 1999-2003: 21.4
Torii Hunter, 2006-2010: 18.8
Mike Cameron, 2003-2007: 15.6
Devon White, 1993-1997: 14.3
Lance Johnson, 1994-1998: 14.2
Steve Finley, 1995-1999: 13.6
Dave Henderson, 1989-1993: 13.2
It’s not a bad list, although Edmonds certainly wasn’t a similar player to Ellsbury and Williams was a far superior offensive player. Guys like Cameron and White were elite center fielders who still maintained a lot of defensive value as they aged; Ellsbury is good, but probably not considered in their class. Overall, however, it’s not exactly a list makes you scream $100 million player.
The point: Although Lofton is a nice comparison, the odds are that Ellsbury won’t accumulate that kind of value over the next five years. More likely, we’re looking at a Lance Johnson kind of curve: good player, but not a great one.
Another comparison: Marquis Grissom. He was a very good player in his 20s, averaging 4.3 WAR from age 25 to 29 (which included two strike-shortened seasons). Like Ellsbury, he played a good center field (four Gold Gloves) and could run (as many as 78 steals). Also like Ellsbury, he didn’t walk a whole lot. But at age 30, his speed appeared to vanish. His defense declined, he didn’t run as much, and his batting average and OBP plummeted. From ages 30 to 34 he was worth 1.1 WAR -- total. He was traded three times.
Because Ellsbury relies on batting average to generate his above-average on-base percentage, if he becomes a .270 hitter instead of a .297 hitter, his OBP will drop accordingly and his value will decline.
There are other risk factors as well. Ellsbury has always had a potent lineup behind him. How much as that helped him? He’s hit 20 points higher at Fenway in his career (.308 to .288). And even in 2013 he missed 28 games, so durability remains a big issue.
What do you think? Half-full or half-empty?