Now that the Hot Stove League is back in business, one topic that could drive the discussion in Boston and elsewhere in the coming weeks is a possible trade of Jacoby Ellsbury in an attempt by the Red Sox to bring back talent at positions of need.
At first glance, a trade involving Ellsbury doesn't seem to be in the best interest of the Red Sox, given how much his presence at the top of their lineup has meant to the club in recent years, but when you look at the kind of haul that Boston could obtain for his services, it merits a closer look.
Players of Ellsbury's caliber are difficult to find, as he can not only provide speed on the base paths and in the outfield, but also has the ability to get on base at a high clip and hit for power at the top of the order. There is a fairly significant amount of risk involved with him, as he's had enough issues with injury over the past few seasons to warrant concern for his ability to make it through an entire year unscathed, but much of that has been due to bad luck as opposed to a genuine propensity for spending time on the disabled list.
Ellsbury's level of commitment has come into question in the past, most notably by former Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis, thanks in large part to some aloofness shown while trying to recover from broken ribs in 2010. Nevertheless, he seemed to move past all of that in the following season, and he isn't likely to have any issues going forward.
2011 was the breakout campaign that Ellsbury needed to show he's worth a hefty contract from either the Red Sox, in the form of an extension, or another club via free agency, as he set new career highs in almost every statistical category. His most notable achievement that year came in the power department, hammering out 46 doubles, five triples and 32 home runs while making a serious run at the American League Most Valuable Player award.
Last year was not nearly as good for Ellsbury, with injuries once again cropping up to hamper him throughout much of the season. His value to Boston, however, was made clear with the Red Sox struggling to produce runs at the top of the lineup in his absence. Defensively, Boston suffered as well, with washed up veterans like Marlon Byrd and Jason Repko proving to be incapable of taking his place in center field.
So with all of that in mind, you might be asking why the Red Sox would have any desire whatsoever to part ways with Ellsbury, knowing full well the impact he's capable of making on the team with his bat and his glove. That question is not an easy one to answer, but when you dig a bit deeper, there are a multitude of motivating factors that could push Boston towards a blockbuster trade involving Ellsbury this offseason.
For starters, Ellsbury's contractual status makes him a possible trade candidate for no other reason than he could very easily depart from Boston at the end of the 2013 campaign. The prospect of Ellsbury reaching free agency in an effort to see how much money he could get on the open market is essentially a lock with super agent Scott Boras handling all of Ellsbury's contract negotiations, and at least one general manager agrees with that assertion.
Second, the kind of return coming back to Boston in any trade involving Ellsbury could very well provide the Red Sox with much needed help and talent at multiple positions, most notably starting pitching. Ellsbury's status as one of the premier leadoff hitters in baseball would seemingly require at least one major league pitcher and another quality young player in return for his services. Unfortunately for Boston, few teams would be willing to provide such a bounty and have the resources to do so, making the trade market smaller than they'd probably prefer.
One team that could make a run at Ellsbury is the Texas Rangers, as they will most likely have a need for a new center fielder this offseason, with the expected departure of Josh Hamilton via free agency. Thanks to a series of wise trades and quality draft selections over the last five years or so, the Rangers have no shortage of talent in their farm system, and could afford to part with one or more quality players to acquire Ellsbury.
A scenario involving the Rangers that would seemingly make sense on a number of levels is a trade of starting pitcher Derek Holland, shortstop Elvis Andrus and a low level prospect to the Red Sox for Ellsbury and a mid-range prospect. Ellsbury would obviously be the prize of the trade for Texas, but if the Red Sox added in a player in their farm system that's likely to be blocked above them (Kolbrin Vitek) or someone that has struggled to realize his potential (Chris Carpenter), the Rangers' return would be enough to make a deal more likely to come to fruition.
Such a move would be even easier to see happening if the Rangers take the money saved in not signing Hamilton and use it to convince Zack Greinke to sign with them as a free agent, as his presence would soften the loss of Holland from their rotation. Having a young star in Jurickson Profar waiting in the wings to take over a shortstop would be a similar help when it comes to Andrus.
Getting a starting pitcher with Holland's potential and a shortstop that's already shown himself to be capable of consistently producing at the top of the lineup would be extremely helpful to the Red Sox, both now and in the future, given the current makeup of the roster. Both players would bring several years of team control contractually speaking, with Holland locked up through 2016 and Andrus signed through 2014, at reasonable salaries as well.
Such a deal would certainly be complicated and difficult to complete, given the moving pieces and potential on both sides for it to be labeled a bust if the acquisition(s) fail to work out. That said, the motivation for a team like Texas to make a trade for Ellsbury is obvious, as he would immediately make their lineup more potent at the top and provide quality defense in center field as well. For a team that's been on the cusp of taking home the World Series trophy in two out of the last three years, an addition of Ellsbury and more consistent pitching could be all it takes to put them over the top.
The Red Sox have a similar motivation, as the pieces they'd get back in return would fill several key holes in their roster, and allow them even more flexibility than they already have to be aggressive in free agency this offseason. Whether the acquisition of those players would end up bringing them back to the postseason in 2013 is anyone's best guess, but watching Ellsbury leave a year from now with nothing to show for him other than a draft pick or two is not ideal no matter how the Red Sox look at it.
That makes a trade involving Ellsbury something I think Boston's front office should explore in the very near future, even though it will be tough to see him play out the prime of his career in another uniform. Getting what they can in return for his services makes the most sense for the Red Sox as it stands right now, especially if Ben Cherington and Co. know the chances of signing Ellsbury long term before the end comes next year are slim to none.