Jacoby Ellsbury is near the top of everyone’s lists in terms of “best free agents” of this particular class. He’s arguably the second most valuable guy, after the Yankees’ Robinson Cano. As such – the talking heads of the national sports media have begun to hypothesize about Ellsbury’s potential suitors and a team that seems to come up is the Detroit Tigers. I suppose the argument boils down to this: the Tigers play bad D and don’t run the bases well. Jacoby Ellsbury plays good D and steals a lot of bases. The Tigers are presumably unsatisfied with their left fielders and Jacoby Ellsbury could play left field for them. That’s about it. Well, add in the supposed “good relationship” with Ellsbury’s agent Scott Boras and the Tigers past history of going after top free agents that nobody thought they’d spend the money on, and that’s about it.
This line of reasoning has several flaws…
1. The Tigers got good D and decent speed from left – they just didn’t get a lot of offense. Jacoby Ellsbury could only displace Dirks, who is in the running for a gold glove, and wouldn’t therefore make the Tigers overall defense all that much better.
2. Ellsbury is going to be expensive. The Red Sox would love to sign him for something like 5 years and $75 million, if Boras was content with that he’d probably be under contract already. The only reason to leave Boston is to get significantly more money.
3. The Tigers are going to have to ration resources. Even if we start from the presumption that Ilitch will raise payroll significantly for 2014 rather than “be content” with a diminished chance at a ring, they’re going to have to choose between throwing money at left field, throwing money at second base and throwing money at the bullpen – and the latter two include just trying to resign current cogs.
4. Ellsbury probably isn’t worth it.
The last one will need some clarification, I presume. Ellsbury has been a Red Sox for parts of 7 seasons, but he has only played the equivalent of 5 seasons (in two he was hurt). That injury risk IS a strike against him, but not my primary concern. My primary concern is that while he has provided a total of 23.7 wins over replacement (as far as Fangraphs is concerned) 9.1 of those wins came in his one inexplicably good season, 2011, in which he probably deserved the MVP that Justin Verlander got. Take that season out and Ellsbury has been worth is 14.6 wins over the equivalent of 4 full seasons or about 3.6 wins. Add in his presumed injury risk and the fact that he’s a legs and glove guy about to turn 30 and – unless you think there is any reasonable chance of a repeat of 2011 – he’s basically worth what the Red Sox want to pay him and not what Scott Boras will tell you he ought to get.
Is there any reason to expect a repeat of 2011? In short; NO. The only thing that was different for Ellsbury in 2011 is that he started hitting a ton of home runs. He had 32 in 2011 compared to 33 total before and after. He has never hit as many as 10 home runs in any other season and has never had a HR/FB ratio higher than 7% (aside from his rookie cup of coffee) other than the 16.7% he put up in 2011. I don’t know how on earth he became a spectacular power hitter for one and only one season (HR/FB rates of 4.7% in 2012 and 6.6% show that he has not been able to sustain this in any way) unless he made a pact with the devil that forced him to pony up a shoulder in 2012. Ignore 2011 and Ellsbury has a career OPS of almost exactly .750. That’s solid for a speedy leadoff hitter and a guy that plays plus defense at a premium position. But… it’s almost exactly what you’d expect from Austin Jackson (except that Ellsbury actualy steals bases while Jackson is mostly theoretically capable of doing it). Would you be willing to pay $20 million per season – given the Tigers other salary commitments and needs – to get a second Austin Jackson to play left? Ellsbury would make the Tigers better – at least in the short term – by something in the neighborhood of 2 extra wins. If that’s all there was to it – sounds great. It really is a park that can use two Austin Jacksons. Unfortunately, resigning Joaquin Benoit and Omar Infante for the same money – assuming it comes down to that – is probably more than a 2 win boost over their presumed in-house replacements (Hernan Perez and Jose Veras).