Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury will be a free agent at the end of the season and Boston is eager to re-sign him, but a possible asking price of more than $100 million may give them second thoughts, according to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports.
Heyman cites sources familiar with the situation in Boston, saying that the Red Sox are keen on keeping Ellsbury but should the price tag reach into the $100 million range, they aren't optimistic that Boston will do what it takes to sign the 2011 AL MVP runner-up. Based on Heyman's report, the type of deal that Ellsbury and agent Scott Boras are looking for appears to be at odds with the Red Sox strategy of signing more "mid-range" deals, with mid-range presumably referring to deals like the three-year one given to Shane Victorino this offseason and the two-year ones they handed Ryan Dempster and David Ross. Heyman quotes Red Sox GM Ben Cherington:
"I think any team would say in a perfect world they would stick to shorter-term deals. There's always exceptions. We obviously made an exception in [Dustin] Pedroia's case."
That message is as non-committal as we would expect from a GM working on a deal, but still seems to indicate a potential issue given the metaphors Boras is tossing around:
"Free agency is like the Navy. You can have a number of mid-range missiles, but they only work as long as you have the aircraft carrier to put them on."
Ellsbury is having a strong season this year, hitting .296/.354/.421 over 618 plate appearances as the Red Sox lead-off hitter. Most importantly, he has stayed healthy. He played just 74 games in 2012 and was surprisingly unproductive when he was on the field, hitting .271.313/.370 after a MVP-caliber season in 2011 that saw him hit 32 home runs with a .321/.376/.552 line. He also missed nearly all of the 2010 season after a collision with third baseman Adrian Beltre.
Ellsbury's injuries and outlier performance in 2011 make him an interesting free agent case this offseason. Heyman cites executives from other teams who quite reasonably compared Ellsbury to B.J. Upton, who signed a five-year, $75.2 million deal last offseason. Boras has offered up a more lucrative comparison, saying Ellsbury has several things that separate him from fellow Boras client Carl Crawford:
"Two things separate Ellsbury. Carl Crawford was never proven as a lead-off hitter, and Carl Crawford is not a center fielder. They are two different animals. It's not a consideration because he's a corner outfielder. Just think if Carl Crawford could play center field."
After being burned on that Crawford deal, it isn't surprising that the Red Sox front office might be cautious giving another speedy outfielder a pricy long-term contract. Ellsbury has been a popular and productive player when healthy, but there is no denying the risk he poses on such a sizable deal.