Jacoby Ellsbury's season isn't finished yet as the Red Sox continue on in the ALCS. He's probably not begun to think a whole lot about his upcoming free agency, but it will be the talk of the offseason. The centerfielder turned 30 on September 11th and will be entering his age 30 season at the tail-end of his prime. I expect Robinson Cano to be re-signed by the Yankees relatively quickly at which point Ellsbury will be the best free agent.
Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have known Ellsbury for a long time. The Cubs were busy selecting Mark Pawelek as the 20th pick in the 2005 Draft while Theo's front office was readying to pick Jacoby Ellsbury 23rd. The Cubs' Mark Pawelek was busy kicking and punching Ninendos, the only perfect strike he ever threw, while Ellsbury was impressing scouts in AA a year after the draft. Pawelek has been fighting game consoles ever since while Ellsbury has impressed at the MLB level.
Ellsbury has put up impressive numbers while at the same time posting mediocre seasons in between. He's had trouble staying healthy, but when he is on the field, he produces. He's been an excellent fielder and an even more impressive baserunner. Almost exactly 1/2 of his home run total came in one season (2011). He was fantastic at the plate that year, but otherwise has just been about average.
I was trying to think of a similar player to Ellsbury that reached free agency recently and I'm having trouble. He's quite valuable, but not in the ways that you'd expect for someone who will command the interest and dollars that he will. Coco Crisp came to mind, but I don't think that compares. Ellsbury is one of the top free agents available this offseason and Crisp was not. Ellsbury is a fine player and quite possibly worth every penny he'll sign for.
I decided to look at Baseball Reference's similar players through age 29 and compare them to Ellsbury.
Among the ten most similar are three current players: David DeJesus, Coco Crisp and Shane Victorino. As a group, the ten combined to hit through age 29 .293/.357/.431 and had an OPS+ of 108. Ellsbury has hit .297/.350/.439 with an OPS+ of 108. It's hard to compare triple slash stats across eras so I wouldn't look too much into how similar those numbers are. OPS+ is adjusted for era and though wOBA and wRC+ would be better, those aren't offered on Baseball Reference.
Those ten players averaged 16.8 rWAR through age 29 and Ellsbury has 21.0. Tommy Holmes was the only other player in the group to have more than 18.8. Holmes had 23.7 rWAR. Ellsbury has been more valuable than the group, likely because of his defense and baserunning. Since Ellsbury has been better than the group through age 29, we can expect him to also be better after 29.
Only seven of the players on the list are retired and from 30 on those seven hit .290/.350/.422 with an OPS+ of 108. However, they played quite a bit less. Up through age 29 the seven retired players played in an average of 798 games (all 10 averaged 799). The seven retired players played in an average 716 after age 29. The retired ones averaged 9.7 rWAR.
The rate stats didn't get worse as they aged, but they played less, which is predictable. If you were to estimate what his next contract would be by looking at the most similar players through age 29, you might conclude he's worth somewhere between $60 million and $70 million the rest of his career. You might be right, but you'd wrong to estimate his next contract will be that low.
Teams will try to estimate his value over several years and the best way we have to do so as fans is to use projections. Unfortunately, there aren't any available for 2014 yet, but Fangraphs has something labeled 2014 Steamer on the player pages. That's the Steamer projections that have come out annually for at least a few years. The numbers are a bit odd so we'll have to adjust to a reasonable number of plate appearances.
Steamer has Ellsbury at 0.5 fWAR over 74 plate appearances. For all I know, Fangraphs just took the final updated 2013 Steamer projections and threw 2014 on it. it's close enough since we're not trying to be exact anyway. That gives us about 4 fWAR over 600 plate appearances next year.
I was iniitially thinking 4.5 for next year so the 4 matches fairly closely with what I had off the top of my head.
- 2014: 4.0 WAR
- 2015: 3.5 WAR
- 2016: 3.0 WAR
- 2017: 2.5 WAR
- 2018: 2.0 WAR
- 2019: 1.5 WAR
- 2020: 1.0 WAR
That's 17.5 WAR through 2020. If we use a starting win value of $5.5 million and use 7% interest, that's a total contract of 7 years and $112.6 million. If we increase the starting point to $6.0 million and increase by half a million each year, that's $124.25 million. The midway point is $118.4 million.
I've ready articles that suggest he could get something like $150 million. I think any team that spends that much on Ellsbury is making a pretty big mistake.
Using the $16.9 million average annual value (118.4 million total), you might be able to sign Ellsbury for under $100 million if you increase it to $18.9 million annually. That would be $94.5 million over 5 seasons.
Want or don't want? There's gotta be a third choice. I'll take that one. I'm certainly not going to complain if the Cubs sign Jacoby Ellsbury this offseason. Well, if they pay him $150 million I will complain. If they pay him $120 million, I won't complain, but I won't be all excited either.