The shocking mega-trade of Detroit Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers for second baseman Ian Kinsler is a good example why the Chicago Cubs should not sign free-agent outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury to a long-term deal.
Fielder is one of the best left-handed hitters in the game, signing a nine-year, $214 million deal with Detroit in January 2012. He hit 30 home runs with 108 RBIs and a .412 on-base percentage in his first season in Detroit. As one of the few slugging free agents who actually panned out, he became the poster child for fans wanting their team to spend in the same fashion.
But as is so often the case, a decline can come quickly. Last season Fielder "only" hit 25 home runs while driving in 106, but with an on-base percentage of .362. There's nothing wrong with those numbers, unless it's the start of that decline. The Tigers got ahead of Fielder's inevitable decline, even though he surely has some productive years left in him. And this all happened before Fielder turns 30 next May. While the Tigers are taking back a 31-year-old Kinsler in the trade, the financial risk with the second baseman, who is owed $62 million over the next four seasons, is not nearly as great.
Fast-forward to Ellsbury. The Cubs have given no indication that they will try to land one of the big-ticket free agents such as Ellsbury or Cincinnati Reds outfielder Shin-Soo Choo this offseason. But if they did, the Cubs wouldn't have to spend Fielder's $214 million price tag on Ellsbury. But let's assume it would take a minimum five-year deal worth $100 million to land the center fielder. He's already turned 30, so how and when will his decline come?
Last year he stole 52 bases while getting on base 35.5 percent of the time. That's his game. His WAR (Wins above replacement) was off the charts at 5.8. But was that a peak? It was a free-agent year, and he played for a championship team. It's easier to predict a decline in the coming years than an uptick in production.
Soriano was injured after coming to Chicago at age 31, and he never lived up to the speed and power player he was previously with the Nationals, Rangers and Yankees. Crawford, who averaged 50 steals a season for an eight-year span with the Tampa Bay Rays, signed a $142 million deal with Theo Epstein's Boston Red Sox in 2011 at age 29. His body hasn't held up since signing the deal, and he has just 38 steals in parts of three seasons since. And unlike Soriano, Ellsbury and Crawford don't have power games to fall back on as they age.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, since 1995, 104 players combined for 230, 30-plus steal seasons in their 20s (Ellsbury contributed four such years). During that same time frame, 49 such players combined for 103, 30-plus steal seasons in their 30s. The decline is predictable and obvious. And when it comes to Ellsbury, this is a player who already has had injury problems.
Pulling out one more statistic that is bound to decline, Ellsbury had the lowest total of infield hits (18) in 2013 of any full season of his career. In fact, that total has declined every year since 2008, discounting injury-plagued 2010 and 2012 campaigns.
It's safe to assume the Cubs would have to overpay to get Ellsbury to sign with Chicago, considering he'd be going from a championship team to a rebuilding one. A case could be made he'll be worth it as an example to all the young players the Cubs have coming up. And he could always move to left field, if needed, and down in the order, as well. But would that really be getting the maximum out of a player eating up that much salary? And his best years -- the next couple -- would come with the Cubs having little chance to win, even if he does repeat his 2013 season. Ellsbury is not the answer.
If the Cubs are going to sign a post-30 outfielder, Choo makes a lot more sense. His game relies on getting on base via walks, and his numbers might indicate he's getting better, or at least can maintain his game for longer. For example, his 13 infield hits in 2013 was a career high while he also had a whopping 112 walks last season, also a career high. Ellsbury's career high in walks is 52.
There's simply more for Choo to fall back on as he ages over Ellsbury. Then again maybe Choo just peaked and we'll never see those kinds of numbers again.
Neither is worth the investment when you consider part of their achievements probably had to do with the lineup they were a part of. The Cubs won't be featuring that kind of strength for a couple more years, which means investing in Ellsbury or Choo is a luxury they can't afford.
The key for the Cubs already is possessing these kinds of players as they continue through their prime years in their 20s. And at a better price.
That means mostly doing it with their own players. They have team-friendly deals with Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro. It all means sticking with the program and hoping the Cubs scouting and developing pays off the way they think it will.
If Albert Almora is going to have Ellsbury-type production, then simply waiting for him is a better plan. If a couple of prospects don't pan out and the Cubs are desperate to win at that moment -- like perhaps the Rangers are in trading for Fielder -- that's the time to pounce.