Commentary

Red Sox were prepared to move on

They figured Ellsbury would sign elsewhere, but hoped it wouldn't be New York

Updated: December 4, 2013, 1:57 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Before you rummage through your closet in search of the "Looks like Jesus, Throws like Mary, Acts like Judas" T-shirts that were so the rage when Johnny Damon decamped for the Bronx seven years ago, take a deep breath and remember this: Jacoby Ellsbury will be wearing pinstripes next season because the Red Sox decided he wasn't worth what the market was willing to pay.

[+] EnlargeJacoby Ellsbury
Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty ImagesLike Johnny Damon before him, Jacoby Ellsbury is trading his Red Sox for pinstripes after winning it all in Boston.

Nothing personal on the player's part. It's always about business. It was for Damon, too. But Ellsbury will have seven years -- and 19 times a season face-to-face -- to prove the Sox were wrong not to abandon the business model that worked so well for them last winter, and should have anted up the years and dollars it would have taken to keep him.

The Red Sox, according to sources close to negotiations, were willing to offer Ellsbury a six-year deal, with the dollars somewhere in the vicinity of $120 million. At one point in talks, they proposed a five-year, $100 million package.

Both proposals fell well short of what Ellsbury took from the Yankees, a deal reportedly worth seven years and $153 million that could expand to $169 million with a vesting eighth year. But the Sox are adamant they learned their lesson with Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez and are adhering to limits, both in dollars and years.

They have known for some time that the market for Ellsbury would spin beyond where they would be willing to go and were prepared to face the consequences. They just wish those consequences had landed somewhere other than just 200 miles south, where the Yankees, in addition to adding Ellsbury, have a new catcher in Brian McCann ($85 million guaranteed) and still have designs on bringing back second baseman Robinson Cano and pitcher Hiroki Kuroda. Somehow, they're supposed to fit that all under the $189 million luxury tax threshold? On Yawkey Way, skeptics wait to see what kind of alchemy can pull that off.

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The Yankees value Ellsbury for the same reasons the Red Sox did. He is an elite player offensively and defensively who has proven he can thrive in the crucible of the American League East, can offer two World Series rings as evidence, and contrary to the "soft" label so foolishly affixed to him a couple of years ago, proved again this past season he can excel while playing hurt. But does he deserve a contract worth more total dollars than those signed by all but two outfielders to date -- Manny Ramirez and Matt Kemp, both of whom signed $160 million deals?

Hal Steinbrenner voted yes with his wallet. John W. Henry voted no by closing his. The Yankees, who missed the playoffs last season, are reloading by assembling another All-Star team. The Red Sox, who won the World Series last season, their second with Ellsbury in the outfield, are maintaining their vision that a team is greater than the sum of its parts. Red Sox fans happily embraced that notion when it resulted in a procession of duck boats. It becomes a bit harder to digest when a player as popular as Ellsbury is fitted for pinstripes.

So how do the Sox respond to the latest Yankee haymaker? It's doubtful that Ben Cherington thinks in those terms. The Red Sox general manager is not the panicking kind, and in talking to folks both inside and outside the organization, there is a sense that he does not feel like he has to answer with a right hook. Short, well-placed jabs worked last winter, and the organization is committed to seeing them work again.

The time may come that the Red Sox abandon that model, but there may never be a better time to put it to the test. One, they're coming off a World Series title. That takes some of the pressure off. Two, they have good young players in whom they are confident can play key roles: Jackie Bradley Jr. in center to replace Ellsbury, Xander Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks in the infield.

Middlebrooks had a tough 2013, but they don't want to move him now, when his value is down, then see him blossom into a 25-to-30 home run hitter elsewhere. They want that power in their lineup. Bradley Jr. proved overmatched in his first test at this level, but so did Dustin Pedroia, and Pedroia became rookie of the year. Bogaerts gave a glimpse of his potentially limitless future in the postseason.

[+] EnlargeJackie Bradley Jr.
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesHaving Jackie Bradley Jr. waiting in the wings made it easier for Ben Cherington to hold the line of Jacoby Ellsbury.

A pressing order of business would appear to be re-signing Mike Napoli, which is indeed a priority, but the Sox have discussed a fallback plan if Napoli elects to leave, even though he has said he dearly wants to stay. It's not inconceivable that the Sox would go with a platoon of Daniel Nava and Middlebrooks at first, then add another infielder on the left side to play with Bogaerts. While it still seems likely that Stephen Drew will get a multiyear deal elsewhere, which had one source saying last month the Sox were out of the running, Cherington would gladly take him back on a short-term deal.

The Sox almost certainly will add another outfielder, although Mike Carp very much figures in the team's plans in 2014, especially if Napoli is not re-signed. They remain interested in Carlos Beltran, although if the reports are accurate out of Kansas City, where the Royals are reportedly offering $48 million for three years, the Sox aren't likely to match. Still, the Sox view Beltran in much the same vein as they did Shane Victorino last season, and he remains a potentially great fit.

With an abundance of starting pitching, the Red Sox have pieces with which to make a deal, and don't be surprised if Cherington tries to construct another power bullpen like the one he envisioned last winter, before Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey both went down with season-ending injuries.

But it's undeniable that regardless of what he does in the coming weeks, Cherington's life would be considerably brighter today if Ellsbury had landed in Seattle with the Mariners, who also wanted him, than in New York, where every game with the Yankees for the next seven years will be a referendum on his judgment.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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