Weren't we just here?
Coco Crisp: .283 (.344 OBP), 7 HR, 41 RBI
Jacoby Ellsbury: .280 (.336 OBP), 9 HR, 47 RBI
Crisp: $5.75 million in 2009, $8 million option (with a $500,000 buyout) for 2009
Ellsbury: Earned $406,000 in 2008, and will not be eligible for salary arbitration
It's easy to say that keeping Crisp worked out well for the Red Sox this season. The 28-year-old played in 118 games, and while his range in center field dipped (according to the Bill James statistics), he still was a player with whom Terry Francona could feel comfortable playing at any time. He also had one of the biggest at-bats of the season, a 10-pitch battle that culminated in the game-tying hit in the eighth inning of Game 5 of the American League Championship Series against the Rays.
But did it really work out that well, or could the Red Sox have done better by trading him?
You can't really answer that question without knowing who would be available in a deal for Crisp. He's still just 28, his salary is reasonable, and he proved beyond all doubt that he's a selfless team guy. He's a luxury the Red Sox can afford; there aren't many other teams that could sit on a trading chip of Crisp's value without moving him for pitching. But just because they can afford him doesn't mean they should. Fourth outfielders aren't that difficult to come by, and Ellsbury -- whose plus/minus defensive statistics were better than those of Crisp, ought to be ready to step into an everyday job in center field next spring.
Actually, first, let's look at Ellsbury. His struggles in the playoffs last month are well-chronicled, but take that with the same grain of salt with which you should have taken his 7-for-16 World Series last season. He endured a rough summer -- he hit .245 in June and .247 in July -- but he started strong and finished stronger. He hit lefties better than he hit righties; he hit better at home (.298) but didn't hit all that badly on the road (.264).
He might or might not have a couple of All-Star Games in his future. He might or might not do what Johnny Damon has done in his underrated career. But one of the batters with whom he's most statistically similar (according to baseball-reference.com) through age 24 is Shannon Stewart, and if that's the trajectory onto which he falls, that's not a bad thing. Stewart hit .279 at age 24 but hit .300 or better for the next six straight seasons, and he stole 20 or more bases for the next three straight. His career fizzled quickly, but he was a more-than-serviceable major league outfielder for a long time.
Most believe Ellsbury eventually be better than Crisp. That, not the salary differential, seems to be the reason the Red Sox would prefer to trade Crisp and the reason most teams would prefer to acquire Ellsbury. The Padres probably aren't going to trade Jake Peavy in a deal that centers around Crisp and Clay Buchholz, but they might think hard about a deal that centers around Ellsbury and Buchholz. That's what the Red Sox are going to have to decide: Would they rather trade Crisp for middle-relief help, or would they rather trade Ellsbury as the centerpiece of a deal to get someone like Peavy or Texas catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia?
What they'll do
It seems likely that they'll try again to trade Crisp but again be willing to bring the veteran to spring training, thus eliminating the possibility of making a deal for pennies on the dollar. The Johan Santana discussions a year ago demonstrated how much the Red Sox value their young talent; the emergence of Jon Lester this season demonstrated why that's a good idea. Ellsbury is younger and thus has more upside; Crisp is older and thus is a more proven commodity.
The Red Sox can afford to carry two starting-caliber center fielders on the payroll. Ellsbury has played all three outfield positions; Crisp's reputation is that of one of the best defensive center fielders in the game. But if they could deal Crisp for Sean Marshall of the Cubs or Heath Bell of the Padres, they'd do a lot to strengthen their pitching staff without losing that much from the starting nine.