"You can never have enough center fielders."
-- Theo Epstein
The Red Sox general manager, about to enter his eighth season, has made it a focus to accumulate as much up-the-middle talent as he can. His captain has been his catcher (Jason Varitek). His first major trade was for a shortstop (Orlando Cabrera). His first impact rookie was a second baseman (Dustin Pedroia). His first out-of-nowhere World Series hero was a center fielder (Jacoby Ellsbury). His first major trade -- even though it was made in his absence -- was built around a shortstop (Hanley Ramirez).
And of the top 15 position-player prospects in the organization, according to SoxProspects.com, 12 play either catcher, shortstop, second base or center field. Five of the team's top 14 prospects, in fact, look like they'll have the ability to play center field in the major leagues: Reymond Fuentes, Ryan Kalish, Che-Hsuan Lin, Josh Reddick, and Ryan Westmoreland.
(Reddick is the most borderline. His future likely is in right field or left field. SoxProspects, though, specifically points out that "Reddick has the range to be a full time major league center fielder.")
That's what makes today's note from the Chicago Tribune's Phil Rogers so interesting:
Worth watching: If the Red Sox wind up with Matt Holliday or Jason Bay, the Cubs immediately would make a major effort to land Jacoby Ellsbury to fill their center field/leadoff hole, according to sources. That scenario helps explain why the Cubs have been so patient in studying their options. The best way to do such a trade might be for GM Jim Hendry to facilitate a three-team deal that sends first baseman Adrian Gonzalez from the Padres to the Red Sox by packaging a group of prospects, possibly including one or two of their top ones, such as third baseman Josh Vitters, shortstop Hak-Ju Lee and pitchers Andrew Cashner and Jay Jackson.
Ellsbury, of course, already has been associated with the Gonzalez trade rumors this winter. Proponents of including Ellsbury in a package generally have focused on his subpar defensive numbers, according to advanced metrics, and his relatively low on-base percentage at the top of the Red Sox lineup.
There's an even better reason for the Red Sox to look hard at moving Ellsbury if it means a big upgrade elsewhere -- especially if that upgrade is Gonzalez.
Epstein has made Ellsbury expendable.
The reason Ellsbury is so valuable is because he can produce so much while earning so little. He won't even be eligible for salary arbitration until next season, and his team then still will have three years' worth of control of his rights until he hits the open market. Even those who believe Ellsbury has become overrated can't deny that his production far outweighs his salary -- and will do so at least until he hits his second year of arbitration.
That's reason enough to hang onto him unless there's a player behind him ready to fill in with similar production at a similarly low salary -- and, thus, similar bang for the buck. The Red Sox have a half-dozen players in their minor-league system with the potential to do just that.
No, none of them are ready yet. Reddick is closest by virtue of his major-league experience last season. Kalish likely will make his major-league debut at some point next season. But it's not unreasonable to imagine the Red Sox opening the 2010 season with Mike Cameron in center field and Kalish and Reddick both waiting in the wings. Fuentes, Lin and Westmoreland all are 21 years old or younger, but all three could come along within the next three or four years.
There's no reason to hoard so much young talent it doesn't fit on the major-league roster. Kalish and Reddick won't do the Red Sox any good if they're tearing apart the International League.
(This, of course, assumes they'll tear apart the International League. You can't ever make that assumption with individual prospects. The odds that both Kalish and Reddick flop, though, seem pretty minimal.)
The Red Sox can get more in a trade for Ellsbury than they can for Kalish or Reddick simply because Ellsbury already has demonstrated he can hold his own at the major-league level. Trading Ellsbury, however, would have left the Red Sox with a void in center field if not for the signing of Cameron -- a bridge, if you will, to the prospects who seem to be on the way.
If the Cubs are willing to offer the Red Sox enough in the way of prospects for Ellsbury that the Padres don't insist on Clay Buchholz in a trade for Gonzalez, that's a move the Red Sox should make without hesitating.