Monday, February 8, 2010

Ellsbury could be Theo's first arbitration case

Theo Epstein has never had to prepare an arbitration case. A one-year contract just shy of $10 million for Jonathan Papelbon this winter ensured Epstein's record would remain unblemished.

The next challenge for Epstein, though, is looming over the horizon. The next challenge is Jacoby Ellsbury.

Arbitration and the negotiations that usually precede it only get complicated when two sides disagree wildly on the relative value of a player.

Ellsbury is precisely the type of player with whom a panel of arbitrators might have a field day. Ellsbury is an athletic and speedy outfielder with advanced fielding metrics that make him out to be a lousy defensive outfielder. Ellsbury is the best base-stealer in the major leagues but posted an on-base percentage of just .355, fifth-best on his own team. Ellsbury has speed and gap power but hit just 37 combined doubles and triples last season, fewer than Dustin Pedroia and only one more than David Ortiz.

The thing Ellsbury does best -- stealing bases -- isn't something the Red Sox traditionally value. The thing with which Ellsbury has had the most trouble -- drawing walks and getting on base -- is something the Red Sox do value.

It'll be fascinating to see how a panel of arbitrators values the contributions of Ellsbury should the case get that far next winter. Epstein had a history of avoiding arbitration, but it might be difficult for him to find a middle ground with Ellsbury and agent Scott Boras should the two groups differ widely in their evaluation of his abilities.

While assorted clubhouse attendants and contracted movers pack up the truck on Friday for its trip to Fort Myers, Epstein likely will have an eye on the arbitration case of Tampa Bay Rays center fielder B.J. Upton. The two sides in that case were a mere $300,000 apart but couldn't come to an agreement before the deadline to trade figures came and went. The hearing is scheduled for Friday, and a verdict likely will come before Monday.

(Note: The Rays won the arbitration case.)

A win for Upton might not just mean an extra $300,000 in his pocket. A win for Upton might embolden similar players in the future -- Ellsbury being the first -- to go to a hearing and see if they can convince a panel that their athleticism is worth big money.

So far, it seems, players in the Ellsbury mold have been willing to sign long-term extensions to avoid their arbitration years in exchange for financial security. Carl Crawford signed a long-term deal with the Rays. Chone Figgins signed a deal with the Los Angeles Angels. Curtis Granderson signed a deal with the Detroit Tigers. Jose Reyes signed a deal with the New York Mets. Chris Young signed a deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

All of those deals represented financial concessions in exchange for long-term security, just as the contracts of Jon Lester and Dustin Pedroia with the Red Sox did.

There's a pretty good chance, though, that Boras will rebuff any efforts by the Red Sox at a long-term extension for less money and instead take his chances with a year-by-year approach the way Papelbon has. There's little precedent in arbitration for a player whose best asset is his ability to steal bases -- and Boras undoubtedly will dismiss comparisons to Crawford or Granderson as irrelevant given their context within long-term deals.

Just for the sake of argument, though, here's a look at the deals to which the above players agreed in lieu of going through salary arbitration:

Carl Crawford ($15.25 million over four years)
Arb Year 1: $2.5 million
Arb Year 2: $4 million
Arb Year 3: $5.25 million

Chone Figgins ($10.5 million over three years)
Super-Two: $2.25 million*
Arb Year 1: $3.5 million
Arb Year 2: $4.75 million
Arb Year 3: $5.775 million**
* Figgins had enough service time as a Super Two to qualify for four arbitration seasons rather than three
** Figgins signed a one-year deal to avoid a hearing

Curtis Granderson ($30.25 million over five years)
Arb Year 1: $3.5 million
Arb Year 2: $5.5 million
Arb Year 3: $8.25 million

Jose Reyes ($23.25 million over four years)
Arb Year 1: $2.5 million
Arb Year 2: $4 million
Arb Year 3: $5.75 million

Chris Young ($28 million over five years)
Arb Year 1: $3.25 million
Arb Year 2: $5 million
Arb Year 3: $7 million

(One side note: It's fascinating that Jonathan Papelbon earned $6.25 million in his first arbitration while each of the above players earned $3.5 million or less. Saves might be overvalued in the arbitration process, but stolen bases appear not to be.)

If Figgins, Granderson and Young all earned better than $3 million in their fourth major-league season -- a player doesn't qualify for arbitration unless he has at least three seasons of service time, with the exception of Super Twos -- you can bet Boras and Ellsbury will ask for at least $3 million in arbitration.

If Upton wins his case on Friday, you can bet Boras and Ellsbury will ask for close to $4 million in arbitration. Just look at the numbers for the two players last season:

Ellsbury: .301/.355/.415 with 70 stolen bases
Upton: .241/.313/.373 with 42 stolen bases

On top of that, Upton struck out 152 times while Ellsbury struck out 74 times. It's not difficult to make a case that Ellsbury should be paid more than Upton -- especially to an arbitrator who might or might not be well-versed in sabermetrics or advanced defensive statistics.

Should the panel of arbitrators rule in favor of Upton this weekend, Epstein might have to start bracing for the toughest arbitration fight of his career.

Postscript: They didn't. But an initial arbitration figure of $3.5 million is going to be far from out of line for Ellsbury.


Anonymous said...

Also on the horizon, if Bard doesn't spend at least 20 days in the minors in one of the next two years he will be a Super-2 since he has 148 days of service time.

I wonder if we will give him a deal, or try to stash him in the minors for a month to avoid 4 years of arbitration.

Brian MacPherson said...

Anonymous: I don't see the Red Sox stashing him in the minor leagues in 2010 just to save $2 million in 2012. He's too important to their bullpen for them to do that.

Whether he is receptive to a long-term deal or not -- and the guess here is that he would be receptive, as Buchholz might be, too -- it would be silly to miss the playoffs by a game or two because you stashed one of your best middle relievers in the minor leagues to save what amounts to pocket change.

Anonymous said...

I don't see them extending Bard. Middle relievers are very volatile, replaceable, and cheap. If he doesn't have lots of saves (and by next year he certainly won't, after that would depend on Papelbon) then he'll never get into the 7-10M range where it would make sense to lock him up long term. Nothing wrong with going year to year with guys unless you think there is a risk of getting crushed by arbitration Howard/Lincecum style, and as a reliever if you don't have a 50 save season, there is very little chance of that

floydiansea said...

If you guys want to send Ellsbury to the Twins, that'd be fantastic by me.


He can even have Delmon Young's locker.