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Jacoby Ellsbury, B.J. Upton and the Red Sox’ protected draft pick

10.01.12 at 10:39 am ET
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BALTIMORE — Interesting shifts are occurring in the dynamics of American League East center fielders.

Jacoby Ellsbury returned to the lineup on Saturday after missing the previous eight days due to a mystery ailment. He went 1-for-8 with three strikeouts in two Red Sox losses.

The Sox, meanwhile, saw their brutal season reach a new milestone for futility. The team reached 90 losses for the first time in 45 years, a plateau that clinched a top-10 draft pick for the team. That is significant given that the Sox’ first-round pick is now protected. They will retain their first-round pick even if they sign one of the elite free agents on the market this offseason. While the Sox would have to give up a pick if they sign a player who receives a qualifying offer (a one-year deal in the $13 million vicinity), it would be their second-round selection that they would sacrifice, rather than their first.

The difference between having a protected top pick and an unprotected win is potentially significant in determining the Sox’ approach to free agency, as Red Sox GM Ben Cherington recently explained.

“Certainly, there’s a difference between having a protected pick and not having one in terms of the level of how aggressive you are in going after certain free agents. That’s certainly part of the calculus in terms of who to go after — what you’re giving up. If it’s just money, it’s one thing. If it’s money plus a pick, it’s another thing,” said Cherington. “There’s no doubt that that will be factored in. It won’t be the only factor but it will be factored in. … The last thing we want to do is be picking that high, because obviously it’s a reflection of what our major league team has done, but it is what it is this year and we’ve got to take full advantage of it.”

Meanwhile, in Chicago, Tampa Bay Rays outfielder B.J. Upton slammed two more homers on Sunday. He now has 28 homers and 31 steals — including a mind-blowing 19 homers since the start of August. His characteristic strong walk totals have dwindled this year, but all the same, he’s delivering considerable impact as he approaches free agency — shortly after his 28th birthday.

A quick comparison of Upton and Ellsbury in 2012:

Player Age PA G SB CS HR BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
B.J. Upton 27 621 143 31 6 28 0.247 0.299 0.457 0.756 110
Jacoby Ellsbury 28 313 72 14 3 4 0.273 0.316 0.375 0.692 85

It’s worth noting that even in the worst year of his career, Ellsbury has a higher on-base percentage than Upton. And, of course, the Sox are desperate for more high on-base players, as they’ve seen Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Gonzalez and Marco Scutaro depart, leaving in their wake more aggressive hitters like Will Middlebrooks and Mike Aviles. Still, in 2012, there’s little question that Upton has looked like the most impactful player.

But Ellsbury has been injured for more than half of this season. That being the case, in fairness, it’s worth seeing how the two players have fared since Ellsbury broke into the league in 2007:

Player Age PA G SB CS HR BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
B.J. Upton 22-27 3685 868 217 65 113 0.256 0.338 0.430 0.769 109
Jacoby Ellsbury 23-28 2558 579 189 42 56 0.297 0.350 0.443 0.792 107

Ellsbury has slightly better rate stats than Upton, but Upton has had a higher OPS-plus than Ellsbury while one year younger than his Red Sox colleague in center field — something that accounts for the fact that Upton has made his home in a pitcher’s park, while Ellsbury has made his residence in an environment that typically has been somewhere between fair to favorable for its occupants. Both are considered premium defenders. Upton has shown a more consistent power/speed combination than Ellsbury — while Ellsbury has a 30/30 season to his credit and Upton does not, Ellsbury has never hit as many as 10 homers in another season. Meanwhile, Upton has three 20/20 seasons to his name.

To date, there’s little indication that the Red Sox and Ellsbury have common ground to reach an extension that would keep the center fielder in Boston past next season, Ellsbury’s last before becoming eligible for free agency. As recently as last month, the smart money was probably on the Sox keeping Ellsbury for his final season before free agent eligibility and then letting him walk in the offseason, collecting a draft pick in the process.

But now, with a protected pick, the dynamics are a bit different. The Sox could sign a player like Upton — who is really at the start of his prime — while sacrificing no more than a second-round draft pick (assuming that the Rays make a one-year qualifying offer to him — not a given, since Tampa Bay might not be able to afford him in the unlikely event that he accepted a one-year, $13-ish million deal, but still likely). If the Sox can find common ground with the center fielder on a deal, then, in theory, they could deal Ellsbury for either prospects (something more valuable than a second-round pick, obviously) or for a player who might address another major league need, whether a starter or perhaps a first baseman.

That’s not to say that such a scenario will occur or is even likely to happen. After all, the Sox are leery of getting burned on long-term free agent deals (the most recent signing by the Sox of a Rays star outfielder didn’t work out so well . . . ), so depending on where Upton’s asking price ends up, he could represent too risky a long-term investment for the Sox to undertake, particularly given that Sox prospect Jackie Bradley Jr. is probably about a season away from being ready to be a starting center fielder in the big leagues.

But, unquestionably, the struggles of Ellsbury this year and the fact that the Sox are now certain to have a protected pick change the outlook of what might be possible this offseason. That, in turn, raises all kinds of fascinating possibilities.

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