Free agent-to-be Jacoby Ellsbury was part of the Red Sox arsenal that helped knock the Tigers out of the playoffs. “If you can’t beat ’em, sign ’em,” the Tigers must be thinking. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe suggests that, given the Tigers’ lack of success with Austin Jackson atop the lineup, they could pursue Ellsbury during the off-season. Cafardo also names Shin-Soo Choo, who spent the 2013 season playing center field and leading off for the Reds.
You may be able to add free agent Jacoby Ellsbury to the list of potential leadoff hitters the Tigers could bid on. Another Scott Boras free agent, Shin-Soo Choo, is also a candidate.
“That’s the one team we haven’t heard Ellsbury’s name mentioned with,” said one American League general manager. “We’ve heard a lot about the Mets, Mariners, Rangers, but the Tigers make perfect sense. They are a big-market team with big resources. There’s a relationship with Scott and Mr. Ilitch. They’ve done business before and there’s no reason they can’t do business again.”
Ellsbury suffered a broken foot in early September when he fouled off a ball. He sat on the bench for three weeks, then came back at the end of the season just in time to join the Red Sox for the playoffs. He finished the regular season with a league-leading 52 stolen bases in 56 attempts while hitting .298. In 45 trips to the plate during the 2013 post-season, Ellsbury has a .400/.467/.525 line along with six stolen bases in seven attempts. He is a high-ceiling kind of player, valued at five or more Wins Above Replacement in the last three years, according to Baseball Reference.
Despite the perception, the Tigers actually had the fourth-highest OPS (.751) out of the lead-off spot in the batting order during the regular season among American League teams. Jackson led off in 127 of 162 games.
The Rays were busy over the weekend, trading starter Jake Odorizzi to the Twins, designating All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment, and then picking up C.J. Cron in a deal with the Angels. The Rays saved about $4 million — Odorizzi’s $6.3 million less Cron’s $2.3 million salary — and picked up a prospect. They’re still on the hook for Dickerson’s $5.95 million salary until they can find a trade partner, which seems likely.
Those are some head-scratching moves if you’re a Rays fan or a member of the Rays. Dickerson hit .282/.325/.490 with 27 home runs, 62 RBI, and 84 runs scored in 629 plate appearances last season, part of which resulted in his first trip to the All-Star Game. Designating him for assignment is strictly a financial move, assuming he can be traded. The Rays are currently operating with a payroll below $70 million. This comes just a week and a half after Rays ownership proposed the public footing most of the bill for the club’s new stadium. And the Rays had traded third baseman Evan Longoria — then the face of the franchise — to the Giants earlier this offseason.
Longoria expressed sympathy for Rays fans for having to put up with this. Via Andrew Baggarly, Longoria said of the curious Dickerson move, “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base. … I’m not going to take too many shots but it’s pretty obvious that guy is a valuable player and didn’t deserve to be DFAd. Corey was our best player last year.”
Longoria isn’t quite on the money there. By WAR, Dickerson ranked fifth among position players on the team, according to Baseball Reference. FanGraphs is also in agreement. Still, it’s indisputable that Dickerson, who turns 29 years old this May, more than pulled his weight. The Rays do not have a surfeit of starting outfielders, so it wasn’t like they were making room for other capable players. Mallex Smith, who put up a .684 OPS in 282 PA last year, is slated to start in left field at the moment. Designating Dickerson for assignment, as well as trading Longoria and Odorizzi, were simply cost-cutting decisions.
The Rays’ M.O. has been part of the problem leading to the current stagnant free agent market (sans Eric Hosmer‘s eight-year deal on Saturday). Teams like the Rays, Phillies, Reds, and Tigers have been explicitly putting out non-competitive teams in order to facilitate a rebuilding process. Longoria is right to express sympathy for Rays fans, who see their favorite team worsening a roster that went 80-82 last year. The Rays haven’t finished at .500 or above since 2013 and doesn’t figure to halt the streak this year.