There's a ripple effect when a free agent signs. Whether it's with his former team or in a new destination, there is a group of players whose careers are directly affected by the new player's arrival or departure, either due to playing time now available or because they are now blocked. Many of these players are existing veterans, but many of them are also prospects hovering just below the surface hoping to get a chance. It is the ripple effect of these signings that I plan to look at here.
Jacoby Ellsbury is one of the bigger fish in a rather shallow pond of free agents this off-season, but his impact could be felt throughout two organizations, depending on his decision of whether to leave his World Champion teammates behind.
If Ellsbury decides to stay in Boston, the main person affected will be Jackie Bradley, Jr. Red Sox fans know JBJ as the rookie that made the Opening Day roster and drew an awesome walk off of C.C. Sabathia in his first career at-bat in what turned out to be the highlight of his season. Making the jump directly from Double-A to the majors, the freshly 23-year-old Bradley had a big case of deer-in-headlight-itis in the majors, and ended up being up and down from the majors throughout the season. Of course, while in Triple-A, he was exactly the hitter everyone expected him to be, being a table-setting catalyst who hit .275/.374/.469 at Pawtucket.
There is absolutely no bloom off of the Jackie Bradley rose.
If the Red Sox let Ellsbury leave, it will be partially because he commands too much for a player who has hit more than 10 home runs just once, has a strong injury history and is a speed player looking for a contract well into his late 30's, but it will also be because of the presence of Bradley to take his place. If Ellsbury leaves, the center field job in Boston is essentially Bradley's, and unlike last year, he should now be ready to hold onto it.
But if he does stay, it becomes a serious question what the Red Sox do with Bradley. Sure he can play left field and would be quite good at it, but for a player who derives an above-average portion of his value from his ability to play a plus center field, using him in left, especially the smallest left field in baseball, would be a waste of one of the things he does best. It would be like only letting Jonny Gomes grow a mustache.
And speaking of Gomes, he's back next year. As as are Daniel Nava and Shane Victorino. If Ellsbury returns to play center field, it removes the need for the only thing that Bradley can do that the rest of the Red Sox returning outfielders can't (I'm assuming that Shane Victorino will be a below-average defensive center fielder by now). If Ellsbury returns, there doesn't appear to be a spot for Bradley to play every day.
That being the case, he either immediately becomes trade bait or will spend an unnecessary year in Triple-A.
The presence of Bradley, however, is enough for the Red Sox to be comfortable holding their ground on their limits of what they want to pay Ellsbury. It's much easier to let a free agent walk when you have a viable replacement in-house, and even easier when he's dirt cheap. As much as they'd like to keep Ellsbury, the Red Sox may very well be better off getting 75 percent of Ellsbury's production for 1/20th of the price and spending that money elsewhere.
If the Red Sox don't pony up Ellsbury's price, there will be plenty of other teams willing to overpay him. Not all of them have a prospect like Bradley waiting in the wings, and likely if they did they wouldn't spend the money either. But wherever he signs, there will be prospects affected.
Rangers: The Rangers may elect to upgrade from their current center field platoon of Leonys Martin and Craig Gentry. Engle Beltre saw some time there as well and is still technically a prospect and Alex Rios can fill in there as well, but they would prefer to use him in right field to replace the likely departing Nelson Cruz.
Beltre is the closest thing to a prospect the Rangers have that would be blocked by Ellsbury, but he's not close to the caliber of a player like Bradley. He is likely a reserve outfielder at best and can still do that with Ellsbury in town. But Ellsbury's presence would remove one of the options the Rangers have to try to find at-bats for Jurickson Profar, assuming he's still on their roster come April. In fact, an Ellsbury signing may signal the end of Profar in Texas.
In order for Profar to play every day, someone either has to be traded or move to the outfield. The way the Rangers roster stands right now, Gentry, Rios, Martin and David Murphy are already fighting for three OF spots with two of them platooning. Cruz's departure opens up some AB's at DH, but it's still a crowded outfield, and that's before either Profar or second baseman Ian Kinsler shifts out there. If Ellsbury signs in Texas, he'd be a huge upgrade in center field, but someone would have to go. In order for it not to be Profar, then the Rangers would have to trade either Kinsler or Elvis Andrus this winter. Profar would bring back by far the biggest return.
Mariners: The Mariners are perhaps the leaders in the rumor mill clubhouse early on in the hot stove season, if for no other reason than they have money to spend, a need for Ellsbury and are the closest team to his home town (because we all know Scott Boras cares about those sorts of things). The Mariners have a deep farm system despite graduating Brad Miller, Nick Franklin and Mike Zunino to the majors in 2013. What they don't have is an incumbent center fielder and would be the organization least likely to have anyone of significance blocked by Ellsbury, limiting the opportunity cost involved in the signing.
The player most affected by an Ellsbury signing would probably be former prospect Dustin Ackley, who moonlighted in center field this season after the promotions of Miller and Franklin. He's trying to re-create himself as an outfielder, but if he has to play left field he loses most of his value. Of course it doesn't mean the Mariners shouldn't do it.
Yankees: The Yankees interest in Ellsbury will be directly affected by their desire to re-sign Curtis Granderson. Assuming they choose Ellsbury instead, it's not a tough move to slide Brett Gardner back over to left field where he is an excellent defender.
In the minors, however, we have a block. Mason Williams is one of the team's best prospects, and while he doesn't have the polish of Bradley and isn't nearly as ready for the majors, his arrival in the majors will certainly be at some point during the length of Ellsbury's contract. There are still questions about Williams's game. He's a top-notch athlete who may never hit enough to play every day, but he's still one of the better prospects in the Yankees farm system.
Williams will be in Double-A this season and could be in the majors by 2015. If the Yankees sign Ellsbury, it probably won't be in the Bronx. If Ellsbury signs with the Yankees, Williams instantly becomes one of their biggest trading chips, and they may be best served to move him before other teams know for sure that he won't hit.
Phillies: The Phillies have some big money coming off the books this season and are always a candidate to spend big on a free agent. They don't have a direct need for a center fielder, but Ben Revere's first year in Philadelphia didn't have too many positives and the Phillies have needed a leadoff hitter for years.
The Phillies outfield is already crowded with Revere, Domonic Brown, Darin Ruf and John Mayberry, so adding Ellsbury would only further complicate things. Brown isn't going anywhere and Revere will likely get another shot, pushing Mayberry into a 4th OF role (where he belongs) and Ruf into a backup role (where he should be platooning with Ryan Howard at first, but likely won't get a chance.
On the farm, however, the Phillies have a number of toolsy, athletic outfielders who would now become trade bait. Aaron Altherr is interesting player heading to Double-A this season who is still more potential than production but is heading the right direction. He's in the AFL this year. Jiwan James fits the same profile, although with significantly less production thus far. Kelly Dugan broke out this season with the power potential the Phillies had hoped for. He's a right fielder but the Phillies outfield would be crowded all over with Ellsbury in tow.
Much like Williams and the Yankees, none of these guys is ready for the majors yet and the Phillies would not be forced to make a decision on anybody just yet. These logjams have a way of working themselves out over time. But Ellsbury in the fold and manning center field for the rest of the decade would certainly block any of them from playing center field and thus limiting much of their value, especially for the toolsy, athletic bunch.
Cubs: The Cubs and Theo Epstein certainly have a connection to Ellsbury and money to spend. They're not ready to compete but should be during the length of his contract. The Cubs feature perhaps the best collection of position prospects in the majors.
There is the potential for a logjam at third base among a number of Cubs prospects, but if Ellsbury heads to Wrigley, there could be one in the outfield as well. Matt Szczur is 23 and is coming off of a solid season in Double-A. He's extremely athletic and profiles as a table-setter but his ceiling isn't that high. At his absolute best, he'd probably be a poor-man's Ellsbury, which gives the Cubs little reason not to sign the real version at Szczur's expense.
A much better prospect is Albert Almora who has the potential to be a first-division regular in center field. That profile, however, is still 2-3 years away, as Almora spent the 2013 season at Low-A Kane County. He's a good enough prospect that the Cubs can consider him in their plans for the future even though he's still far away, but he's not close enough to the majors to make them not sign Ellsbury.
Again, these are the kinds of logjams that work themselves out, but if Ellsbury signs with the Cubs, it likely pushes Almora to a corner outfield spot where he would be less valuable, and would take away one of the options for Javier Baez or Kris Bryant if they have to change positions. More likely if the Cubs sign Ellsbury is that at least one of the Cubs impressive stash of hitting prospects ends up playing for someone else.
There is a ripple effect that takes place with free agents and these are just some of the possibilities. There are other teams that could certainly sign Ellsbury and other prospects that will be blocked. No one mentioned here is reason enough not to sign a player like Ellsbury, and only Bradley is close enough to the majors to even be a factor. Still, because of the expected length of Ellsbury's contract and his status within the game, each of them could see their career paths altered should he sign with their organization.