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Prospect Retrospective: Jacoby Ellsbury, OF, Boston Red Sox

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Jacoby Ellsbury
Jacoby Ellsbury

Prospect Retrospective: Jacoby Ellsbury, OF, Boston Red Sox

Per reader request, here is a Prospect Retrospective for Boston Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury.

Jacoby Ellsbury was drafted in the first round out of Oregon State in 2005, 23rd overall, with the pick the Red Sox got from the Angels for losing Orlando Cabrera as a free agent. A star in college, he'd hit .406/.495/.582 with 26 steals, and was expected to move quickly through the system due to his combination of tools and polished skills. He hit .317/.418/.432 in 35 games for Lowell in the New York-Penn League after signing, swiping 23 bases in 26 attempts, while posting a +28 percent OPS in a pitcher's league. I gave him a Grade B in the 2006 book. The main question for Ellsbury was how much power he would develop.

Assigned to Class A Wilmington to begin 2006, Ellsbury hit .299/.379/.418 in that notorious hitter's park, with 25 steals in 34 attempts over 61 games. Promoted to Double-A at midseason, he hit .308/.387/.434 with 16 steals in 15 games. His combination of speed, plate discipline, and contact hitting ability was highly impressive, and he drew good reviews for his defense as well. I gave him a Grade B+ in the 2007 book, slotting as the Number 21 hitting prospect. Projecting his major league future, I wrote "pencil him in as a .280/.350/.400 hitter with 30-steal potential in the short run, escalating to something like .300/.380/.430 at his peak."

Ellsbury began 2007 with Double-A Portland, hitting a stunning .452/.518/.644 with eight steals in his first 17 games. Promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket, he hit .298/.360/.380 with 33 steals in 87 games. He ended the season in the majors, with a .353/.394/.509 mark in 33 games for Boston, swiping nine bases without being caught. Although he didn't show a lot of home run power, everything else was there, and I gave him a Grade A- in the 2008 book, ranking him as the Number Eight hitting prospect in baseball.

His debut may have caused some unrealistic expectations, and some people actually seemed disappointed by his 2008 rookie season: he hit .280/.336/.394 (close to my original prophecy from '07), though he led the American League with 50 steals and his defense helped push his WAR to 4.2. In 2009 he hit .301/.355/.415 with a league-leading 70 steals and a 2.4 WAR.

A collision and subsequent rib injury limited Ellbury to just 18 games in 2010. He roared back in 2011 with a stunning .321/.376/.552 season with 39 steals, 46 doubles, 32 homers, and 105 RBI, posting a 9.4 WAR in combination with his defense. Unfortunately a shoulder injury limited him to just 74 games in 2012, compromising his hitting skills and leading to a .271/313/.370 line, 1.5 WAR.

Overall, in 581 games Ellsbury is a .297/.349/.442 hitter, with 189 steals and a career wRC+ of 108. However, his line is spiked by a 149 mark in '11. Overall, he has a career WAR of 18.7.

When he was a prospect, I was an optimist about Ellbury's power development, thinking that he could get into the 15-homer range with maturity. I never expected the 46 doubles, 32-homer outburst of 2011 and it seems unlikely to me that he will repeat that.

Through age 28, Ellsbury's Bill James Sim Score list comes out as

Tommy Holmes
Phil Bradley
Carl Furillo
David DeJesus
Tony Gonzalez
Roberto Kelly
Shane Victorino
Floyd Robinson
Pete Fox
Mule Haas

There are no bad players there, but no consistent superstars either. Interestingly, the closest Sim Score Comp, Tommy Holmes, had an out-of-context power spike at age 27, slugging .577 with a league-leading 28 homers. Granted, that was playing diluted competition due to World War Two in 1945, but the parallel is interesting and he wasn't the only one. Phil Bradley had a strong power spike at age 26, hitting a career-high 26 homers. Carl Furillo had a big power spike at age 27. Pete Fox had a significant power spike at age 26. Ellsbury's case was extreme, but there were precedents.

Is Ellsbury a good investment for the long-term? How will he age into his 30s?

Holmes remained an effective hitter until age 33. Bradley fell apart at 31. Furillo remained above average until age 36, though he become more of a power guy and much less of a speed guy. Gonzalez fell apart at 33. Kelly became a bench player/platoon guy by 32 but still hit .300 at age 34, his last full season. Robinson fell apart at age 30. Fox remained effective through age 35 but that includes playing against weak pitching during the war.

Ellsbury drew Kenny Lofton comparisons when he was a prospect, and that also seems like a good comp. Lofton also spiked power at age 27, lasted all the way through age 40, and finished with a career .299/.372/.423 line, 110 wRC+, with an excellent 66.2 career WAR.

My thinking is that Lofton is the maximal, best-case outcome for Ellsbury. Something like Roberto Kelly also seems quite possible if injuries remain a problem and if he doesn't age well.

Overall, Ellsbury has lived up to expectations he generated as a prospect, exceeding them at times, though he's lost large parts of two seasons to injuries.

How long of a contract would you give him?