Jacoby Ellsbury is a 30-year-old outfielder. He derives a great deal of his ability from the prowess of his legs. He has put up fantastic seasons interspersed among injury-filled, ineffective seasons. He is also a free agent. One for whom it has recently been suggested that a seven-year, $142 million contract might be the starting point of discussions.
Sound like a fit for the 2014 Chicago Cubs? They of the relatively limited current resources, the long-term rebuilding plan, and the grim prospects for immediate success?
Of course not. There’s no trick question there. At his conceivable market rate, Jacoby Ellsbury is probably not a great fit for the Chicago Cubs.
And yet, this afternoon, another nationally-reported rumor connects the Cubs to Ellsbury. In some ways, it’s just another in a long string of such reports, ostensibly connecting thin dots between the Cubs’ front office’s background, Ellsbury’s position, the Cubs’ needs, and the market in which the Cubs play.
In another way, it’s the first one of those reports that I actually buy. Here’s the report, courtesy of Mark Feinsand, a Yankees beat reporter for the NY Daily News:
Source says Mariners have "no interest" in Ellsbury. Market looks thin, but source adds that Cubs are stealthily waiting in the wings.
— Mark Feinsand (@Feinsand) November 13, 2013
The report discounts the Mariners’ involvement in Ellsbury, notes a possibly thin market for his services, and then – with the limited characters he has left – names only one team that is interested: the Cubs.
Crazy, right? In some ways, the tweet suggests the Cubs are among the most interested teams in Ellsbury’s services. But if you read it more explicitly, you’ll see that the focus is not on the Cubs’ interest, but on their positioning. And that’s why I buy this one.
If we’ve learned anything over the first two years of this front office’s tenure, it’s that they look for surplus value wherever they can find it. It’s no surprise, then, that they’ve been relatively inactive in the upper end of the free agent market, because there’s rarely ever any surplus value to be found there. So it will probably be with Ellsbury.
But if the Cubs lie in the weeds (“stealthily wait in the wings,” if you prefer Feinsand’s language), wait Ellsbury’s situation out, then you never know what might happen in late January or early February. Maybe Ellsbury hasn’t been able to lock down that seven-year deal, and maybe his demands scale back. Maybe other suitors have spent their funds, and maybe his options become constricted. And maybe surplus value appears, and the Cubs pounce.
I have no doubt that this scenario is not only plausible, but likely. Very few teams are in the position to (1) wait out the market entirely, caring not whether a top-end free agent falls to them or not; and (2) have the resources to sign that top-end free agent to a relatively friendly deal. The Cubs, thanks to low expectations for 2014 and revenue that, while it isn’t as strong as it will be, is still enough to float a bigger deal, find themselves in this unique position.
Does that make the Cubs a suitor for Ellsbury? Not really. Not any more than they’d be a suitor for any other free agent that could fill a positional hole, and who fell to them late in the offseason. But, hey. Might as well lie in the weeds, keep in contact, and see what happens.
Do I think the Cubs will actually land Ellsbury with a strategy like this? Probably not. His agent, Scott Boras, made certain to respond quickly to the “thin market” part of Feinsand’s report:
Scott Boras said interest in free agent Jacoby Ellsbury is "far more than normal for elite players."
— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) November 13, 2013
Boras gonna Boras.
Whether the Cubs ever actually make a serious bid on Ellsbury, or even pursue him tangentially at all, I have no doubt that they’d be plenty happy to monitor the process and pounce if there’s a chance for value.