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Jacoby Ellsbury: Why St. Louis Cardinals Should Avoid Targeting the Free Agent Center Fielder

The Cardinals Need an Upgrade in Center Field, but Overpaying for a 30-year-Old Would Not Be Wise

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COMMENTARY | The St. Louis Cardinals enter the winter with two glaring needs.

The Cardinals desperately need to address the shortstop position as the combination of Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso simply did not get it done this season. The Cardinals also must look for an upgrade in center field. Jon Jay had a down season at the plate and some of his defensive deficiencies became apparent this postseason. If St. Louis feels that prized prospect Oscar Taveras is not ready to play the position regularly, the Cardinals must find an answer.

Many fans in St. Louis feel that Boston Red Sox center fielder and now free agent Jacoby Ellsbury would be the perfect solution. But after looking closely and considering what it will likely cost to bring in Ellsbury, the St. Louis Cardinals should simply avoid targeting the 30-year-old speedster.

Ellsbury and his agent Scott Boras are believed to looking for a deal north of $100 million, and that price would simply be too steep for the Cardinals and general manager John Mozeliak to pay. Here is why:

Ellsbury has had trouble staying healthy. Ellsbury missed most of the 2010 and 2012 seasons with injuries and may suggest he is a bit fragile. In 2010, Ellsbury played in only 18 games while suffering with broken ribs. He tried to come back on two occasions from the injury, but subsequently landed back on the disabled list each time.

in 2012, Ellsbury dislocated his shoulder while sliding into second base and played in just 74 games. When he did return in 2012, he had just a .682 OPS.

Ellsbury does not have very much power. In 2011, Ellsbury hit 32 home runs and had 46 doubles while posting an outstanding .928 OPS. Those are numbers worthy of a $100 million contract. But since suffering the shoulder injury, Ellsbury's power has completely disappeared.

Ellsbury hit just nine home runs in 2013 with 31 doubles. Ellsbury's .781 OPS in 2013 is a 60 basis point upgrade over Jay, who had a .721 OPS in 2013. But is a sub-.800 OPS and the risk of Ellsbury's 2011 power number never returning really worth $100 million? That is not a risk that Mozeliak and the Cardinals usually take.

Ellsbury is not a young pup anymore, which usually does not bode well for players who rely on their legs so much to make an impact. In the short-term, Ellsbury will likely be a difference-maker on the bases. But how many more seasons will Ellsbury be able to light up the stat sheet with his legs and post 52 stolen bases like he did in 2013? As he gets older, Ellsbury's legs will wear down, and that extra value he provides with his ability to swipe a bag will increasingly diminish over time.

Ellsbury is good defensively, but he is not that much of an upgrade. If the Cardinals are going to pay top dollar for a center fielder, then they must receive premium defense in return. Ellsbury covers some good ground in center field. His 2.65 range factor in 2013 was eighth among all center fielders in baseball in 2013, compared to Jay's 2.37, which was 15th.

But most complaints about Jay's defense are surrounding his extremely weak arm. Ellsbury's is not too much better. Jay actually had four assists in 2013, one more than Ellsbury. Placing Ellsbury in center field would not mean that teams would stop running on the Cardinals on balls hit up the middle.

Ellsbury would not be an upgrade in the leadoff spot, either. Sure, Ellsbury's ability to swipe bags is attractive, but the leadoff hitter's true job is to get on base and Ellsbury did that at only a .355 clip in 2013.

Matt Carpenter, on the other hand, was one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball in 2013, getting on base at .398 clip while hitting No. 1, good for second-best in baseball. Carpenter did not need to steal bases to make an impact. Even Jay, who hit well down in the Cardinals order, posted a .351 on-base percentage, which is just slightly lower than Ellsbury.

Ellsbury is yet another left-handed bat and the Cardinals already are too dependent on hitters from the left side. With Carpenter a mainstay in the lineup and with Matt Adams, Kolten Wong, Oscar Taveras, Jay, and Daniel Descalso also all hitting from the left side, the Cardinals should look for a right-handed upgrade in center field.

Finally, signing Ellsbury would cost the Cardinals a first-round draft pick. The Red Sox made Ellsbury a one-year qualifying offer, meaning they would receive a first-rounder as compensation for losing Ellsbury. With Mozeliak's ability to draft and the organization's experience at quickly developing young, cheap talent, losing a draft pick would not be worth the marginal upgrades and financial cost Ellsbury would require.

Ellsbury is a nice player and likely will receive his $100 million asking price from some team that needs a high quality center fielder. But because of his age, injury history, lack of power, the fact that he hits left-handed and his marginal defensive upside over the team's current alternatives, the St. Louis Cardinals should avoid the temptation of targeting Ellsbury.

Corey Rudd is owner/editor of and co-host of Fan Interference on CBS Sports 920 AM in St. Louis. Rudd writes about the St. Louis Cardinals, St. Louis Rams and Missouri Tigers football team as a contributor for Yahoo Sports. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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