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Turning around and trading Ellsbury would result in a steal for Padres

By Nick Cafardo
December 17, 2009

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Obviously, we are sensing the proverbial next shoe is about to drop. If it is Adrian Gonzalez (with an outside shot at Miguel Cabrera), which would be a ginormous move by the Red Sox to cap what would be an eye-popping offseason, then what is there not to like? Well, one thing: if one of the players going to San Diego is Jacoby Ellsbury.

If Ellsbury is the hot name from the San Diego side, then Theo Epstein should just say no.

Give up Ryan Westmoreland, and include a better prospect or two at the end of the deal. Ellsbury is a special player who hit .301, stole 70 bases, and scored 94 runs last season, and one who plays a very good center field and is just 26 years old. He’s a game-changer who turns singles into doubles, doubles into triples, and who alters pitching patterns and enables batters coming up after him to see more fastballs when he’s on base. And while his on-base percentage in 2009 was a pedestrian .355, it was .388 in September and October. He was hitting the ball the other way more, and as he matures, he’ll be slapping doubles off the Wall.

This is a guy you want in the lineup with Gonzalez.

You can understand Padres rookie general manager Jed Hoyer wanting both Clay Buchholz and Ellsbury to sell trading Gonzalez to his fan base. Gonzalez is popular in San Diego and talk of a trade hasn’t sat well. When we first reported in Sunday’s Globe that the Sox and Padres had been talking about Gonzalez, we mentioned the deal wouldn’t get done unless Casey Kelly, Westmoreland, or Daniel Bard were included. Now you can add Ellsbury.

The Padres would need Ellsbury as a poster boy for their future. In enormous Petco Park, it would be a sign to fans that the philosophy is changing and that the Padres are going with speed and pitching. In Petco, Buchholz would likely succeed. Hoyer said at his introductory news conference that he would tailor the team to the ballpark. Well, Ellsbury, a player drafted by former Sox director of amateur scouting Jason McLeod, who has joined Hoyer in San Diego, would be the beginning of that.

Epstein was correct to say yesterday that the Red Sox aren’t desperate to do something, because in his heart he knows trading Ellsbury is a mistake. After all, there’s nothing wrong with going into the season with a starting rotation of Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Jon Lester, Buchholz, and Daisuke Matsuzaka, and using Tim Wakefield as a spot starter who could back up a pitcher in need of rest. In fact, that’s pretty impressive. The Red Sox need to address third base, which Gonzalez could do with Kevin Youkilis moving to third, but they must first wait to see whether Mike Lowell comes bouncing back to them if Texas renegs on the Max Ramirez deal.

While Gonzalez is the last piece of what could be a very good lineup, trading Ellsbury eliminates a tremendously important element - speed. Ellsbury is one of the most exciting players in the game. Again, not sure why you would include him in the conversation when you could give up an unproven player like Westmoreland, who is highly rated by Hoyer and McLeod.

Neither the Red Sox nor Mike Cameron were able to answer yesterday where the 36-year-old outfielder is going to play, so an Ellsbury trade scenario could be in play. With Cameron, Ellsbury, and J.D. Drew, the Red Sox have significantly improved their outfield defense. Cameron is a three-time Gold Glove center fielder who could still play there. Instead of the decision being whether Cameron will play center and whether Jeremy Hermida or Xavier Nady (also on Boston’s radar) would be in left, the hope is that the final decision is whether Ellsbury should shift to left and Cameron should play center.

The only consideration in such a move would be leg preservation. Do you preserve Ellsbury’s legs and move him to left field so he can be more effective on the base paths and not wear himself out with diving catches in center, or do you preserve Cameron’s legs, which would allow him to concentrate on his offense?

Those are legitimate conversations that the Sox should be having. Whether to include Ellsbury in a deal for Gonzalez shouldn’t be in the equation. Maybe this year’s top pick, Reymond Fuentes, will turn into Ellsbury, but who knows? Maybe Josh Reddick will become a very good major league center fielder, but while Reddick is fast, he’s not Ellsbury fast.

“Boy, I’ll tell you, guys like Ellsbury are rare,’’ said one veteran National League executive. “That’s rare talent and athleticism in a baseball uniform. Believe me, I completely understand the Padres needing to get him in a deal for Gonzalez, but I’d think of another player or two to include if I were the Red Sox.’’

If Ellsbury were a finished product, you’d say OK, let’s do it. But he’s hardly that. Ellsbury has improved every season. He’s improving by the month, really. He’s a young player who wants to be the best, and 31 other teams would love to have him. Epstein was correct in not including him in a Johan Santana deal a couple of years ago, and Ellsbury has done nothing but reinforce that decision. If that’s the decision that was made then, that’s the decision that should be made now.

There actually is more pressure on the Padres than the Red Sox to get a Gonzalez deal done. The Padres have a big-market, deep-pocket team interested in Gonzalez. The Padres have firsthand knowledge of the inventory. Will they let this opportunity slip by? Will they take the chance that Boston is interested in Gonzalez at the trading deadline, or that there would be another deep-pocket team interested in Gonzalez after the season ends? Even if the Mets, who need a first baseman, wanted Gonzalez, do they have the minor league players that could satisfy Hoyer and McLeod? Probably not. Seattle? The Mariners were interested in Gonzalez at the trading deadline this past season. They have done quite a bit this offseason with the signing of Chone Figgins and the trade for Cliff Lee. They’ve given up prospects. While they would be able to absorb Gonzalez’s $4.5 million and $5.5 million salaries the next two years, what about after that? They’re about to get involved with big-money, long-term deals for Felix Hernandez and Lee.

The popular and safe move for the Padres is not to deal Gonzalez. Nobody in San Diego would blame Hoyer for holding onto this player. But then, if he doesn’t have a place to ship him next year and winds up getting nothing but draft picks, that wouldn’t be good.

That’s why Epstein is right to say he is not desperate. He should not be desperate enough to trade one of the best athletes in major league baseball.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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