It may be patently false, but it’s hard not to feel like the Boston Red Sox are lacking top-end talent. The hushed whispers heard around New England these days aren’t brilliantly colored leaves falling to the ground; they’re the murmurings of concerned Red Sox fans, anxious to land a superstar or two through free agency or trade.
The Red Sox may acquire any number of players this offseason, but the one who could have the most potential impact in 2013 is already on their roster. That player is Jacoby Ellsbury.
I first met Ellsbury in the summer of 2005 when he was only 21, in the low minors and just weeks removed from signing with the Red Sox as their first round draft pick out of Oregon State University. I struck up a conversation with the outfielder prior to one of his games and was surprised at his geniality. He gently corrected me when I called him Jacob (the result of my bringing an error-laden roster with me to the game), but didn’t let my ignorance affect his demeanor.
Honestly, I wasn’t all that impressed watching him play back then. He consistently got on base, showed great speed and played good defense, but nothing about him made me think he was going to become a star.
Ellsbury developed into a much better player than I ever imagined from those early days. He’s a true four-tool player. He can hit, hit with power, run and play defense, though he can’t throw a lick. He has a .297 career batting average, has led the league in stolen bases twice and finished a close second in the 2011 AL MVP race.
Ellsbury has also been maddeningly unreliable, playing in only 250 of a possible 486 games during the past three seasons. When he is at his best, he has few peers, but his lineup absences have frequently made him an enigma. Which version of Ellsbury plays (or doesn’t play) in 2013 will largely determine the direction of the Red Sox, in both the short term and the long term. He may not be the star Red Sox fans want, but he could be the star that Red Sox fans need.
Much has deservedly been made of Mike Trout’s historic 2012 season, when he became the first player in MLB history to hit 30 home runs, steal 45 bases and score 125 runs in a single season. However, it seems largely forgotten that just one year earlier Ellsbury nearly matched those numbers by hitting 32 home runs, stealing 39 bases and scoring 119 runs.
There might be more believers in Ellsbury if he had any track record of consistency, but all we have are snapshots of his potential greatness.
His power outburst in 2011 came as a pleasant surprise to many around baseball who believed he was capable, but unlikely, to reach that level. He had previously hit a total of just 20 home runs in 349 career games. He was unable to prove 2011 wasn’t a fluke, as he appeared in just 74 games in 2012 because of injury, and produced less than he ever had before.
The growing sense of Red Sox fan frustration with Ellsbury comes not only from his inconsistency, but because he is entering his contract walk year. Represented by super-agent Scott Boras, the general consensus is that Ellsbury will hold the Red Sox hostage with demands for an enormous contract. This has resulted in a general clambering to trade him now; a surrogate punishment for having “let the team down” in the past and his perceived greed in the future. Catering to those irrational emotions would likely to leave the Red Sox in a state of regret.
The Red Sox can win by relying on Ellsbury as an integral part of their 2013 team. If healthy, he is capable of challenging Trout as the best all-around player in the game. Teaming a fully-functioning Ellsbury with Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Will Middlebrooks gives the Red Sox as formidable an offensive nucleus as any team in the AL.
Boston could then be in a position to bring him back on a long term deal, given their newfound financial flexibility accomplished by shedding more than $250 million with their historic trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers last season.
If Ellsbury doesn’t regain his dynamic style of play, the Red Sox can let him play the season out or trade him, but will have no obligation beyond 2013. Regardless, it’s hard to imagine the team could do much worse than the 69-93 record they foisted upon their fans this past season.
The Red Sox are actually in an enviable position with Ellsbury. Before investing long term or trading him away for what might be pennies on the dollar, they can make an informed choice based on what they see in 2013. He will play next season as a 29-year-old, the age which John Charles Bradbury of the Journal of Sports Sciences determined was when the average baseball player reached their peak performance. Assuming good health, Ellsbury should have only himself to battle in determining what his Boston legacy will be in this make-or-break season.
Gambling on Ellsbury’s return to excellence is as good a bet as any free agent or trade target the team can pursue this winter. As the cliché phrase goes, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and if Ellsbury plays to his full potential the Red Sox could have a great jump on their rebuilding process.
Statistics via BaseballReference
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