As we reflect back on the first 90 games of the Red Sox season, it is easy to cite the acquisition of Adrian Gonzalez and his subsequent MVP-caliber production as the reason this team holds a one-game lead over the Yankees in the AL East. One would also point to the resurgence of David Ortiz who had his best start-to-finish pre-All-Star performance since 2007.
But where would this team be right now without Jacoby Ellsbury?
Coming into the 2011 season, you could argue that Ellsbury had more to prove than any of his teammates. Yes, John Lackey was coming off a shaky inaugural season with the Sox, but he posted 14 wins and pitched a full season. Despite another slow start, Ortiz rebounded in traditional Big Papi fashion and put together solid numbers.
But 2010 was a lost year for Ellsbury. Injuries, whispers of conflict over the handling of his rehab with management and comments from disgruntled teammates put a damper on the promising young outfielder's future. Ellsbury played in just 18 games.
Much of the early season focus was on high-priced newcomers Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, coupled with the team's horrible start. Meanwhile, Ellsbury has played 89 games of injury free baseball and the All-Star is on his way to having a career year. The 27-year-old is fifth in the AL in batting with a .316 average, third in total hits with 114, first in stolen bases with 28 and sixth in runs scored with 62. Ellsbury is the catalyst of the league's best run-producing offense.
Ellsbury as a leadoff hitter has been questioned over the years. Could he hit full-time in the leadoff position or would he be more suited to hit closer to the bottom of the order? He had the speed, but did he get on base enough? He posted his best on-base-percentage in 2009 at .355. This year Ellsbury boasts a .377 OBP.
In terms of power, he has already set a career high in home runs with 11 and his 26 doubles are one shy of a personal best.
The offseason signing of Crawford, an outfielder with speed and power, was viewed by many as long-term, yet pricey insurance for the frequently-hobbled Ellsbury. As Crawford still appears to be finding his way with this team, Ellsbury looks right at home. He is back where he belongs in center field after a puzzling experiment in left field last year in favor of Mike Cameron.
The Red Sox avoided arbitration with Ellsbury in the offseason and signed him to a one-year deal, which included incentives for plate appearances. The Scott Boras client becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2014 and if Ellsbury remains on track, we can just imagine what the negotiation table will look like at that point.