The Boston Red Sox are set to begin spring training, and their starting center fielder will be Jacoby Ellsbury. At this time next year, however, that likely will not be the case. At least that’s what the multitude of signs thus far would lead us to believe.
Ellsbury is coming off yet another injury-plagued season with the Red Sox—his second such season in the last three years. Of course, the season that was sandwiched in between was Ellsbury’s near MVP campaign of 2011. That was the year in which Ellsbury batted .321, hit 32 homers, knocked in 105 runs, stole 39 bases, and led the league with 364 total bases. In 74 games last season, not once did he look like the player that posted those incredible 2011 numbers. What player will show up in 2013 is anyone’s guess.
The Red Sox haven’t made any specific comments about Ellsbury’s upcoming free agency or their desire to hold onto him, but they don’t have to. There are plenty of indications that, perhaps, allow us to read between the lines.
Well before any of them had the chance to even think about becoming free agents, Red Sox stars Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Dustin Pedroia were all signed to big contract extensions to keep them with the franchise. The Red Sox did the same with former star infielder Kevin Youkilis back in 2009, making sure he, too, stayed away from free agency. Like those four, Ellsbury is also a homegrown talent. This will be his seventh season with the big league club, yet he’s never gotten that contract extension. Maybe that has everything to do with the fact that Scott Boras is his agent, or maybe the Red Sox just aren’t sure what they have in Ellsbury.
The Red Sox have been grooming prospect Jackie Bradley to take over in center one day. He played at AA Portland in 2012 and is sure to be promoted this season. Although he has been invited to spring training, he’s expected to start the season in AAA. And what if Bradley isn’t ready by 2014? Well it just so happens that the Red Sox signed Shane Victorino to a three-year deal during the off-season. Though Victorino is penciled in as the right fielder for 2013, he is a natural center fielder—obvious insurance for Ellsbury.
Even after missing 236 games during the last three seasons, it would be unfair to label Ellsbury as injury prone. His medical issues have been fairly severe, as opposed to the nagging type that persist over time and never seem to go away. However, that being said, he’s shown a tremendous inability to get back on the field in a timely manner. He just doesn’t seem to be a very fast healer—an issue that is certainly not lost on Red Sox management.
If Ellsbury has a bad year, there’s no telling how the Red Sox will handle his expiring contract. That actually might be their best chance at keeping him. But why would they want to at that point? On the other hand, if he has another year like 2011, he’ll command a salary that Boston seems unwilling to pay in their newfangled approach to free agency. If the latter holds true, it’s a win-win for Boston, though. They’ll be able to reap the benefits this year, but will be more than prepared to deal with a vacancy in center field next season.
(JM Catellier is the author of the book Fixing Baseball, a guide to restructuring the Hall of Fame. Follow him on Twitter: @FixingBaseball and Facebook, and check out his site: www.fixingbaseball.com)