Nobody could foresee the collision between Jacoby Ellsbury and Adrian Beltre which kicked off a dizzying spate of injuries for the Red Sox last season. It was a freak occurrence that took place on an April afternoon in Kansas City, but it not only transformed the team’s season in a major way but has completely altered the path down which Ellsbury was heading.
He was the young, dynamic leadoff hitter with a smile that caused the ladies of Red Sox Nation to swoon. He had wheels unlike any seen before in a Boston uniform, and was prepared to flirt with some incredible numbers, and maybe even some of those ladies. Would he steal 80 bases in 2010? Ninety? Could he hit .310? .320? In this lineup, how many runs could he score? Maybe 110? Maybe 120?
Each of those figures was attainable with just a slight bump in production.
Instead, battered, bruised and labeled “soft” by some observers as he failed twice to come back from the broken ribs, Ellsbury essentially entered his “prime” as an afterthought on a team that remained in the playoff race until the final week of the season. And it all took place after he was banished from the position on which he seemingly had a stranglehold: the franchise center fielder.
Meanwhile, the man who replaced him in center, Mike Cameron, was unable to do much more. He played in only 48 games before shutting it down in August, unable to press through a sports hernia. The pair combined to hit .238 with four home runs and eight steals.
Sure, injury had almost everything to do with it, but there is no denying that the Jacoby-Ellsbury-to-left-field experiment before the 2010 season was a definitive failure. The chances of him once again breaking ribs in a collision down the left-field line has to be slim, but there?s no need to go to that well anymore. Ellsbury is the starting center fielder for the 2011 Red Sox, and the club will be better off for it.
For one, Cameron is not a player that the Sox will want to rely on in such a role. He?s a wonderful clubhouse presence and has as much knowledge on how to play the position defensively as anyone still active. But at 38 and coming off a largely wasted season, he?s likely a fourth outfielder at best. Cameron will still impart his knowledge to Ellsbury, and can spell the younger of the two against tough lefties. It could wind up being a rather ideal situation.
Those hoping for a replacement for Ellsbury are likely looking at Carl Crawford of Jayson Werth. That, just like the urge to trade Ellsbury after one injury-riddled campaign, is a rash reaction.
Crawford is an exceptional left fielder. Many just assume that since he plays that position so well and runs like the wind that he would automatically fit in center. That?s not necessarily the case, especially at a place like Fenway. There are adjustments that need to be made and it’s not out of the question that Crawford has a few misadventures out there. In left, standing in front of the Green Monster, he would be the best defensive left fielder the Sox have had in several years.
While Werth’s new agent, Scott Boras, continues to trump his player as a viable center field candidate, the 31-year-old Werth has never proven himself at that position, starting there just 80 times in his eight-year career. Remember, the Sox made their initial movement of Ellsbury to left and imported Cameron for defensive purposes. They will not be experimenting in that regard in 2011.
So that brings us back to Ellsbury, and what he is capable of with the glove. Theo Epstein is a fan of the metric systems which can now rate players defensively, to a degree. Such numbers showed that Ellsbury regressed in 2009 and it became trendy, even among those who only watched him play a few games, to imply that he never got good reads on balls and the many highlights of him diving for a catch were simply the result of him having to catch up to those poor reads.
Ellsbury?s UZR rating of minus-9.7 at center field in 2009 suggests he had his fair share of mistakes on defense. Then again, he was 25 at the time and playing his first full season in perhaps the most challenging center field in the game, all while establishing himself as the most potent speed threat in franchise history. Doesn?t a guy like that deserve a break? That?s what he?ll get in 2011, when he will once again be the everyday center fielder for the Red Sox.
Each day of November, we will explore a different issue facing the Red Sox this offseason.
Nov. 1: How should the Red Sox approach the hot stove season?
Nov. 3: Will this be Jonathan Papelbon?s final season in a Red Sox uniform?