LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Red Sox do not have any one player who can replace the package of skills Jacoby Ellsbury took with him to the Yankees last week.
Ellsbury batted leadoff, played center field, and led the team in stolen bases. When healthy, he is one of the more dynamic players in the game.
But Red Sox officials are remarkably unruffled about Ellsbury leaving. Their statistical projections point to the Sox remaining a high-scoring team without Ellsbury, with an outfield defense that might actually improve.
One of the reasons the Red Sox signed Shane Victorino to a three-year contract a year ago was his ability to bat leadoff in the likely event Ellsbury fled. Victorino has been primarily a No. 2 hitter in his career but has 216 games of experience batting first.
Victorino had a .351 on-base percentage in 2013, just a few notches below Ellsbury’s .355.
Victorino is a switch hitter, a plus for a leadoff hitter. He abandoned hitting lefthanded at the end of last season because of a leg injury but will return to switch hitting in spring training.
“Everything says he will,” manager John Farrell said Monday at the Winter Meetings. “That was a conversation as the year unfolded and finished out. But Shane has a way of coming up with some things that kind of keep you smiling.”
Or the Sox could try left fielder Daniel Nava, who had a .385 OBP last season.
“We obviously had one guy there for a long time,” general manager Ben Cherington said. “Ellsbury, when he was healthy, was a good leadoff [hitter]. But I think there’s different ways to do it. What we want most is to have as a deep a lineup as we can.
“In a perfect world you’d like a guy who can run a little bit. But there’s been a lot of good teams, teams have gone very deep into October, with guys in the leadoff spot who weren’t Rickey Henderson and didn’t do everything you want the prototype leadoff hitter to do.”
The Red Sox, Farrell said, could bat Victorino or Nava first followed by Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, and Mike Napoli.
“The biggest thing would be who are our best on-base percentage guys, to keep them or keep that individual in front of Pedey and David and Nap,” Farrell said.
Ellsbury led the majors with 52 stolen bases last season, something the Red Sox will not be able to replace. Victorino had 21 and Pedroia 17 but no other player had more than six.
Take away Ellsbury and the Sox were 13th in the American League in steals last season with 71.
“Overall we were a better base-running team, period. Jacoby was a huge part of that,” Cherington said. “But overall we did a better job on the bases, whether it was stealing bases or advancing a base. We were a much more efficient base-running team than we have been in the past. Most of those guys are back.”
Defensively, Jackie Bradley Jr. should be an upgrade on Ellsbury in that he covers ground more efficiently and had a considerably stronger arm. Gone would be the days of opposing runners routinely taking extra bases.
The Red Sox took Bradley in the supplemental first round of the 2011 draft out of South Carolina with the intent of developing a center fielder who could replace Ellsbury.
Bradley hit .189 over 37 games and 95 at-bats last season. But the Red Sox are confident he will emerge as a reliable every-day player. There remains a chance the Red Sox could trade for a center fielder, but indications show there’s comfort with Bradley.
“Defensively, no question. He showed us that each time he was on the field,” Farrell said.
Bradley hit .243 in September with three extra-base hits. Farrell said that improvement from his initial struggles was a good sign.
“If that’s the way we go, we’re more than willing to have him in center field. He’s a good player,” Farrell said.
Said Cherington: “We think Bradley has every chance to be that guy.”
The Red Sox have no plans to add a backup center fielder or a platoon partner for Bradley. With Victorino, Bradley, Nava, Jonny Gomes, and Mike Carp, adding a sixth outfielder would unbalance the roster.
“We’re very comfortable with Victorino being the other option in center,” Cherington said. “I’m not sure we’re really set up to have another platoon. If we had had two center fielders on the team, for example we’d have to take away from somewhere else.”
Bradley could prove to be the long-term solution at the top of the order. He has a .404 OBP in the minors and worked pitchers for long at-bats. But he first would have to establish himself as an efficient hitter in the majors before the Sox consider moving him up.
Rays manager Joe Maddon doesn’t see the loss of Ellsbury as all that damaging to the Red Sox.
“Boston lost a good player with Ellsbury, but they have nice people in his place also,” he said. “I don’t know, it’s almost like kind of a push feel to the whole thing I think.”