SEATTLE — Jacoby Ellsbury was back in the Red Sox lineup Wednesday night after missing two games because of a wrist injury. He’s playing closer to his home of Madras, Ore., and whenever he’s here, there’s talk that he’d like to play here someday.
That talk seems more prevalent now that he’ll be a free agent after this season. The Mariners could use Ellsbury at the top of their order. Really, who couldn’t use Ellsbury, a gifted athlete and the game’s premier base stealer? The funny thing is, Ellsbury, who went 3 for 4 Wednesday to up his average to .306, has never said he’d like to play close to home, and he didn’t say it before the game, either.
Yes, he will be a free agent, and will be sought-after if the Red Sox don’t re-sign him, but it seems a lot of people speak for him, which he finds amusing.
“I’ve said multiple times I enjoy playing [for the Red Sox],” he said. “I love the expectations here for our team. I’m appreciative of Boston drafting me and giving me the opportunity. I’m definitely appreciative. Yeah, I feel good on this team. I feel comfortable. I like the environment. I think I thrive in it. I enjoy it. I enjoy the expectations of the team by the city and the media and the fans. We won a World Series with this team.
“I’m here right now. The full focus is helping this team win. All of that other stuff will take care of itself. This is a fun clubhouse. I enjoy my teammates.”
There’s no doubt that Ellsbury is a tremendous offensive force and a very good center fielder. The one thing missing from his game this season is home runs. He hit 32 two years ago, and now every year is compared to the near-MVP season he had in 2011.
Yet, assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez said, “When he makes contact it’s like he’s launched a torpedo. He and David Ortiz have that same sound off the bat. They hit the ball the hardest. Why the home runs haven’t come, I don’t know. He hits them far in batting practice. He’s just not getting the loft, but he’s hitting .300 with a lot of doubles, and he leads the league in triples.”
Ellsbury has heard about his lack of power, but said, “I’ve hit a lot of line drives; just haven’t got the ball in the air. I have a lot of doubles and triples. The season is only a little bit halfway over. They come in bunches for me. There’s plenty of season left.”
For any player, it’s known you must have a good contract year to make a killing in free agency.
It will be interesting to see where Ellsbury fits in the market. Is he similar to another Scott Boras client, Michael Bourn, who received a four-year, $48 million deal prior to this season?Is he better? Or will the asking price be more like Carl Crawford money — seven years, $142 million?
There are those general managers, and I spoke to one recently, who say beware of base stealers once they turn 30, because it’s all downhill from there. That mind-set may cost Ellsbury, who will turn 30 in September, some money, but there are also those who believe Ellsbury is the dream leadoff man/center fielder.
You can already predict that the Phillies, Yankees, Mets, and Blue Jays will have interest. For the Red Sox, he’s a tough player to let ride into the sunset as they did with Jonathan Papelbon, which is now seen as a regrettable decision.
And so, it may come down to how much faith do they have in Jackie Bradley being Ellsbury’s replacement?
Bradley acknowledges “Jacoby’s faster. I don’t know how much faster, but he’s faster. He’s also a prolific base stealer. One of the best you’ll ever see. I’m learning so much about it from watching him and the jumps he gets. He’s amazing to watch.”
Bradley seems like a different type of player than Ellsbury. They both play center field well, though Bradley has the better arm. Bradley is fast, but not Ellsbury fast, nor is he nearly as good a base stealer.
Does Bradley have more power? Not when you think that Ellsbury once hit 32 homers. A better pure hitter? That’s debatable, too.
Ellsbury is aware of his link with Bradley.
“It hasn’t come up between us in conversation, but oh yeah, I’m aware of it,” Ellsbury said. “Both of us have a good time playing. It’s hard to say right now about what type of player he is compared to me. I don’t want to compare me to another teammate, that’s for you guys to do. I haven’t seen him play too much, but I’ve heard good things and I’m rooting for him.”
As for that slowing down after turning 30, Ellsbury doesn’t buy it.
“I feel faster than I’ve ever felt,” he said. “My legs are fresh. I don’t see me slowing down at all.”
And he’s as confident as ever when stealing a base.
“I’ve always had high confidence,” Ellsbury said. “I wouldn’t say it’s any greater. I stole at a higher rate earlier this year. Even when I came up I had 20 stolen bases in a row, so I’ve always been confident. You’re going to get thrown out. But I’m not worrying about getting thrown out.”
Both Ellsbury and Bradley indicated they haven’t watched the other much, which is understandable. Bradley was a spring training star, started the season with the Red Sox, but has spent most of his season in Pawtucket. Ellsbury has spent part of his time injured.
“I guess I haven’t had a chance to watch him a whole lot,” said Bradley. “I used to watch older guys. I watched Torii Hunter quite a bit. I’m sure there are probably similarities and differences we both have. We’re different people, but I’m sure there are parts of our game that are similar.”
Similar, but very different.
And this is what the Red Sox will have to figure out. Do they let a great athlete, albeit one who has been injured a lot, go and trust that the farm system has produced a reasonable facsimile in Bradley?
Or is there something to the notion that players who are battle tested in Boston should remain in Boston?
Ellsbury sounds like someone who wouldn’t mind hanging around.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com.