NEW YORK — As we watched Jacoby Ellsbury leading off and playing center field for the Yankees Tuesday night, we realized it had all come full circle.
Not re-signing Ellsbury started the downward spiral of the Red Sox offense because the designated replacements — Grady Sizemore and Jackie Bradley Jr., couldn’t fill Ellsbury’s shoes.
Sizemore was released and Bradley, who had an absolutely pathetic offensive season (though he played Gold Glove-caliber defense), was demoted.
Call it a season devoted to finding Ellsbury’s replacement.
That exercise escalated about 10 days ago, when the Red Sox dipped into the replacement waters again, this time signing Cuban-defector Rusney Castillo to a seven-year, $72.5 million deal to be their future center fielder and leadoff hitter.
Castillo is being paid less than half of what Ellsbury received to jump to the Yankees on a seven-year, $153 million deal. As he continues his journey through the minor league system — with a stop in Binghamton, N.Y., for the Portland Sea Dogs Wednesday night — Castillo is expected to be the force Ellsbury was in Boston.
The Red Sox never really thought Bradley was going to replace all of what Ellsbury brought to the table. Bradley doesn’t possess game-changing speed.
If you speak candidly to the few remaining veterans, they will tell you Ellsbury was the biggest loss this year. Ellsbury was the catalyst for Boston’s lineup. Is he a $153 million player the Red Sox should have competed for? Probably not. But the organization didn’t realize how difficult the replacement cost would be.
And so they spent money on the 27-year-old Castillo, hoping he is the replacement. Actually he’d better be.
Mookie Betts also has shown he might be a capable replacement as well, but now the 21-year-old, who played center field and collected three hits, including a homer, in Tuesday night’s 9-4 win, is blocked by Castillo.
I asked John Farrell before the game whether Betts would see some playing time in the infield and the manager said he would not.
Farrell didn’t want to overload Betts with another position change, but what’s the point of playing him in center if the position is sewn up for the next seven years?
At this point, we don’t know whether Castillo is blessed with the same raw tools as fellow Cubans Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig, or Jose Abreu, but we do know he’s cut from the same cloth — an aggressive, powerful, fast player who prides himself on making things happen.
Ellsbury, who went 0 for 5 Tuesday night, has drawn strong reviews his first season in the Bronx, though he’s been miscast as a No. 3 hitter for 365 at-bats because of injuries in the lineup.
Ellsbury hit .277 with 8 homers and 44 RBIs and a .720 OPS from the No. 3 spot, but .313 with 6 homers and 20 RBIs in 136 at-bats and a .926 OPS from the leadoff spot.
His .288 average with 14 homers, 64 RBIs, and 37 steals, are on pace to be close to his 162-game career average of .296, 15 homers, and 72 RBIs, and 53 steals.
Ellsbury was a dynamic player for Boston and leads the Yankees in average and RBIs. The one disappointment has been the lack of home runs with the short porch at Yankee Stadium, though he’ll wind up with close to 20.
Over his last six games entering Tuesday night, he had hit four home runs and knocked in nine runs for a .522 average to earn American League player of the week honors.
In 61 games at Yankee Stadium, he’s hitting .332. He’s also had 15 hits in his last 31 at-bats and 21 in his last 45. So he’s been red-hot. A left ankle sprain last Friday cost Ellsbury a couple of games.
Ellsbury has come far in the pain threshold aspect of his game. This correspondent regularly questioned Ellsbury’s intestinal fortitude and the great amounts of time he took recovering from injuries.
But Ellsbury has been gutsy for the past couple of years. Last season he came back early for the postseason even though he was playing on a broken foot.
After he sprained his ankle, he begged Joe Girardi to play him the next day but the manager held him out. Ellsbury was used as a pinch hitter Sunday and he legged out a double. He was back in the lineup Tuesday night.
Somewhere along the way, Ellsbury realized how important he is to his team. His skills are unique and virtually irreplaceable. The Red Sox have recovered well in the leadoff spot, where Brock Holt has done a nice job.
Holt entered Tuesday night’s game hitting .287 with three homers and 27 RBIs in 429 at-bats. He’s stolen 11 bases in 13 attempts and has a .721 OPS and a .338 on base percentage. But Holt simply isn’t a game-changer.
It always takes time to replace impact players. The Sox lost Roger Clemens after the 1996 season and it wasn’t until 1998 that Dan Duquette replaced him by dealing for Pedro Martinez.
After Bradley and Sizemore, the Red Sox at least have better Ellsbury replacement opportunities for 2015 in Castillo and Betts. We’re all waiting to see how close they come.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.