NEW YORK — Over the years, I have run the gamut of opinions about Jacoby Ellsbury.
Not sure there was a more talented player who wore a Red Sox uniform in the last 20 years, who incorporated all five tools at one time or another. I also went through a stage where I was down on him, where I didn’t understand the length of time it would take him to recuperate from injuries. But then you realize he did things with his body on the field that others couldn’t do. He put a lot of stress on his body and therefore got hurt.
When the Red Sox let him go and he signed a seven-year, $153 million contract with the Yankees after the 2013 World Series, I thought they had lost that talented player, and I had found a new respect for him because he wanted to play late that season while still recuperating from a fractured bone in his foot.
It was the first sign of toughness I’d seen from him, but then he was gone.
The Yankees needed a leadoff man and center fielder, and during the 2014 season Yankees general manager Brian Cashman often said Ellsbury was their most talented player.
The Red Sox didn’t re-sign Ellsbury because they knew they had Jackie Bradley Jr. waiting to take over. To their credit, the Sox knew Bradley wouldn’t be Ellsbury. The skill sets were different, but Bradley would fill the role sufficiently.
Let’s face it, there are a lot of things Ellsbury did that Bradley hasn’t done and probably will never be able to do, but in the end the Red Sox made the right choice after 2013 when they let Ellsbury go.
No, Bradley hasn’t been an All-Star. He hasn’t stolen 70 bases in a season. He hasn’t helped win a World Series, let alone two. Ellsbury accomplished a lot of great things with the Red Sox. In 2007, he was a rookie catalyst late in the season and in the World Series. In 2013, he played with that fractured foot in the postseason, dispelling the notion that he wasn’t tough. But he did miss most of one season with broken ribs.
As a youngster, he was a terrific center fielder. He stole home against Andy Pettitte (and he stole home earlier this season for the Yankees against the Rays’ Matt Moore).
But there have always been injuries. Ellsbury left Friday night’s game against the Red Sox with a hip issue. An MRI revealed it was soreness, and he is day to day. Ellsbury’s defense isn’t what it used to be. He doesn’t run the bases as well. He’s been in and out of the Yankees’ lineup.
Father Time has taken its toll on his body. After this season there will still be four years remaining on that enormous contract.
No, Bradley hasn’t accomplished what Ellsbury has. He’ll probably never make $21.8 million a season over a seven-year stretch. But if you ask who you’d rather have going forward, you’d probably hear more votes for Bradley than you would for Ellsbury. At least you would in New England.
Bradley is an elite center fielder with an elite arm. His hitting is becoming more of a factor, with hits that have made a real difference this season. Bradley went 2 for 3 Sunday in the Red Sox’ 5-1 win and has a 14-game hitting streak, the longest active streak in the majors. He was hitting .360 (18 for 50) with three home runs and 11 RBIs during that stretch.
The Red Sox had to wait for Bradley because he wasn’t ready in 2014, when he hit .198. But he had hit at every level. His defense was superb, even better than Ellsbury’s, and for those reasons the Red Sox weren’t about to offer Ellsbury a huge contract.
It’s sad to think how Ellsbury has gone from so exciting as a young player with the Red Sox to a drag on the Yankees, who would love to be rid of his contract.
To reiterate, Bradley will never possess the pure talent of Ellsbury, but over time we’ve seen Bradley go from a Mendoza-line hitter to one to be reckoned with. Oh, he still hits eighth or ninth in the order, but his offense has now become a positive where it used to be a negative.
Bradley has avoided injuries and seems far more durable. Of course, Bradley doesn’t risk his body the way Ellsbury did.
We all thought Ellsbury would develop power, especially at Yankee Stadium, after he hit 32 homers for the Red Sox in 2011, when he finished second in the MVP voting. He hit 16 for the Yankees in 2014, but that number dwindled to seven last season, and he has only one this season.
No doubt the Red Sox at first had trouble replacing Ellsbury, but Ellsbury simply hasn’t looked like the player who left Boston. It doesn’t mean he won’t be or can’t be that player over the next four years, but as time goes by it doesn’t appear Ellsbury will find that youthful energy again.
So, I’ve finally reached that fork in the road. Bradley is not nearly as talented as Ellsbury, but his game works for the Red Sox. He will likely stay healthier, cost much less, his offense will slowly but surely become more consistent, and his defense will leave us in awe.
The late Haywood Sullivan always said that you should be able to replace an established player on your team with a farmhand at least once every five years. Well, the Red Sox replaced Ellsbury. Maybe not all the way, but close enough.