Back during his days at Oregon State, even before Boston selected him with the 23rd pick of the 2005 amateur draft, Jacoby Ellsbury was playing his part as the next coming of Johnny Damon -- this time at Halloween, when he was stuck without a get-up until a friend opened his closet and pulled out a Red Sox jersey.
"It was an easy costume," the outfielder recalled. "I just needed to go out and get a beard."
A few years later, after Coco Crisp couldn't quite replicate Damon's dynamics at the top of the order, the Red Sox asked Ellsbury to play that role in real life. And for the better part of six-plus seasons, he succeeded. He was an all-star, he earned MVP votes a couple times, and, most importantly, he was a key piece of a championship. Twice, in Ellsbury's case.
Now Ellsbury will follow Damon's footsteps again, this time to New York, where the Yankees have reportedly lured him with the life-changing promise of $153 million, plus job security until he's 37 years old -- and so now it's he who the Red Sox are forced to try and replace, both in center field and at the top of the lineup.
The second part of that equation is somewhat easily resolved. Shane Victorino has 216 games of experience as a big-league leadoff hitter, and Dustin Pedroia has batted there 87 times -- 11 of which came when Ellsbury broke a bone in his foot this past September. Both might better serve the club elsewhere in the order, but both are likewise capable of leading the way if need be.
Who takes over in center field is potentially more complex. Let's take a look at some of the possibilities:
Jackie Bradley Jr. -- Barely eight months ago, after he tore up the Grapefruit League, the debate going on in these parts was about whether it was wise for the Sox to have Bradley start the season in the bigs because it could potentially allow him to reach free agency a year earlier than he would otherwise.
That proved to not be a concern, as Bradley wound up playing 80 games at Triple-A, and so he'll remain under team control for six more seasons. But let's not lose sight of the type of talent this guy was considered to be then, and should still be considered now. He struggled in his 107 major-league plate appearances over three separate stints -- batting .197 -- though in his first season at Triple-A he posted a .374 on-base percentage, which led to an .842 OPS.
That's 102 points higher than Ellsbury posted at the same level around the same age, and though Bradley isn't nearly as polished a hitter as Ellsbury is at this point, he has the plate discipline to contribute while correcting the holes that were exposed last April, and his defense in center field might well represent an immediate upgrade for the Sox.
It's probably asking too much to think he'll be ready for an everyday role from the start, but part of the reason the Sox were comfortable with Ellsbury leaving is that Bradley was waiting in the wings. Look for them to ease him into the lineup early, and depending how that goes, the job could potentially be his by the end of 2014.
Victorino -- He won a Gold Glove in right field this past season, but he has played center for most of his career, and certainly appears capable of doing it again if asked to do so.
If Bradley sits every three or four days at the start of the year, it'll be as simple as Victorino sliding over while Daniel Nava (or somebody else) plays in right. Although there also remains the possibility that the Sox could yet add a veteran to play in one of the corners, and push Victorino to the middle on a more permanent basis.
That would delay Bradley's emergence significantly, but the possibilities are intriguing. Most appealing would be Shin-Soo Choo, though he would certainly be the most expensive. Nelson Cruz would be interesting as a right-handed power bat, though he'd be an adventure defensively and is currently asking for more than the Sox would be willing to pay. And if Wednesday's reports are true that Carlos Beltran has a three-year, $48 million offer in hand, he's probably too rich for the Red Sox' blood, too.
If the Sox really don't want to overextend themselves on years or dollars, they could alternatively look to add a lower-priced, role-playing veteran -- think along the lines of Rajai Davis, Nate McLouth, or Kelly Johnson -- and add them to the mix with Victorino, Bradley, Nava, Jonny Gomes and Mike Carp.
Choo -- If the Sox were to shell out a big-dollar deal, Choo might be the leading candidate among those left on the market. He does everything well, as evidenced last season by his .423 OBP, his 21 homers, his 20 steals, his 34 doubles, his 4.22 pitches per plate appearance, and his 4.2 WAR (per Baseball-Reference). He's not a great center fielder, but he played 150 games there for a playoff team last season, so he would at least be capable in right.
There are two factors working against this possibility, however. First is that he'll be 32 at midseason, and at that age it may be unlikely that the Sox would be willing to go beyond three or four years. Second is that Choo is a Scott Boras client who is said to be seeking nine figures, and is now the most desirable outfielder available. He may get what he's looking for in terms of money and security -- and if he does it isn't likely to be in Boston.
Matt Kemp -- The Dodgers outfielder -- who is immensely talented, but is owed $128 million over the next six years -- would contradict the disciplined approach Ben Cherington has so ably applied over the past 16 months. Each of his last two seasons have been ruined by injury, and after that there's too much risk that trading for him will ultimately leave the Red Sox paying dead money at the end of the deal.
Andre Ethier -- Kemp's LA teammate is best friends with Dustin Pedroia and a decent player. But he, too, is prohibitively overpaid. If all things were equal, he'd be a nice addition, however he's due to be paid $69 million over the next four seasons. The production doesn't match the price -- unless the Dodgers' overcrowded outfield (currently with Kemp, Ethier, Yasiel Puig, and Carl Crawford) motivates them to eat a big chunk of the money he's owed.
Denard Span -- CBS Sports reported last month that the Nationals would listen to offers for the 29-year-old outfielder, and it may be worth the Sox at least inquiring. A .283 hitter with a .351 OBP, he's accustomed to batting leadoff and is due to make just $6.5 million next season, with a $9 million team option for 2015. Boston would have to give something up to get him, but they'd be getting a quality player at a good rate.
Curtis Granderson -- Ellsbury's deal squeezes him out of the Bronx, and while Granderson is currently evaluating his options on the open market, an injury-plagued 2013 campaign isn't likely to do much for his value. The Mets are said to be trying to get his signature on a three-year contract, though if the affable slugger sought to stay in the AL and try to rebuild his worth by taking a high-dollar, one-year deal the Sox could be enticing. Granderson could handle center field at Fenway, and would be a great fit for this team, but that scenario is probably a long shot given what is apparently available elsewhere.
Gerardo Parra -- The 26-year-old Diamondback has won Gold Gloves two of the past three years, playing primarily on the corners of the outfield in those seasons, and with two years of arbitration eligibility remaining, there is talk that Arizona is exploring an extension after he hit 43 doubles in 2013. He's a below-average offensive player for his career, but the Sox reportedly inquired about his availability in the middle of the 2012 season, and he could be on their radar again if the Diamondbacks can't hash out a multi-year deal.
A mystery player -- The Red Sox are a team with resources, monetarily, in the minors, and in terms of major league-ready starting pitching. If there's a player out there who the Sox want, they have the capability of putting together a package to get him. Obviously some will be unattainable no matter what the offer -- they're not prying Mike Trout from the Angels -- but the possibilities multiply as the front office gets more aggressive.
The question now, with Ellsbury gone, is how far they're willing to go.
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