Sidelined Red Sox outfielder and leadoff hitter extraordinaire Jacoby Ellsbury is expected to return this season, maybe even before the playoffs. That’s the good news.
The bad news is the unpredictability of his injury, and the interesting twist that may inject into the 2014 squad.
Ellsbury is out indefinitely with a non-displaced compression fracture of the navicular bone in his right foot, the very injury that cost teammate Dustin Pedroia much of the final three of months of his 2010 season and Cody Ross one month last year. It’s important to point out, of course, that there are some key differences between the Ellsbury and Pedroia impediments. The All-Star second baseman could barely walk following his injury. We all remember the team’s future captain (I’m guessing) pushing off boredom by taking grounders from his knees so he could “keep his arm in shape.”
As for Ellsbury, he suffered his setback on Aug. 28 the same way – by fouling a ball off of his foot – but he was able to play in seven of the next eight games, and play well at that with a .313 average and .822 OPS before aggravating the injury while stealing second during the 10th inning of Thursday’s win in New York.
Ellsbury will be in a walking boot for at least five days, then he’ll be re-evaluated and the team will see how he responds to treatment. In other words, his predicament is a minor mystery. After all, Pedroia returned for two games before ending his year and having offseason surgery.
In a worst-case scenario in which the fracture proves more severe, there’s no disputing that the loss of Ellsbury would be a major blow to the club’s chances in the postseason, all due respect to the countless unsung hairy heroes. The centerfielder is batting .299 with a .779 OPS, 8 home runs, 52 RBI, a team-high 89 runs, and he leads the majors with 52 stolen bases. Since May 26, he’s among the best players in baseball with a .330 average. His 5.5 WAR is third on the team behind Shane Victorino’s 5.7 and Pedroia’s 5.6.
However, the shuffling created by Ellsbury’s void presents a very intriguing dynamic. In the interim, as we’ve already started to see, Jackie Bradley Jr. will be relied upon to patrol center, while Victorino will get the bulk of the leadoff duties.
The almost 30-year-old Ellsbury – the big day’s coming up on Wednesday – will be a free agent at season’s end. His financially motivated agent, Scott Boras, is likely to attach a nine-figure price tag to his oft-injured superstar client.
So, for Bradley the final few weeks of the regular season and beyond may very well be an audition. The promising 23-year-old youngster dropped jaws in spring training when he batted .419 with an otherworldly 1.140 OPS in 28 games, but he struggled just as mightily when he broke camp with the Sox and hit .097 with a .392 OPS in his first dozen big league contests. He’s done much better in 13 outings since, accounting for a .242 average and two homers over multiple recalls. Down in Triple-A Pawtucket, Bradley hit .275 with 10 long balls, 35 RBIs, and an .842 OPS in 80 regular season games, albeit to much less fanfare than that received by phenom Xander Bogaerts. He was batting .385 in three playoff contests at the time of his call-up.
The question is can Bradley be what Ellsbury was to the 2007 World Series championship team here in 2013 if the latter is out longer than anticipated?
Ellsbury is a career .261 hitter in 22 postseason contests (including a 3-for-30 playoff slump dating back to 2008) but he was off-the-charts good against the Rockies in those final four games of 2007. The confident rookie supplanted a struggling Coco Crisp and rose from the Red Sox’ No. 9 hitter to the leadoff spot inside three games, while mashing to the tune of a .438 average and 1.188 OPS for the series. That followed a regular season finish in which he batted .361 with 17 RBI, 16 runs scored, and a .927 OPS over the last 26 games.
Few people, given the dollars required, expect Ellsbury to return to Boston once he hits free agency, not that the team won’t try to bring him back. Bradley Jr. now has the chance to show whether he can and should be entrusted with Ellsbury’s spot in center next season, or if a one-year bridge option (or shift from right for Victorino) may be necessary.
Iglesias had a similar opportunity at shortstop last year during a meaningless conclusion to a disastrous year but, defensive genius aside, he blew it by batting just .118 with a .391 OPS in 25 games. Enter Drew, the one-year, $9.5 million stopgap, and, eventually, exit Iglesias to clear the way for the superior Bogaerts.
It’s incredibly unlikely that Bradley will be dealt at next season’s trade deadline a la Iglesias, especially when there are three outfield spots to fill, not one, but the regular season’s final 17 games and subsequent postseason could dictate just how hard the Red Sox will work to either re-sign Ellsbury or find another suitable short-term replacement.
In the here and now, the top priority inside the offices at Fenway is getting Jacoby Ellsbury back on the field as soon as possible. But, as it concerns the not-too-distant future for a general manager always planning ahead, these next few weeks may be as important for Jackie Bradley Jr. as they are for anyone.
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Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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