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Touching All the Bases

Jacoby Ellsbury should be remembered well despite his change in allegiances

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The Red Sox miss Jacoby Ellsbury. Of course they do. To expect anything else is to let the ancillary, noisy controversies from his time here obscure the truth:

When he was healthy during his seven seasons in Boston, Ellsbury was a very valuable player -- at times even their most valuable player. He was a team-best 5.8 Wins Above Replacement last year according to the Fangraphs version, while baseball reference has him at 5.7 WAR, a close third to Dustin Pedroia and Shane Victorino among position players..

During that extraordinary outlier of a 2011 season, he was the best all-around player in the league and may well have been the most valuable, too. Had the Red Sox not swallowed their collective tongues in September -- a month in which he hit 8 home runs with a Yaz-in-'67-like .358/.400/.667 slash line -- Ellsbury probably would have won the trophy that instead went to Justin Verlander.

(No, not the Cy Young. And not Kate Upton, either. The other one. Right, the MVP, silly.)

This is not to suggest that reasons for frustration with Ellsbury were illegitimate. There were the odd fluctuations in his performance. Where did that 32-homer '11 season come from, and where did it go? That stands as his career-high in homers by twenty-three, and he's never come within 100 total bases of his major-league-leading 364 that season.

And to suggest he played seven seasons here is correct only in the vaguest sense. His first season, 2007, he arrived from the minor leagues as a late-season lightning bolt, one who gave an extra jolt to an already crackling championship lineup. Mike Lowell may disagree, but Ellsbury probably should have been the World Series MVP -- he had an 1.188 OPS and a four-hit, three-double game. Also: free taco, America.

The star-turn in the October spotlight wouldn't be Ellsbury's last -- he hit .301/.361/.414 in 38 postseason games with the Red Sox, including .325/.386/.450 in 10 World Series games.

Two others among his seven seasons were just as abbreviated and far less fulfilling, and they are at the root of why Ellsbury probably is not remembered around here as fondly as he should be. It's unfortunate, but the disclaimer of "when he was healthy" is always a necessary precursor to praising his performance.

In 2010, he was limited to just 18 games after suffering broken ribs in a collision with a runaway train masquerading as a third baseman named Adrian Beltre. And in 2012, he played 74 games -- to limited effectiveness given his career-worst .692 OPS -- after suffering a gruesome early-season shoulder injury when the Rays' Reid Brignac landed on him during a takeout slide at second base.

It would be patently unfair to call Ellsbury injury prone. Both of those injuries were of the blunt-force variety and both stemmed from playing the game hard. They could have happened to anyone, and any player would have missed weeks, even months. Beyond that, the Beltre-inflicted injury was misdiagnosed, which led to justifiable wariness about the intentions and capabilities of the Red Sox' medical staff.

While some teammates were quick to go off the record and question his pain threshold and commitment to the team when it took him longer than expected to return, Ellsbury almost always made up for it with his performance.

Jacoby Ellsbury was a very good and important player on some awesomely successful Red Sox teams. That should go without saying. But it doesn't. It seems to me that has often been overlooked around here, perhaps because of those frustrating and lengthy in-season absences, and to a smaller degree because of his dastardly destination upon departure over the winter.

Thumbnail image for sizemoregrady417finn.JPGEllsbury, of course, followed the path of his indirect predecessor as the Red Sox center fielder, Johnny Damon. (It feels like he was the direct predecessor, doesn't it? That Coco Crisp interlude sure was brief.) Damon went from popular Red Sox icon to persona-non-grata-(traitah!) after he left for the Bronx following the 2005 season. Ellsbury took a similar and hardly shocking path, accepting the Yankees' seven-year, $153 million offer to come to the dark side in December.

It's a contract that will someday be regrettable for the Yankees, though certainly not for a while, and never Teixeira-level regrettable. While he'll probably whack a few more homers now that he plays 81 games in a park that rewards lefthanded hitters with the occasional cheap-o home run (most projections put Ellsbury between 13 and 15 homers this year), he's under contract through age 36. It's hard to fathom he'll be particularly valuable then.

Tonight, as you may have heard, marks the first time Ellsbury will play against his former team. While it doesn't quite have the drama of his initial return to Fenway in pinstripes, which will occur April 22, it will be strange to see him on the other side at Yankee Stadium, batting in the bottom of the first rather than the top.

It's not like he's been out of mind. Much of the hubbub surrounding the Yankees early in the season has to do with Masahiro Tanaka's impressive acclimation to the majors, not to mention the beginnings of the season-long Yeah Jeets Giftbaskets Across America Farewell Tour. Ellsbury, who dealt with a minor leg injury in camp, faded into the background to some degree, which surely is the way he prefers it. It's a neat trick: he thrives in the spotlight while simultaneously trying to avoid it.

He'll be the center of attention now, and not just because it's first game as a Red Sox rival. While suggesting the Red Sox should have matched the Yankees' offer is foolish, there's no doubt he's missed at the moment.

The three-time stolen base champ is arguably the best leadoff hitter in baseball, and he's versatile enough offensively that the Yankees can get away with batting him third for the time being, as they have been doing in Teixeira's latest absence.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox have been mixing and matching in the leadoff spot with little success -- they're hitting .176 as a team from the top spot in the lineup. They will eventually be fine there. Daniel Nava has the on-base skills to get it done against righthanded pitching, and a healthy Victorino is more than capable of getting the offense started. But Ellsbury's skill-set is scarce and distinctive, and one player cannot replace all that he provides at the top of a lineup.

As for replacing him in center field, well, let's call that an encouraging work in progress. Jackie Bradley Jr., whose perception if not progression was probably hurt by making the team out of camp last spring after just 61 games about Single A, is becoming everything we told you he was: a patient hitter and exceptional outfielder who wins your appreciation day after day with all of the little things he does. It's nice having a center fielder with a strong arm for once, isn't it?

Grady Sizemore is still shaking off the rust -- are we sure he's an adequate center fielder at this point? -- but there are encouraging signs that his virtually unprecedented comeback from two full years away will have a rewarding ending.

It's a quality tandem, and the Red Sox are going to be fine without Ellsbury. They were prepared for his departure. But as he prepares to play against his former team for the first time, a reminder of why the Yankees are willing to pay him so much for so long to join their side is worthwhile, because it's not as obvious as it should be.

He was damn good ballplayer -- right, when healthy -- during his time here. Especially when it mattered most. Every Red Sox refugee should leave behind such a legacy.

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