Ells train

While it’s comforting to know that Manny Ramirez was treating his strained oblique at his Floridian abode over the weekend, it is his imminent return that is going to spark plenty of controversy more so than any annual “Where’s Manny?” talk.

Ramirez will indeed slide nicely back into the No. 4 hole in the lineup, of course, strengthening the Sox for the stretch run and the playoffs, but it certainly seems that manager Terry Francona isn’t about to budge from his decree that “we will not run” from Drew. Which is sort of like saying East Boston needs more landfills and fewer public gardens, but whatever.

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Give credit, Drew, favorite whipping boy of Red Sox fans everywhere, sparked the rally that gave Boston a 3-2 win over the Orioles yesterday with a bloop single in the eighth inning and scored the winning run. It was the first contribution off his bat since…well, who knows.
Meanwhile, on the polar opposite of the popularity scale is Ellsbury, who might have a statue erected near Red’s Faneuil location any day now.
While Drew has reminded fans too much of a late-career Jim Rice, a player who can’t seem to come through with the big hit whenever the situation sneaks up on him, Ellsbury has sparked comparisons to Fred Lynn, Johnny Damon, and Nomar Garciaparra despite yesterday playing in just his 16th major league contest. His glove, speed, and energy are just three reasons why everyone outside of the Fenway offices wants the kid supplanting the disaster in right field, not just this week, but for October and beyond.
The numbers for Drew this year on the surface are bad enough, even worse when you dig deeper. By his standards, he’s off to a sizzling September, batting .217 for the month with three RBIs, which is already halfway to his total of six for the month of August. With runners in scoring position this season, Drew is hitting .238. With the bases loaded: .125. Oh, and if you’re looking forward to this weekend, Drew is hitting .125 against the Yankees this season, including .034 in the Bronx.
It’s astounding. Scanning Drew’s awful splits this season, you try to find any positive, just one, and the only thing that sticks out is that he had a heck of a June, hitting .325 with four homers. Of course, that was against his old compadres from the National League, which might offer a hint that if Drew gets familiar with AL pitching, he’ll rebound nicely in 2008.
Nobody wants to hear that now, of course. Not when Ellsbury has shown what he can bring to the show in such a short period of time.
Should and would are two vastly different arguments here, however. Should Ellsbury be manning right field for Game 1 of the ALDS and beyond? If he keeps any semblance of what he’s done thus far going through the next three weeks, it’d be hard to argue otherwise. Will he? I wouldn’t bet much of anything on the possibility.
Red Sox GM Theo Epstein has sounded more and more defensive in recent weeks over the team’s decision to dump a load of money in Drew. Even at this crossroads it proves further how well the Red Sox have done drafting and grooming young talent (Ellsbury, Jonathan Papelbon, Clay Buchholz), and just how abysmal they have been in judging where to spend their free agent dollars (Drew, Julio Lugo, Edgar Renteria).
But even so, can you imagine Francona sitting a veteran who has been there the entire way for a kid, no matter how exciting or bright his future might just so be? If Boston had made a deadline deal for Jermaine Dye, things might have been different. But bench a veteran for a rookie with 16 games under his belt? The Red Sox have had some unconventional approaches in recent seasons, but still, I’d be shocked.
From the get-go in December, many of us never understood the Drew deal, and that confusion continues today. Epstein and friends obviously needed an upgrade over Trot Nixon in right, but for a franchise that has to be excited about what it has managed to do in its farm system to dedicate $70 million (I think they’ll be saving that $200,000 incentive for MVP this year, no?) in a player who has never caught fire with any team is perplexing to say the least, and raises any number of Scott Boras-Matsuzaka conspiracy theories. The validity of those is open for discussion, but the point remains that Drew is here for four more years. And unfortunately, those types of guys aren’t going to be permanently supplanted by youth this early on in the life of a contract.
Ellsbury has been remarkable, but when we’re talking playoffs, Francona and Epstein will be leaning more toward veteran leadership and know-how. Even if Drew doesn’t possess any of that, it must be fun for them to pretend that he might magically turn it on come October.
That’s why Francona will play off the Ellsbury demands as an overreaction from a rabid fan base that is frustrated with the underperformance of a player who they’ve been waiting to break out five months after Opening Day. Now everyone will just chill out and wait for 2008. Maybe.
Ellsbury will be on the playoff roster, but where he’ll play is a mystery even if where he should is an obvious answer. He’ll be on the Opening Day roster in ’08 too, likely taking the spot of Coco Crisp, who’s much easier to trade with a manageable contract.
It’s hard to remember the excitement fans have had for a newcomer as they have with Ellsbury. It’s just as difficult to recall — Renteria included — the amount of justified frustration they’ve had in one more than Drew, who continues to underwhelm at the most pivotal juncture of the baseball season.