It wasn’t unthinkable, but many observers considered the Yankees low on Jacoby Ellsbury’s shopping list. Ellsbury’s signing of a seven-year contract with the New York rivals was a twist of the dagger in the heart of Red Sox Nation, a sad defection evoking memories of Johnny Damon making the trip south a decade ago. Yesterday Damon reflected,
When I was a free agent, I did not want to leave Boston, I left my heart and soul on the field, but unfortunately us players aren’t the ones making those decisions. The owners are the ones who are paying us. They’re running their team and they’re running it the way that they want.
There are a lot of similarities in these signings, with Damon the erstwhile Red Sox center fielder with speed, clutch hitting, and some fragility in his body. In losing both Damon and Ellsbury to the Yankees, the Red Sox knew what they were giving up, but calculated their losses. In Damon the Yankees did get a clutch performer, but also one beset by injuries in the twilight of his career.
Without a doubt Ellsbury’s’ fragility must have figured into the limitations the Red Sox placed on the length of his contract. Dustin Pedroia received a substantial contract renewal this year, but his track record has been to play, even through crippling injury. Ellsbury plays a position subject to injury every night, and he has the penchant for fouling pitches off his foot and ankle. He is definitely in the deep end of the risk pool.
I won’t forget, however, the fall evening this year, when he fouled a pitch off the small unprotected spot on his ankle, then proceeded to steal a base and take third on an overthrow. That night his hustle turned the game around and showed his grit playing through an injury that later sidelined him. Maybe he was playing for a new contract, but he played to win, and the Red Sox benefited.
Losing Ellsbury to the Yankees hurts now and could become a plague in the future. Once on base he will torment the American League by moving around almost at will. The unanswered question remains whether he will stay healthy and give the Yankees playing time for their many dollars. The Red Sox are gambling that he won’t.
The talk about trading Jacoby Ellsbury is descending to the lowest level of supply and demand. Technically players are property and a business has to control its assets and liabilities, but doesn’t it matter that Ellsbury was drafted and coached through the Red Sox farm system and was part of the last team to win the World Series? Is there any identity to a team, other than its wins and losses and paid attendance?
I realize I’m writing about a bygone era, when players hung on to teams for a whole career, the days of Yastrzemski and Evans. (Oh yeah, there was Carlton Fisk). But there is some pride in bringing a player of the caliber of Ellsbury or Lester or Pedroia or Buchholz to the majors to All-Star quality. Teams ask relentlessly to acquire these players, but it doesn’t mean we should ship them off at the first tempting offer.
Major League teams ought to have some identity other than the logo on their uniforms. Even the cynical Yankees had their Riviera and Pettit and Jeter and Posada. That was the Yankee identity during the years when they shipped out dozens of players and hired new mercenaries every year. Those guys became the ethos of a team of rent-a-stars. The Red Sox knew who they were playing when they went into Yankee Stadium.
Now that the Red Sox have shipped off their rent-a-stars they have a chance to forge an identity around Ortiz and Pedroia and Lester and Ellsbury. All the talk about moving the infirm while they still have legs to travel is degrading to a player who has busted his tail through the farm system and seven years with the parent club. And it’s not mere sentiment to keep a player of Ellsbury’s talent the year before he becomes a free agent.
Ellsbury is a bonafide lead-off hitter with power. How many years did the Red Sox pine for a good lead-off hitter? How much did they miss a reliable lead-off hitter last year? Now that he’s signed to a contract, they want to trade him for a back-of the-rotation pitcher?
So I’m not participating in the speculation about disposing of the weak while he still has market value.
But if you’re talking Cliff Lee or Felix Hernandez, I’m listening.