The replay aired repeatedly in the Red Sox clubhouse. Each time, it was met with a reaction by Jacoby Ellsbury’s teammates.
Some winced. Some cringed. Others gasped.
The site of Rays shortstop Reid Brignac falling onto the back of Jacoby Ellsbury’s right shoulder was gruesome. For members of the Sox, the sight suggested a serious injury, even as members of the organization hoped -- perhaps against hope -- that it might not be.
“You’re not going to get any better by losing him for a while,” said David Ortiz. “Hopefully things don’t go the way it looked like in the video.”
“It didn’t look good, man. It didn’t look good. It looked like he was in a lot of pain. Looking at the replay, it looked nasty,” added Darnell McDonald, the man whose playing time could be impacted most significantly by the injury. “Right now, we’re hoping for the best.”
The reality is that this was the sort of injury that lends itself to fears for the worst. Concerns about the duration for which Ellsbury could be out were not abated by the word-of-mouth in the Red Sox’ clubhouse following a 12-2 victory.
“The only thing we’ve even heard is probably the same thing that everyone has been hearing, which is that it felt like something moved a little bit,” Kevin Youkilis relayed.
That sounded bad. It is bad.
Ellsbury was hustled from Fenway Park to Mass General for tests and evaluation. His condition was diagnosed as a right shoulder injury, but an industry source with knowledge of the situation said that the outfielder likely suffered a subluxation or dislocation of his right shoulder.
The implications of such an injury?
Dr. Christopher Geary, the head of sports medicine at Tufts Medical School, said, “I would think six to eight weeks best case.”
That best-case scenario would involve a course of rest and rehab. It is worth noting that Derek Jeter suffered a similar injury on Opening Day in 2003, when Blue Jays catcher Ken Huckaby landed on his shoulder on a play at third base. In that instance, Jeter rehabbed and was back in six weeks, and performed at an exceptional level (.324 average, .393 OBP, .844 OPS) in 119 games that year.
However, Geary also noted that sometimes rehab isn’t enough with shoulder injuries, and surgery becomes necessary. In such a scenario, he said, Ellsbury could be out for the year.
What are the implications for the Sox? What are the potential courses of action for the team to deal with the loss of a near MVP candidate?
In answering that question, it is necessary to state the obvious. The Sox can do their best to diminish the impact of the loss of Ellsbury, but it is nearly impossible to replace him -- at least the 2011 version that impacted the game in such profound and diverse fashion.
“Let’s hope that he’s not down for too long, No. 1. That’s our catalyst,” said McDonald. “Obviously, he’s a big part of this team, hitting at the top of our lineup and playing a Gold Glove outfield. We definitely need him back as soon as possible.”
Now, it appears that “as soon as possible” is no earlier than late-May or early-June.
So the team is going to have to brace for life without one of its most important players. Sounds dire, of course. But it is worth stating that the Sox are a worse team now than they were entering Friday’s game, they are capable of being an elite offense without Ellsbury, even if they choose to turn to their own limited internal solutions.
Consider: In 2010, the Sox were without Ellsbury for almost the entire year. They lost Dustin Pedroia for the second half. They lost Kevin Youkilis for the last two months of the year. Victor Martinez started the year playing poorly and then was lost for a few weeks. Mike Cameron, slated to be the starting left fielder, instead missed almost the entire season.
The result? The Sox scored 818 runs, second in the American League. Offense wasn’t the downfall of that team. That precedent suggests that the Sox can afford to explore internal solutions and wait to see if Ellsbury can recover from his injury without surgery.
It is something of a grin-and-bear-it situation, since the outfield is one of the areas where the organization has the least amount of legitimate prospect depth in the upper minors. The team appears poised to call up Che-Hsuan Lin, who was scratched (as first noted by PawSox broadcaster Aaron Goldsmith) just before Triple-A Pawtucket’s game in Rochester.
Lin, 23, is a tremendous defender but one who has yet to show an ability to handle Triple-A pitching (he’s hit .230/.322/.296/.618 in 91 Triple-A games this year and last). The Sox thought highly enough of him that they put him on the 40-man roster during the winter rather than risk exposing him to the Rule 5 draft. Still, right now, his best role in the majors is as a reserve with narrowly defined duties.
And really, nearly every realistic outfield option in Pawtucket right now is imperfect in some way or another. Whereas the team has top prospects such as Ryan Lavarnway ready to fill in at catcher, Will Middlebrooks at third base, Jose Iglesias at short and Lars Anderson at first, the Sox lack a minor leaguer who is ready to fill in as a starting outfielder at this point in time.
So, that leaves the Sox almost surely having to commit to the same outfield that finished Friday’s game: Cody Ross in center, Ryan Sweeney in right and Darnell McDonald in left. It’s a somewhat flawed group, given that the right-handed McDonald and Ross enjoy significantly better numbers against lefties than righties, while Sweeney has dismal career numbers against lefties.
However, it is also worth mentioning that the Sox do not need to use such a group to patrol the outfield for the rest of the year, or (most likely) even for the six-week minimum for which Ellsbury will be sidelined. On Friday, Carl Crawford said that he hopes to start playing in rehab games in extended spring training next week. Though he suffered a minor setback with a left elbow strain, he still appears likely to return inside of Ellsbury’s anticipated six-week minimum on the sidelines.
Meanwhile, if there is a time when the Ross-Sweeney-McDonald group would seem poised to be at its best, this is it. McDonald is not far removed from a spring training in which he hammered every pitcher he faced, regardless of handedness.
“That’s my job, to just be ready,” said McDonald. “I’ve had a lot of preparation the last couple years of doing that. I feel very comfortable stepping into that role. I just come to the field everyday, ready to go.
“The more opportunity you get to go out on the field, the more comfortable you’re going to get,” he continued. “This is a game of being in a rhythm. Spring training definitely helped me out.”
Sweeney, meanwhile, struggled for much of the spring but then came on at the end and has carried that into the start of the year. He is hitting .429/.478/.619/1.097 right now, though almost all of his damage has come against right-handers (he’s 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts against lefties).
Ross, like McDonald, hit everyone he faced in the spring. That has yet to prove the case in the regular season (he was the only member of the Sox lineup without a hit on Friday, and is now hitting .182 (4-for-22) to start the year). Even so, it is not long since Ross was hitting like more than a platoon outfielder.
Meanwhile, defensively, Ross suggested that he has no problem sliding over to center field.
“I've always thought that CF is the easiest of the three (outfield positions),” said Ross. “You have a direct view of the pitch, you know where the location is going to be. If they're trying to throw in, you can cheat in. If they’re trying to throw away, you can cheat away. In the corners, you have no idea. … I’m very comfortable out there, absolutely.”
But what if Ellsbury is not back in an aggressive timeframe? At that point, the versatility of Ross, Sweeney and McDonald (all three are capable of playing, with varying degrees of quality, both center and right field, with Crawford locked into left) could prove of some benefit, since the Sox could explore trades for either a center fielder or a right fielder.
The A’s, for instance, have former Red Sox center fielder Coco Crisp (signed through 2013 to a two-year, $14 million deal) consigned to a corner right now, having moved him to left field to accommodate Yoenis Cespedes in center; if Ellsbury is unable to return and the Sox want to identify an impact defensive player, he would represent a candidate.
The Cubs have Marlon Byrd as a potential trade candidate, given that prospect Brett Jackson is considered close to ready for the big leagues. Byrd has been a capable center fielder and solid hitter for years, though the 34-year-old, who is in the last year of a three-year, $15 million deal, is off to a rancid start for the Cubs this year (1-for-24, .048 average).
Though Johnny Damon is no longer on the market as a free agent, having agreed to a deal with the Indians just two days ago, J.D. Drew is presumably fishing somewhere in Georgia. At the least, he represents a player capable of moving around right field at Fenway as if on skates and working deep counts.
Other names likely will surface in the weeks to come. But for now, the Sox have endured a blow that they could ill afford.
On Friday, the Red Sox played like a team looking to prove that its slow early-season start was an aberration. But a potentially devastating injury that will impact the team’s run scoring and run prevention will make the team’s challenge of emerging in a dauntingly loaded AL East even greater.
The Sox will do their best to play through the loss of one of their best players. But even the individuals who will be asked to fill in for Ellsbury make no pretense of being Ellsbury.
“Hopefully I’m not out there too long,” Ross said of taking over in center. “I want Jacoby back fast.”