It is impossible not to take note of Angels phenom Mike Trout. His ability to impact the game seems limitless. He is delivering an MVP-caliber performance in which he is hitting for average and power, getting on base at an elite clip, stealing bases like crazy and making seemingly every defensive play imaginable.
It is a performance almost difficult to comprehend. As he barrels towards Rookie of the Year and very likely MVP honors, it is fair to wonder whether something akin to his impact has been seen on the field.
For the Red Sox and their fans, the answer is an emphatic yes. In fact, such a show was on display just last year.
It has been easy to forget at times this year that one of the only people to know what it is like to produce a Trout-like impact patrols center field in Boston. A year ago -- especially in a second half in which Jacoby Ellsbury hit .328 with a .375 OBP, .625 slugging mark, 1.000 OPS, 21 homers and 11 steals in 69 games -- Ellsbury was the kind of multifaceted, game-changing weapon that Trout has become as a rookie.
That being the case, he is in a unique position to appreciate what the 2009 first-rounder is doing.
“It's fun to watch,” Ellsbury said of Trout. “A guy who can impact the game in every way possible is exciting for the fans. As players, it's fun to watch as well.”
Of course, Ellsbury more frequently has been in position to serve as a spectator to such performances than to deliver them in 2012. His shoulder got crushed roughly one week into the season, he missed the next three months and when he returned for the start of the second half, the echoes of the 2011 superstar were few and faint.
The subject of the distance between the 2011 and 2012 seasons is one that Ellsbury has little desire to entertain. Rather than contemplating what has transpired to date, he is more focused on what lies immediately at hand.
“I just go out, do what I can do, prepare and work hard to get the best of my abilities,” Ellsbury offered in deflecting the opportunity to reflect on what has happened this year. “I'm just focused on today, going out there, playing, working hard, trying to get a 'W.' ”
He hasn’t been able to do that with the frequency that he did a year ago, of course. But of late, the 28-year-old has given some indication that the skill set that led him to be one of the best players in the game was simply lying dormant, waiting to stir.
Most notably, Ellsbury had a recent eight-game hitting streak during which he hit .405 with a .989 OPS, three doubles, a homer and four steals. It was a window back into a season ago, when Ellsbury showed that there are few (the preternatural Trout notwithstanding) in the game capable of having a comparable impact.
He was a different hitter during those eight games than he had been at virtually any other point in the year.
“The injury that he had, it's a big part of his swing with the torque that he puts on his shoulder,” said Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan. “I think he was probably -- I don't want to say babying it, but it's only natural that you come back from an injury like that and you're at a point where you're almost afraid to swing and miss.
“As a hitter, you've got to take those chances in hitter's counts and not be afraid to swing and miss. I think he's starting to get past that, starting to trust it a little bit more. I think we'll start seeing a lot of that now from here on out through the end of the season.
“I guess it's true with most hitters but especially with him, when he's getting ready on time and creating separation between his hands and his stride foot, when he's on time and maximizes that separation, he's able to create a lot more bat speed and drive the ball,” continued Magadan. “When he's not doing that, when he's not getting that separation, he's kind of poking the ball. He's not driving the ball. A lot of it is timing. All the time that he missed, trying to get back after that, he's kind of gone in and out with his timing, but over the last week, he's been more consistent.
“And he can get better,” he concluded. “And he will get better. He'll get back to where he was last year.”
For the Red Sox, it’s a tantalizing thought -- particularly for next year. It is part of the reason why, according to sources familiar with the team’s thinking, the likelihood is that -- even if the team listens to proposals related to the center fielder this offseason, just as was the case at the trade deadline -- the Sox are unlikely to deal Ellsbury this winter.
Instead, at a time when GM Ben Cherington has said that the Sox will act with discipline in assembling their roster, there are few moves that could be more disciplined than keeping Ellsbury.
As Magadan noted, he still possesses immense talent and the possibility of channeling anew what he did as an MVP runner-up in 2011. And the idea of having him on a reasonable one-year deal -- perhaps in the vicinity of $10 million -- at a time when he will be looking to shine in his final pre-free agent year, has considerable appeal for the Sox, particularly given that they face a free-agent market that offers few impact players.
But just as it is unlikely that the Sox will look to trade Ellsbury if they have any designs on contending next year, it is comparably unlikely that they will have substantive grounds for a long-term extension -- even though the team has now freed roughly $60 million in payroll with the trade of Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto.
A year ago, it seemed impossible that the Sox could extend Ellsbury in part because it was hard to fathom how they could add another $20 million a year player. Now, after removing two such contracts (Gonzalez, Crawford) from their payroll (and a third that averaged $17 million a year in Beckett), that is no longer the case.
Still, at a time when Ellsbury’s agent, Scott Boras, told ESPNBoston.com that the outfielder is a “franchise player,” it is fair to doubt that the Red Sox would pay him as such in contract talks. While the Sox are likely to kick the tires on the possibility of a long-term deal this offseason, realistically, it will be nearly impossible to find middle ground with the outfielder to retain him beyond 2013.
Put another way: Ellsbury wants to be paid for the superstar form he produced in 2011. But that season is, in some ways, the ultimate outlier at this stage of his career. Ellsbury is the only player in major league history to launch 30 or more homers at age 27 without benefit of one other season in which he went deep TEN times.
His incredible ceiling is apparent. But there’s considerable distance between the upper reaches of his potential and the baseline of his contribution. After going 0-for-8 over the last two games of the Red Sox’ sweep at the hands of the Angels, Ellsbury is hitting just .268 with a .687 OPS this year.
There are also questions of his ability to stay on the field, as he’s sandwiched his career-high 158 games in 2011 with seasons of 18 and 51 games (and counting) in 2010 and 2012. In fairness, however, the missed time in both of those seasons was related to serious freak injuries that involved collisions of one sort or another.
“Two guys running into each other at full speed, I think that's the best case scenario that can happen when two guys run at full speed into each other,” Ellsbury said of his 2010 collision with Adrian Beltre. “The other injury (when Rays shortstop Reid Brignac’s knee dropped like an anvil on Ellsbury’s shoulder), you saw it. I go out, play hard, prepare, play injured. I don't expect anything less.”
As to what the future holds for him in Boston, Ellsbury seems to be spending little time dwelling on the matter. Asked if he had spent time this season contemplating whether there was a chance that he’s little more than a year from free agency, the outfielder downplayed the notion.
“I just go out and play, man, prepare. I'm going to do the same thing this offseason: Go out and prepare, be ready for the season,” said Ellsbury. “The Red Sox have control of me for next year. I'm going to go out and play to the best of my abilities.
“I don't focus on [the idea of a long-term deal] in the season. It's all about winning. We're still going out there to compete, trying to win, playing hard. I'm sure we'll cross that bridge at the end of the year.”
Still, it remains unlikely that it is a bridge on which the two sides can connect. It remains too difficult to say whether Ellsbury deserves to be paid as one of the most dynamic players in baseball, or as the talented player who fell short of All-Star status in 2008 and 2009, or the player whose seasons were derailed by injuries in 2010 and 2012. With so much uncertainty about what Ellsbury is, it is exceedingly difficult to determine what he should be paid.
That being the case, the Sox likely will hope that the outfielder underscores his case for riches with a monster season next year, one that will offer a basis for present- rather than past-tense comparisons between Trout and Ellsbury.