A year ago, for perhaps the first time since Jacoby Ellsbury's emergence as a big league regular, the Red Sox were willing to listen to trade proposals involving the player, willing to keep an open mind rather than offering a relatively quick no. In his return from a shoulder subluxation, Ellsbury's impact was diminished, and with the Red Sox uncertain whether they were buyers or sellers, and with their long-term picture unclear, they were at least willing to listen to trade conversations involving their longtime leadoff hitter and center fielder, holding exploratory conversations with the Rangers (for instance) about the possibility of a deal.
Fast-forward to 2013 with less than two weeks until the trade deadline. Both Ellsbury and the Sox are playing at such a level that he need not concern himself with the rumor mill. Not that he did so in 2012.
"I’m in [the rumor mill] every year, every offseason, so it doesn’t bother me," said Ellsbury. "I view it as a good thing, just means more teams want you. When your name's not in trade rumors, that’s when you’ve got problems, when there's no teams that want you. Teams are always asking about players, it’s just whether it gets out there. But I think it’s a good thing.”
If so, then the bad news for Ellsbury is that he's unlikely to see his name pop up on MLBTradeRumors.com -- at least as a trade candidate -- this month. That is because, with a return to health, Ellsbury is once again performing at the level of a star, offering reminders of the player he was in his extraordinary 2011 season.
"For me he's been the same guy [as in 2011]," teammate Jarrod Saltalamacchia suggested of Ellsbury's current run. "For me it’s just staying healthy. He wasn’t healthy last year and then 2010 he wasn’t healthy. It’s just being in there consistently in the lineup and being healthy, I think the power numbers will come. Maybe not 32 [homers, his total in 2011], but he’s going to hit for some power. It’s just a matter of being there on a consistent basis and getting comfortable.”
In the early months of this season, Ellsbury seemed anything but comfortable, and it seemed like his spectacular 2011 season would forever have to be treated as the outlier of outliers, a 30/30 fluke that bore no resemblance to the rest of his career. Yet for the last two months, the Red Sox have been benefiting from the fact that their leadoff hitter has seemed hell-bent on making the same sort of ridiculous impact that he did in his MVP runner-up season.
Disclaimer: Ellsbury isn't hitting home runs. He's not Miguel Cabrera, he's not Chris Davis, he's not (right now) performing in exactly the same way that he did in 2011. The 29-year-old has four homers on the year, and still just three since he flipped the proverbial switch on his season and reclaimed the distinction of being one of the best players in the game.
No matter. Ellsbury is enjoying a stretch of barreling the baseball that harbors resemblance to his watershed campaign of 2011. He is hitting the ball hard all over the field once again, putting himself in position to get on base and create havoc.
“I don’t think anyone can be as consistent as he was in 2011. That was ridiculous. It seemed like every game he barreled up the ball every time. I think he went through two bats the whole season," said Saltalamacchia. "But I think I see a guy who has a comfortable approach right now. Beginning of the season he looked a little less comfortable, now he looks more comfortable at the plate, barreling balls up and finding his way to get on base.
"When Ellsbury starts swinging at the first of second pitch you know he's feeling pretty comfortable because he's usually a guy who has to see some pitches to get in a groove. But he’s first- or second-pitch swinging, so he's seeing the ball well and getting his hits. I see a guy that’s getting better for sure."
The center fielder played the role of supporting cast to Mike Napoli in the Red Sox' 8-7 walk-off win on Sunday night, but his tremendous performance should not be overlooked. Ellsbury went 2-for-4 with a double, a single and a walk, got hit by a pitch and stole a base. He reached base four times for the eighth time this year, in the process nudging his line for the year -- despite a dreadful start -- to a .307 average, .372 OBP and .430 slugging mark along with a major league-leading 37 stolen bases. He leads all American League leadoff hitters in average and OBP while ranking fourth in slugging.
But that year-long line tells only part of the story. For much of the first two months of the season, Ellsbury looked like the same player who slumped through a return from a traumatic shoulder injury in 2012. Through the games of May 25, he was hitting just .245 with a .317 OBP and .332 slugging mark.
Ellsbury's struggles became so acute that the Red Sox were giving some thought to the idea of moving him down in the batting order. Major league sources inside and outside the Red Sox organization wondered if he'd made it back from his shoulder injury of the prior season, and if not, when -- or even if -- he might do so. His agent, Scott Boras, suggests that Ellsbury was still searching to rediscover his plate approach after his swing was altered by his train wreck with Reid Brignac of the Rays last April.
"Remember, Jacoby Ellsbury is a very durable player. He just has to make sure that people don't run into him. The only time in his career he's not been durable has been when someone ran into him, which has happened twice," Boras said at the All-Star break. "And last year he came back early and played where his shoulder strength was not there. We're starting to see that. I'm starting to see where this is starting to turn and he's starting to drive the ball with authority in the gap, the opposite way, and that shoulder's getting stronger as we go. And he's always been a tremendously strong, elite athlete as far as running, quick twitch, first step in the outfield. He's just a rare player. With each month of this season, his batting averages are going up, his numbers are there, his on-base percentage is really …
"Look," added Boras, "it's no secret that the Red Sox are where they are. Jacoby's had a big part of that."
Starting on May 26, with a 2-for-5 game against the White Sox, Ellsbury became locked in. In his last 42 games dating to that contest against Chicago, Ellsbury is hitting .378 (best in the majors in that span) with a .435 OBP (third in the big leagues behind Jason Kipnis and Miguel Cabrera), .544 slugging mark, 21 steals (also tops in the majors) in 24 attempts and 35 runs (fourth in the big leagues).
He has not been hitting homers during that time, but it would seem misguided to focus on the one thing that Ellsbury hasn't done at a time when he's filling so many other checkboxes.
"Whatever Jacoby does from the top of the lineup relative to home run power is not -- that's helpful, but the main issue is that most players who are of Jacoby's type, they don't even know -- it's never there," Boras said of Ellsbury's power potential relative to other leadoff hitters. "They're four-, five-home run guys. Jacoby, you know it's there. There may be years where he hits 30 home runs. There may be another year that he hits 20. And there may be years when he hits 10. The reality of it is you're going to pay him for the melding of his power, but what you're really paying him for is the ability to score runs and the ability to get on base and the ability to provide up-the-middle defense."
For his part, Ellsbury suggested that he's not caught up in his home run totals. The measures of his performance come elsewhere.
“[I'm] driving the ball, hitting balls in the gap, hitting triples. Really, all you can do is hit the ball hard, and that’s what it’s all about, driving it, and I feel like I’ve been doing that," said Ellsbury. “I’m doing everything I can, going out there and competing, just trying to put my team in a position to drive me in and score runs, that’s really what it's all about.
"The main thing is just getting in that win column at the end of the day. Getting those wins, and I feel like we’ve done a good job the first half, and hopefully as a team we can continue to plug away and get those wins."
The Red Sox are doing so, in no small part because of Ellsbury's return to elite status. One of the overlooked elements of the Sox' ability to withstand the absence of Clay Buchholz has been the fact that Ellsbury has re-emerged as a star in a way that has helped to offset the loss of another one.
After all, his hot streak coincides almost exactly with the date (May 27) when Buchholz first had a start skipped. The right-hander has made just two starts since then while spending the last six weeks on the DL. During that time, Ellsbury has been a game-changer atop the order, helping the Red Sox to lead the majors with 5.2 runs per game over their last 48 contests. All of that helps to explain why a Red Sox team very much in contention for the postseason can't entertain trade conversations about the center fielder during this season.
After the season, when Ellsbury reaches free agency? Another story. If he can sustain this run, he is putting himself in position to back up the Brinks truck this offseason.
Red Sox principal owner John Henry noted last week on WEEI's Mut & Merloni show that "Jacoby Ellsbury is a tremendous baseball player. … Jacoby is somebody that we would very much like to retain."
But doing so will be difficult, particularly given that the team's motivation will be impacted by the presence of a promising, cost-effective alternative in Jackie Bradley Jr. What might Ellsbury get on the open market? Last year's offseason offered some hint. It was a free agent class that was flush with center field/top-of-the-lineup options.
B.J. Upton got a five-year, $75 million deal from the Braves. Michael Bourn landed a four-year, $48 million deal. Angel Pagan received a four-year, $40 million deal. Shane Victorino, of course, received a three-year, $39 million payout.
Yet there's an excellent chance that Ellsbury will receive a contract that exceeds any of those, perhaps even threatening to break the $100 million landmark in a deal. His across-the-board skill set exceeds that of any of last offseason's four free agent center fielders. Bourn (.348) had the highest OBP of any of that walk-year quartet in 2012. None of those players had a top-10 MVP finish to his credit, let alone a top two. The recent surge has Ellsbury connecting the dots to his 2011 season, exceeding the standard that he set in his prior full seasons (2008, 2009) when he was a dynamic player who nonetheless didn't perform at quite this level in terms of his on-base ability and potential to drive the ball.
But perhaps more significantly, whereas those players competed with each other in a crowded center field marketplace that became even more claustrophobic when Denard Span, Ben Revere and Shin-Soo Choo were all dealt, Ellsbury may be the only game in town when it comes to the free agent class of center fielders -- particularly if teams now view Curtis Granderson (who has missed all but eight games for the Yankees this year) as a corner outfielder rather than a center fielder at a time when he will be entering his age 33 season.
"There were a lot of guys going into the market last year," recalled Victorino of the game of musical chairs he played with other free agent center fielders. "Going into it you knew there was going to be a lot. Obviously you know Jacoby is going to be a commodity because there's not many. Not only that, he's a great player. So that’s two combinations that will complement what his market and his value is going to be.
"You have to start with what you do during the season first of all. And that’s the part [where] I put myself behind the 8-ball by not having a great [season]," he added. "I didn’t help my own cause. And Jacoby’s done a great job. He started off slow and now to me he’s the Jacoby [of old]. … He's doing a great job, he's doing fine and if he keeps doing what he's doing he will be perfectly fine."
All of that, of course, is a matter for another day, another month. For right now, Ellsbury is a Red Sox rather than a free agent. And the team's hopes for 2013 remain very much tied into what he does in that capacity.