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Red Sox Story-lines to Watch: The Jacoby Ellsbury Saga

The 2010 season was entirely forgettable for the speedy Boston Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury. He appeared in a total of 18 games and hit below the Mendoza line, thanks to his rib cage injury that never seemed to heal. Assuming Ellsbury is fully recovered (which he should be by now), he will be the starting center fielder for the Sox in 2011 and the expectations are high for the young talent as he sits atop the lineup in the lead-off slot. Despite having 2+ great seasons behind him (end of 2007, 2008, 2009), Ellsbury managed to rub some players and fans the wrong way in 2010 (myself included) and has been the subject of much trade speculation this off-season. Although the chances he goes anywhere else before 2011 are slim to none, his future in Boston is now in question, despite his talent and potential. Before diving into my thoughts on Ellsbury in 2011, let’s take a look at the timeline of events last season that led to some confusion about the outfielder. (more after the jump)

April 12th – Ellsbury collides with Adrian Beltre in left-field and apparently injures his rib cage. The reports were that he had a rib cage contusion and would be out for an extended period of time waiting for them to heal.

April 22nd – CT Scan discovered that Ellsbury had hairline fractures in 4 of his ribs, significantly delaying his return to the field.

May 22nd – Ellsbury returns to the Red Sox lineup playing center-field and leading off. He plays 3 full games before sitting-out with an apparent set-back to his recovery.

May 29th – Ellsbury is placed on the DL retro-active to May 25th with more rib cage pain. He admits that it never full healed before he returned, but Dr. Thomas Gill and the medical staff blame the set-back on a new rib-fracture that likely occurred when Ellsbury made a diving catch in the 2nd game of his 3-game return.

Jun 10th – Ellsbury decided to head to Arizona to rest and rehab for several weeks. He remained there until early August.

July 8th – Kevin Youkilis took a few subtle shots at Ellsbury and his decision to head to Arizona to rehab. “As a player, it doesn’t matter if you’re hurt or not. You should be out there cheering on your team. … It’s good that he’s coming back. Hopefully he’s out there cheering on the team, and hopefully he’ll get healthy and help the team.”

July 11th – Ellsbury decides to take shots at the Red Sox medical staff, claiming he was mis-diagnosed. It was a serious accusation that made many people around the Red Sox organization unhappy. “I was told exactly, ‘We aren’t going to MRI a bruise.’ Those were the exact words: ‘We aren’t going to MRI a bruise.’ OK, that’s all right. I’m going to tough it out and keep going. …As a result of me playing with the broken ribs — through all the rehab starts, I had the broken rib, and all the games I played in the big leagues, I had the broken rib — the MRI also showed I’d strained my lat [the latissimus dorsi muscle, the broadest muscle in the back].”

August 4th – Ellsbury once again returns to the Sox lineup hitting lead-off and playing center field.

August 14th – Just 9 games after rejoining the team, Ellsbury was once again placed on the DL, effectively ending his season in Boston. The team doctors discovered another fractured rib after Ellsbury collided with Texas Rangers pitcher Tommy Hunter at 1st base.

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What an exhausting timeline of events last season for Ellsbury. Not only were the Sox without his services for most of the season, he managed to create conflict within the organization by accusing the medical staff of mis-diagnosing his injury and by removing himself from the team environment for over a month. Baseball is a team sport and regardless of your injury or issue, players take note when someone is not around supporting the club while rehabbing. To Youk’s point, most of the team was battling injuries last season, some severe and most everyone managed to rehab in Boston or on the road with the club. The question becomes, will the Ellsbury Saga carry over into 2011, or is it ancient history?

Let’s break the situation down by people group: the fans, teammates and front office. The fan base is the easiest group to repair the relationship with immediately. As long as Ellsbury is playing hard on the field and holding a solid lead-off batting average, the fans will be re-endeared to the outfielder. Boston is a tough place to play because the fans will boo you at the drop of a hat, but if you perform on the field, all other things are forgotten (i.e. Manny Ramirez). As far as his teammates are concerned, that relationship will be fine. Youk was unhappy about Ellbury’s choice to go to Arizona, but also believed it was prompted by his agent and other doctors, so the blame doesn’t fall solely on Ellsbury. Players have 1 goal: to win a World Series. If a player can help the team win the World Series and isn’t a jerk in the club house, all is right in Red Sox land.

The front office on the other hand is a bigger hurdle to leap. Management has a tendency to be patient with players (again, look at the Ramirez situation that lasted a few years), but if another team places a good offer on the table for Ellsbury, he will be gone in a flash. His talent and potential is enormous, so the return would have to be high. Given his 2010 season, he has gone from mostly untouchable to trade-able without much hesitation. On the flip side of that, since he had such a poor 2010, the likelihood of receiving a trade offer that truly matches his potential is low and the chances he remains in Boston are high. In that same vein, Ellsbury would be stupid to carry over his frustration/negative attitude from last year, because it will also effect his performance and as a result, the size of his contract in the future.

I firmly believe Ellsbury will have a great season and return to his base-stealing-self early on in the season. My only concern is with his reckless play that resulted in his continued rib injuries. He makes some incredible diving catches and has a tendency to slide head-first into trouble (not unlike most speedy players in the MLB), so the chances of injury are high. That being said, no one wants him to change his style of play, because it is precisely his speed and defensive prowess that make him so valuable in Boston. There is reason to be optimistic about Ellsbury in 2011.

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Tags: Adrian Beltre Boston Red Sox Injury Jacoby Ellsbury Kevin Youkilis Manny Ramirez Preview Story-lines Tommy Hunter

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