Two weeks into spring training, and just over a month before Opening Day, Jacoby Ellsbury's name has barely been mentioned in regards to major story lines for the Yankees in 2015. While I would imagine that he has no qualms about that, there's no doubt that Ellsbury must step up in a big way if the Yankees are to have any shot at snapping their postseason "drought."
Say this about Jacoby Ellsbury's 2014 season, his first in pinstripes: his name was in the lineup quite often. While that might sound like a slight at his level of production, recall that when New York inked the former Red Sox speedster to a seven-year, $153 million deal 15 months ago, people were skeptical of his health. Well, he played in 149 games, marking just the second time he topped the 140 plateau in the last five seasons. In a year where so many Yankees with big contracts were either injured or unproductive (or both, in too many instances), Ellsbury was neither.
However, if you examined Ellsbury's statistics from a year ago and were asked to assign a price tag to those totals, would $21 million have been your answer? Probably not. Ellsbury hit .271 (26 point below his career average), posted a .328 on-base percentage (his lowest ever in a season with at least 100 games played) and was frustratingly inconsistent. In April, June and August, he hit no lower than .312, but in May, July and September, he hit no higher than .250. At best, his 111 OPS+ suggested that he merely equaled his production from last year (a 113 OPS+). Ellsbury's first season in the Bronx was hardly a disappointment--far from it. With that said, the Yankees saw first-hand how electric a player he can be in his previous seven years in Boston, and that level of output wasn't on call for him in 2014.
If you go back and dive into Ellsbury's best year in the big leagues, 2011, when he was the AL MVP-runner up, there is proof that he has the skill set to shoulder the load over a full year. In his age-27 season, he launched 32 home runs (twice as many as he's hit in any other season) and drove in 105 runs, in addition to also posting career-high totals in WAR, OBP, OPS, total bases. Oh, and remember the "Fried Chicken and Beer" September for the Red Sox? In a month where so little went right for Boston, Ellsbury hit to the tune of .358/.400/.667. Stay away from carbs, kids.
Ellsbury might have been the most talented position player on that Red Sox team, and he is certainly the most talented everyday player on this Yankee team. For that reason alone, more should be expected of him. The 32 home runs he hit in '11 appear to be a fluky number, so that should not necessarily be his benchmark. However, the closer he can get to his MVP-caliber production, the better. If the Yankees want to stake their claim as a contender in the AL East, Ellsbury will need to get on base at a much higher clip than he did a year ago. With the plan seemingly to have Ellsbury and Brett Gardner hit 1-2 atop the lineup in some order, it will need to be more '11 than '14 for the New York center fielder.
While we're on the topic, it's hard not to follow the Yankees and be optimistic about the possible results of an Ellsbury-Gardner attack at the onset of the order. It would be one of the best leadoff duos in the entire league, and the amount of times one singles, steals second, and is brought in by the other would be plentiful (well, in theory anyway). Ellsbury and Gardner work well together because they are similar players offensively. Of course, the even level of productions don't come at equal cost to the team. This isn't meant to convey that Ellsbury's contract should be held over his head, but the Yankees gave him the money that they did because they saw what he could do. Doesn't it only make sense that they would expect a return on their investment?
When Ellsbury signed with the Yankees, many expected his power numbers to increase with the short porch in Yankee Stadium's right field. Interestingly enough, Ellsbury had the same number of extra base hits, 48, last year that he did the year prior, despite a batting average that was 27 points lower. That suggests that Ellsbury was potentially a little too focused on that "314" sign down the line, even though his slugging percentage was roughly the same (.426 to .419). If Ellsbury is placed in the leadoff position, or is at least put there more often than the 49 times he was last year, he might be less inclined to swing for the fences, and instead take more pitches and try to aim for contact as opposed to power more often.
With Derek Jeter gone, the Yankees' "lack of a face" has been a well-discussed problem, if you can even call it that. No one expects Ellsbury to be named captain at any point in his Yankee tenure, or even necessarily be a vocal leader in the clubhouse. However, there is a real opportunity for Ellsbury to lead this club and organization into a new era by letting his play on the field do the speaking. A player as potentially dynamic as Ellsbury can really make a name for himself in a place like New York.
Of course, for Ellsbury to accomplish any of these heights in 2015, there is that pesky prerequisite of being on the field. For Ellsbury to contribute at an All-Star level this year, he would need to remain healthy for a third consecutive campaign, something he has never done. Ellsbury could do wonders to fend off critics, and that ugly reputation of being injury-prone (justified or not) by continuing to remain off the DL, especially with his increasing age (he'll turn 32 before season's end).
There will be no October for the Yankees in 2015 without an uptick in overall production from Jacoby Ellsbury over what we saw a year ago. For so many reasons, he is one of the most, if not the most, essential cogs in Joe Girardi's lineup. What are you expecting from Ellsbury this upcoming season?