The Red Sox have had their share of injuries in 2012, but for the most part, those have been covered by much more than competent replacements. When Kevin Youkilis went down, Will Middlebrooks stepped in at third in his place, and was so productive that it eventually forced a Youkilis trade to the White Sox to start the future in the present. When Dustin Pedroia missed time at second, it just happened to coincide with Nick Punto's offensive outburst, the yin to his earlier, below replacement level yang. Carl Crawford has missed the entire year, but early on, the presence of Cody Ross made that work, while later and to this day, Daniel Nava's strong campaign (.275/.388/.427) has lessened the sting of that particular absence considerably.
The one area in which there's been no such luck is center field. Jacoby Ellsbury went down, and besides a brief (but unexpectedly brilliant) couple of weeks from Scott Podsednik, there's just been little to enjoy from the position. Jason Repko filled in initially, before hurting his own shoulder, and what might very well have been Marlon Byrd's final moments in a major-league uniform came in this stretch as well. All told, in Ellsbury's absence, Red Sox center fielders hit .248/.277/.331, with just 15 extra-base hits and 11 walks in 316 plate appearances. In September 2011, Ellsbury had more extra-base hits than that in just 131 trips to the plate, and nearly as many free passes.
Even if Ellsbury had reverted to his pre-2011 form, in which he hit .291/.344/.405 over 1,513 plate appearances and parts of four seasons, he would have been a major upgrade over the production the team received in his absence, production that was nearly 40 percent worse than the league average in center. We have reason to believe that much of Ellsbury's 2011 was for real, though, and because of that, it's obvious that a healthy Ellsbury would have been a difference maker in the season's first three-plus months -- whereas the current crop is 40 percent below-average, Ellsbury's 2011 was 56 percent better. That's right -- Red Sox center fielders have combined to be nearly as bad as Ellsbury was good in 2011.
Daniel Nava might have been productive over the course of his time with the Red Sox, but you can't guarantee that will last -- that makes the return of Crawford helpful to Boston's future. But at least with Nava, he was able to serve as a quality band-aid. No such luck in center, but now, with Ellsbury returning to face the Rays on Friday night, there's one gaping wound in the lineup that's finally closed.