We have all suspected for some time that Jacoby Ellsbury would leave the Red Sox this off-season, but few would have guessed he would be off to the dark-side. On Tuesday night, Jacoby Ellsbury became a Yankee.
Jacoby Ellsbury is a now a New York Yankee.
I can't quite bring myself to accept it. There are naturally a lot of emotions that come along with a Red Sox star leaving town to join our arch-rivals. Some people might feel betrayed, but I don't. Baseball players have a very brief and incredibly fragile window of time to earn their money and when someone takes the top price, I can't blame them for it. Others might look at the seven-year, $153 million commitment the Yankees made and smile at the prospect of all that money haunting them in Ellsbury's waning years, but today, that line of thought just isn't doing it for me. Rationally, I understand why the Red Sox would stick to their own price regardless of the consequences, but right now I'm not thinking rationally. Sure, I'm worried about the impact of losing a highly productive player to a division rival and how the Red Sox will make up for that, but mostly I'm just sad.
I'm sad because a player who broke in with the Red Sox by giving us an electric performance on the way to the 2007 World Series is gone. I'm sad because Ells won't be stealing base or hitting those line drives home runs into the bullpen for Boston next season. I'm sad because I will actively and vigorously rooting against a player I genuinely like.
But as I consider the fact that Jacoby Ellsbury has just signed with the team I hate the most, it quickly becomes clear to me that this deal brings to light everything that I love about the current Red Sox organization. As Marc remained me just hours after the deal, the Yankees have to sign Jacoby Ellsbury to an enormous deal because they don't have a Jacoby Ellsbury coming up. They don't have a Jackie Bradley Jr. coming up either. For parts of seven season, the Red Sox had the Jacoby Ellsbury. They didn't shell out tens of millions of dollars to bring him to Boston. They scouted him, developed him and gave him a chance to play. That might seem like an obvious thing for a baseball team to do, but it is something that our rivals down I-95 South are attempting less and less these days. It is sad to see Ellsbury leave because he was a Red Sox player from the start, but it would be far sadder to watch a team that never gets their own version of Jacoby Ellsbury.
I take great joy in watching a team that is committed to developing their own stars and while it hurts to see Ellsbury walk away, his new deal is further evidence that the current Red Sox front office believes strongly in the players they develop. The Red Sox were prepared to stop bidding at Ellsbury at a certain price in large part because they believe in Jackie Bradley Jr. and the other players in their system the same way they believed in Ellsbury. They drafted Bradley with a supplemental pick gained from letting another veteran walk, snagging him when his stock was low (relatively speaking) and they have seen him through to the edge of the major leagues. Now, hopefully, it is his time.
Even if you like the idea of building from within and player development and all of that, there is no denying that it is more anxiety-producing than going with known quantities. Ellsbury might be a risk at seven-years and $153 million, but he is a proven star and he will probably remain a star for at least a few seasons. Jackie Bradley Jr. may not last a year in the show. If the Red Sox won't take these chances, however, we will never get the next Jacoby Ellsbury or the next Dustin Pedroia or the next Jon Lester. The process is nerve-racking, but it is also incredibly exciting.
The Yankees also develop players, obviously. Their best player over the past four seasons has been the home-grown Robinson Cano, and he is now the top free agent on the market. Brett Gardner is an excellent and extremely underrated player who came up through their system. And of course, going back to some other lifetime, they brought the world Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte practically all at once. That is not the difference between Boston and New York. The difference is drafting and developing players is no longer a key part of the Yankee team-building model. They build their winning team by signing the best established players regardless of the cost. The Yankees didn't spend wildly in the draft prior to the new CBA like Boston did. They rarely rank among the top farm systems in the game and when they do develop a potential impact player, they are just as likely to trade them as they are to give them a key role, as they did with both Austin Jackson and Jesus Montero. Unlike other perennial competitors like the Rays, Cardinals, Giants and the Red Sox, the Yankee's focus is almost entirely on established talent. If they happen to develop a player or two along the way, great! If not, they buy one. It is an effective system, but they can have.
I am not at all opposed to the Red Sox signing top free agents either. Boston spends big on free agents all the time and I'm glad that they do. No farm system can provide a team with everything (well, at least not outside of St. Louis). Newly-signed or acquired players earn their place in my heart all the time. Shane Victorino just did it about as fast as anyone ever has. It certainly didn't take long for Pedro or Bill Mueller or Koji. I am not some bitter old kook shaking my fist at free agency (at least not yet), but there is something special about the guys that come up through the system and you can't always have it both ways.
As a kid growing up in Rhode Island, I attended far more games at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket than at Fenway and I can still vaguely recall the painted images of the players who came through there on their way to the show that adorn the walls of the Red Sox Triple-A home. Wade Boggs and Jim Rice and Roger Clemens were painted on those walls back then. They were the Red Sox biggest stars when I was young and I could hardly imagine them as young, unknown players fighting their way to the big leagues. Then I watched as the guys I saw in Pawtucket became stars themselves. Mike Greenwell just missed an MVP. Mo Vaughn won one. Ellis Burks became a three-time All-Star. Jacoby Ellsbury traveled that path and he has just earned himself a fortune from another team. I have no idea what Jackie Bradley Jr. or Xander Bogaerts or Matt Barnes or Brandon Workman will do, but I can't wait to find out. I'm happy to be a fan of an organization that gives their guys a chance, even if that sometimes means say goodbye to one of those guys.
It's completely true what Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus likes to say- prospects will break your heart, but so will love. Who would want to live in a world without love?
Yankees fans, maybe?