Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Best of luck, Ells ... it's been real ... it really has

Last week, Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers admonished his teammates, telling them that professional sports represent two games in one: the game on the court and the other one far away from the arena ... in board rooms and around negotiating tables.

Now I'm no fan of Kobe's. I appreciate that he's a great player ... as clutch as they come, and a future Hall of Famer, even if he did wiggle free of a rape charge and then try to buy his wife off with a diamond the size of Texas.

He is right, however.

And it's not just players who have to understand this. It's fans. Professional sports are not Little League ... they're not high school ... and they're not even college (where sports have turned into something so odious that you need a shower after you talk to your average big-time football or basketball coach).

Maybe 40 years ago, before the 1975 decision that paved the way for modern free agency, pro sports were a little easier for the fan to stomach. Players couldn't follow the money and make the best deals for themselves. It may have been easier for fans, but the kids playing the game were exploited beyond anyone's wildest imagination.

In fact, you can put the blame for today's exploding salary structure in all sports squarely on the owners, who, for years, kept the players on a string and yanked them around any chance they got. If you're looking for any tangible proof of this, read all about how the NFL shamefully (and perhaps intentionally) remained ignorant of a concussion problem that is, just now, blowing the sport up.

Into this maelstrom we give you Jacoby Ellsbury, now formerly of the Red Sox, whose apparent signing with the New York Yankees for seven years and $153 million will without doubt set a chain reaction in motion that would rock Wall Street to its foundation if this were day trading and not baseball deal-making.

Just from a point of practicality, the Yankees have, right now, one of the premier baseball players in the entire Major League system in second baseman Robinson Cano. He's asking for the type of money the Yankees have just given Ellsbury. Even the Yankees, as rich as they may be, cannot afford two of those types of contracts, so chances are Cano is gone, and what results from all this dickering is what is known in Blackjack as a push.

Ellsbury may hit a few more homers with a shorter right field to shoot for, but whatever he hits, the Yankees will lose in Cano's production. More to the point, Cano's only true competition for "best second baseman in baseball" is Boston's Dustin Pedroia, and he's not going anywhere. Pedroia is signed, sealed and delivered (at a hometown discount) for the next 10 years.

(As an aside, this is one more in about 100 reasons to thank our lucky stars in Boston for Dustin Pedroia. He understands that a comfortable situation, along with fan adulation, is worth whatever money he passed up to remain here.)

They Yankees gain a center fielder who is two years younger than the one they've apparently deemed expendable: Curtis Granderson (and if the Red Sox somehow manage to lure Granderson into their midst, I'm willing to take that trade, even if it means giving up a top draft choice. He's only looking for three years, versus the seven Ellsbury signed for).

But they also gain a player who has a reputation -- somewhat deserved -- of being brittle. Think Danny Amendola of the Patriots. This guy can stub his toe and be out for six weeks.

It is sadly ironic that the one injury Ellsbury suffered that was completely legitimate -- the broken ribs in 2010 -- may be the one that convinced him he was better off somewhere else. The Red Sox did not cover themselves with glory on this one. They botched the diagnosis and then practically shamed him into coming back too soon. It would take a person of immense powers of forgiveness to absolve the Red Sox, and the media who cover them, of the whispers and innuendo that went along with this injury.

And it's also worth mentioning that the reason he was injured is because the genius who is now the chief steward in charge of maintaining the Chicago Cubs' long and distinguished history of wretchedness (Theo Epstein) thought it was a neat idea to acquire center fielder Mike Cameron and turn Ellsbury into a left fielder (whereupon he collided violently with Adrian "Kamikaze" Beltre and practically got himself killed).

So only the most naive person on earth thought Ellsbury would stay here ... for that as well as other reasons.

The Red Sox were burned badly by the money they threw at Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, and had to strip themselves down to Triple-A level to rid themselves of the pair, along with Josh Beckett. And while we all applauded current GM Ben Cherington for daring to make the trade, it left Bobby Valentine -- already a severely lame duck -- with no wings at all. The Red Sox couldn't get rid of Valentine fast enough once the 2012 season ended, and while they never should have hired him in the first place, that doesn't mean that every one of those 93 losses last year can be traced directly to him. He had plenty of help.

Cherington, I'm sure with the blessings of the front office, is not about to commit that kind of money to anyone while the footprints are still visible up and down the organization's back, and who can blame him? So they were not about to pay Ellsbury that kind of money ... and Ellsbury wasn't going to settle for less than that kind of money. No hometown discount for Jacoby. Not with Scott Boras as his agent. Boras doesn't do hometown discounts, and Ellsbury was surely not of a mind to grant one.

The fly in the ointment is the Yankees. But if you're Scott Boras and you're shopping someone around for $150-plus million over seven or so years, there aren't many places to go. The Dodgers have all they can handle with the wretched refuse they inherited from the Red Sox ... and really? Who's left?

Let's establish this: Ellsbury is a very, very good baseball player. He has some power (though that 30-homer season of 2011 might have been a slight aberration from what he's capable of doing over the long haul) and he's a threat to steal a base anytime, and from anywhere. He certainly added an element of speed -- which is something you can't teach -- to the Red Sox, and it certainly served them well.

But here's the question: Is Ellsbury the type of player who can carry a team for a month, the way David Ortiz can when he's going well? Or Miguel Cabrera? Or the way Derek Jeter once could? Or -- dare I even ask -- Alex Rodriguez in his prime? 

I say nay. He played 134 games this season (which, for him, is outstanding), hit .298, and stole 52 bases. And with all that, he was no better than the third most important every-day player on his team (I submit that David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia were the guts of that team, and that a prolonged absence by either would have radically affected the 2013 Red Sox). For my $153 million, I want a go-to guy 24/7 ... one who will put up a fight if I suggest he take a rest ... one who will be accountable for what he does ... and one who will help his teammates accept accountability as well.

And I just don't think that guy is Jacoby Ellsbury. That guy is Dustin Pedroia.

The Yankees have been throwing good money after bad from the moment they backed up the truck and dumped millions of dollars on A-Rod's front lawn, eschewing an organizational commitment to build from within, which is how they won four world championships in five years. For all the contracts they've doled out, including the ridiculous extension Boras blackmailed them into signing for Rodriguez (remember the big announcement that he would opt out while the Red Sox were one out from winning the World Series in 2007?), they've won one world championship. In the same amount of time, the Red Sox have won three.

Ellsbury could turn into the second coming of Joe DiMaggio in New York. I sincerely hope he does well. He's a good player and seems like a decent guy. There doesn't seem to be a tremendous sense of urgency about him at times, but that could be more because almost too smooth for his own good. Maybe if he grunted a little bit ... or rolled around in the dirt ... I don't know.

But apparently the Yankees haven't learned that big, fat contracts don't equal winning. It didn't work for the Red Sox in 2011; it didn't work for the Toronto Blue Jays last year; and I'm going to go out on a limb and say it might not work for the Yankees in 2014.

You win championships with a combination of stars and role players who also have to be paid ... and paid well. You need Shane Victorinos, and Mike Napolis, and Jonny Gomes. But if you're spending all outdoors on two or three players, the role players ... the ones so vital to keeping the machinery going for 162 games ... aren't going to be there for you because you're not going to be able to pay them what they want. Unless, of course, you're willing to pony up an exorbitant luxury tax.

Good luck to Jacoby Ellsbury. I wouldn't be so hostile as to say "don't let the door hit you on the ass on the way out," but at the same time, he's going to have an awful lot to live up to. Crawford couldn't handle it in 2011, and the question is whether Ellsbury can deal with it in 2014.

Stay tuned.

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