There figures to always be a soft spot in Tommy Harper’s heart for Jacoby Ellsbury. Harper got to know Ellsbury when the latter was on the fast track through the minor-league ranks, hence why the former had no trouble relinquishing his 36-year-old Red Sox record of 54 stolen bases in a single season, which Ellsbury shattered with 70 thefts in 2009.
When the topic of Ellsbury and the lavish seven-year, $153-million deal he reportedly agreed to with the New York Yankees came up during a phone interview on Wednesday, Harper elicited a response that was part clairvoyant, part reality check.
“No, not to me. Who else can afford him?” said Harper when asked if he was caught off-guard with Ellsbury’s decision to sign with Boston’s chief rival. “The team they end up going to doesn’t surprise me. If you’re going to go for that kind of money, where else are you going to get it? You’re talking Yankees, Red Sox, Angels and Dodgers.
“With the Yankees, people have to understand that it’s not your money. The Yankees didn’t have to do it, but they did.”
From Harper’s vantage point, the handwriting was on the wall regarding Ellsbury’s future in Boston when Ellsbury chose to follow the script that Jonathan Papelbon adhered to as opposed to Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Dustin Pedroia. All three Red Sox opted to sign long-term contracts rather than let the system play out and see what the market holds, which Papelbon and Ellsbury opted to do.
“If Jacoby wanted to sign with the Red Sox, he would have done what (Lester, Buchholz and Pedroia) did, but he didn’t,” Harper said. “At that point, you know he’s going somewhere.”
Told of the number of years Ellsbury received from New York, Harper said he wasn’t shocked.
“Scott Boras has said for a while now that he wanted [a contract for Ellsbury similar if not better than the seven-year, $142-million pact the Red Sox gave disgruntled outfielder Carl Crawford three winters ago], and he got it. He told you what the parameters were,” Harper remarked. “If you have got Boras for an agent, he’s going for the money. If you don’t want the money, don’t pick Scott Boras. If you’re close to free agency, he’s going to go the full route. He’s not going to give any hometown discounts. His players, they’ll go anywhere as long as the money is in the ballpark.
“The Red Sox aren’t into the seven-year deals, and if Jacoby wanted that amount of years, he almost eliminated himself from some teams,” Harper added.
Switching gears to the baseball side of Ellsbury’s mammoth payday, Harper says that what the Yankees did is understandable considering their current outfield arrangement.
“(Curtis) Granderson is a free agent. They have (Brett) Gardner, who’s not Ellsbury, and Ichiro,” he explained. “It makes sense for them to spend the money and they are in the market for people.”
On the surface, it made perfect sense as to why Harper took a special interest in a speedster of Ellsbury’s ilk. From one player who used the stolen base as a primary means to carve out a 15-year MLB career – Harper stole 408 bags, good for 67th all-time – to a modern-day player in Ellsbury, who led the American League in steals in three of his seven seasons with the Red Sox, the two appeared cut from the same baseball cloth.
Harper will remember Ellsbury as someone “who doesn’t talk much. As far as playing, he hasn’t gotten back to the year that he had when he was almost MVP.”
Harper is referring to Ellsbury’s 2011 otherworldly campaign. That season saw him connect for 32 home runs – his second highest total in a single season is nine – and swipe 39 bases.
“The question is his power. Of course he doesn’t throw very well, but everybody knows that,” said Harper. “(Such perceived shortcomings) don’t make a difference in today’s game. Everyone has flaws, but teams still give them the money because the game is so watered down that there aren’t many elite players out there.
“Jacoby has grown. He’s a helluva stolen-base guy and gets on base. When he puts it all together – the Yankees are probably thinking that he’s going to supply a little more power – he should do all right. He is more mature and takes the game in stride. He’s Fred Lynn – he just puts on his uniform and at the end of the day he goes home. He’s not a rah-rah guy.”
Then came the topic regarding the injuries Ellsbury dealt with during his Red Sox tenure.
“People always said that he was out of the lineup, but if you break your ribs and dislocate your shoulder, you’re going to hear things like ‘I would never have given him that amount of money and that many years,’” said Harper, referencing two gruesome injuries that short-circuited two seasons for Ellsbury. “If the Red Sox would have come up with the money and the years, I think Ellsbury would have stayed.”
To Harper, the fact that Ellsbury returned for the 2013 playoffs after breaking a bone in his right foot in September should put to rest any concerns that fans had regarding the 30-year-old’s toughness.
“He jumped right back in there like he had never left,” Harper pointed out.
With Ellsbury changing his work address, the question du jour surrounds Jackie Bradley Jr. and whether the 23-year-old is truly ready to become the heir to a lynchpin of two World Series winners.
In keeping to his duties as a player development consultant with the Red Sox, Harper spent quite a bit of time at McCoy Stadium as the 2013 regular season drew to a close in order to get a better feel of Bradley. On some levels, Bradley reminded Harper of where Ellsbury stood as he neared full-time duty in the majors.
“To me, Jackie’s still going to have to earn it,” said Harper. “Whether he can do it or not, I don’t know. We don’t know what he can do (on a big-league field) yet. We also didn’t know what Ellsbury could do when he first came up.
“I just think Jackie needs to show what he can do,” Harper delved further. “Your college and minor-league record, yes it’s good, but you still need to show what you can do in the big leagues.”
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03