Gambling with Ellsbury
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Hanging out with my friends recently made me come to a startling realization.

Let me set the scene for you.

Saturday I drove up to Syracuse to watch my Orangemen (yes I know they shortened it to "Orange," but I still like calling them the Orangemen) take on the Georgetown Hoyas in a basketball game at the Carrier Dome.

While sitting in my friend's apartment after the game (Georgetown slaughtered us, 57-46), a few of us wondered aloud what the plan was for the rest of the night.

None of us had a clue.

So we sat there ... for hours.

By the time we got around to doing anything, the night was practically over.

"We're not much for making decisions, are we?" I joked.

And that's pretty much the end of the story. I'll admit, it's not one of my better ones, but the underlying message here is still pretty important.

Apparently, even something as simple as taking the initiative to walk three blocks to the local bar (which eventually happened around 11 p.m.) can be a paralyzing decision to some of us.

Either that, or my friends and I are just extremely lazy.

Unfortunately, that passive mind-set usually doesn't work in the world of fantasy sports.

Justin Verlander or Clayton Kershaw? Is the second round too early to draft a catcher? Can Andrew McCutchen repeat his stellar 2012 season? These are the kinds of questions that consume fantasy junkies on a daily basis.

Yet most of us will put off these tough decisions for as long as we can.

In the first couple rounds, you can get away with that. Mike Trout, Robinson Cano, Ryan Braun ... these guys are all no-brainers.

The middle rounds of the draft are where you really have to start using your noggin. This is where fantasy owners will have to man up and face their greatest fear: uncertainty.

This collection of not-so-sure things is led by a familiar face. That face belongs to Jacoby Ellsbury, the starting center fielder for the Boston Red Sox.

He's the 185-pound elephant in the room. The human question mark. The ultimate dice roll.

Two seasons ago, Ellsbury was brilliant. He swatted 32 homers and nearly stole 40 bases, all while playing gold-glove defense in center field. If not for his team's late season collapse, he'd probably be polishing off his 2011 American League MVP trophy as we speak.

But then 2012 happened. After an inauspicious start to the season (just 5- for-26 at the plate in his first seven games) Ellsbury collided with Tampa Bay infielder Reid Brignac on a play at second base. The shoulder injury cost Ellsbury (and his fantasy owners) three months of the season.

When the speedy outfielder finally did return to the diamond, his production was subpar. Ellsbury's final line for the 2012 season included a .271 average, 4 HR, 26 RBI and just 14 stolen bases.

So in the time it takes Earth to run a lap around the Sun, Ellsbury went from being a fantasy first rounder to one of this year's biggest wild cards.

For some reason, the injury gods like to use Ellsbury for target practice. Since 2010, Ellsbury has participated in 250 out of a possible 486 games and endured four visits to the disabled list.

And if that wasn't troubling enough, notice how Ellsbury's stolen base production has fallen since his 70-steal campaign in 2009. In 2011, he swiped 39 bags and a season ago that total fell to 14. Of course, Ellsbury missed more than half the year due to injuries, but even if he hadn't, he was only on pace for about 30 thefts.

The home run situation is just as perplexing. Ellsbury belted 32 round- trippers in 2011 and then followed that up with just four dingers a year later. Again, if Ellsbury had played 162 games, that total would have been either eight or nine long balls.

Adding to the drama is that 2013 is a contract year for Ellsbury. His performance over the next seven months could be the difference between Josh Hamilton money (five years, $125 million) or Michael Bourn money (four years, $48 million).

Obviously, Ellsbury will be plenty motivated, but which version of him can we realistically expect to take the field in 2013?

A combination of the 2011 and 2012 Ellsburys seems like the safest bet.

Ellsbury's lifetime batting average is .297 and he's never hit worse than .280 in any season he's been healthy. If Ellsbury can log 150 games (which is obviously a big if), I can't envision him hitting any lower than .290.

None of Ellsbury's injuries over the years have been knee or foot-related so I think his speed will still be an asset in 2013. Boston's lineup isn't as strong as it has been in recent seasons so the Red Sox may have to play a bit more small ball in 2013. That should mean plenty of steals for Ellsbury.

I still can't make sense of Ellsbury's 2011 power surge and I probably never will. With the exception of 2011, Ellsbury has never hit more than nine home runs in a single season. The law of averages tells us he'll be hovering around that eight to nine range again in 2013.

Drafting Ellsbury won't be for the faint of heart, but somebody has to do it. Will I be one of those brave souls?

Ugggh ... I can't decide.




Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Jesse Pantuosco at jpantuosco@sportsnetwork.com.

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