Ellsbury deserved better

BOSTON -- Time and again during the 2011 season, Boston Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury robbed opponents of hits and extra bases with his stellar defense. He has left opposing pitchers, infielders and outfielders in awe with his base-stealing speed.

But on Monday he was the one robbed.

Ellsbury enjoyed a career season and it landed him as the runner-up behind Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander for the American League MVP award.

Verlander received 13 of 28 first-place votes and 280 total points in voting announced by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. Ellsbury was second with 242 points (four first-place votes, 13 second-place votes), followed by Toronto right fielder Jose Bautista with 231 points.

Even before the award winner was announced, an interesting debate was under way: whether or not pitchers should be eligible for the MVP alongside players who are on the field nearly every day.

Granted, Verlander enjoyed an incredible season with a 24-5 record in 34 starts, including a 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts to take the AL pitching triple crown. He is the first pitcher to win MVP since Oakland's Dennis Eckersley in 1992 and the first starter since Boston's Roger Clemens in 1986.

Ellsbury was no doubt the Red Sox's best player in 2011, posting a .321 average with 32 homers, 39 stolen bases, 105 RBIs and 119 runs scored -- all career highs in 158 games.

He became the first Sox player to reach the 30-30 mark. Even when things went bad during the historic 7-20 collapse in September, Ellsbury remained consistent. He hit .358 with eight home runs in the final month of the regular season.

For his efforts, he won Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards. But he did not win the MVP.

All of this after playing only 18 games in 2010 due to a slew of rib injuries.

"We're very proud of him," said Red Sox GM Ben Cherington. "He's a guy we drafted, came up through the system and certainly had a breakout year. We're really proud of him no matter where he finished in the MVP voting. We knew he was going to get strong consideration and we're very happy for him. Obviously we would have been really happy for him if he won, but he's clearly become one of the great players in the league and a huge part of our team."

Some of Ellsbury's teammates believe he should have won the MVP.

"Obviously if you ask any of our guys we're going to be biased to Jacoby because we saw it firsthand what kind of year he had and what he means to our team," said Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who won the AL MVP in 2008. "Obviously I feel he deserves to win it."

"We all know Verlander's year was pretty incredible with his numbers and he deserves the attention he's getting," added Pedroia. "He had an unbelievable season, but in my opinion, he pitched 34 games and Ells played 158, so I think if a pitcher should win it he should impact, in those 34 games, in an extraordinary amount of the time and he did that, no question. But Ells impacted a lot more than 34 games for our team."

Finishing second behind a pitcher means Ellsbury was the best position player in the American League in 2011.

"But that's why it's fun for everybody," said Pedroia. "Everybody can say, 'pitchers should win it,' or 'pitchers shouldn't win it.' It's fun for the fans, it's fun for the media and it's fun for everybody. But it's pretty difficult to see a guy finish second. It kind of stinks."

Ellsbury's not some flash in the pan. He's a superstar. He's a five-tool player who can beat opponents in every aspect. What fans witnessed from Ellsbury in 2011 will be hard to match from a personal standpoint for the 28-year-old outfielder.
He may surpass some of those career highs he reached in 2011, but every category would be tough to top.

He's arguably one of the most marketable players in baseball. He'll earn a major pay raise this offseason from the $2.4 million he made in 2011. He also has Scott Boras as an agent. It's inevitable that once Ellsbury reaches free agency in 2014, the benchmark for a new contract will be similar to, if not more, than the eight years and $160 million the Los Angeles Dodgers just gave 27-year-old center fielder Matt Kemp.

After Pedroia won American League Rookie of the Year in 2007, and then followed that with his MVP award in 2008, the Red Sox gave him a long-term deal that will last at least through 2015. The Sox gave similar contract extensions to other homegrown talent, including pitchers Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz.

All those deals, however, were done under former GM Theo Epstein. It'll be interesting to see how Cherington moves forward with Ellsbury. It will also depend on how he performs in 2012 and 2013.

It will be a challenge to repeat what he accomplished in 2011, but he should have an AL MVP plaque to add to his trophy case.

Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.