David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
TAMPA, Fla. - With the temperature at 57 degrees and a light drizzle falling, Steinbrenner Field was not the ideal place for baseball-related activities of any kind Thursday, unless the Yankees were hoping to simulate conditions in the Bronx next month.
The handful of players who avoided the bus trip south to Bradenton had to do something, however, and that included Jacoby Ellsbury, who last appeared in a Grapefruit League game on March 14. That's almost the equivalent of a DL stint because of what originally was diagnosed as a minor issue with his right calf.
And the Yankees, despite insisting that Ellsbury will be in the Opening Day lineup Tuesday in Houston, keep hedging their bets by stashing him in minor-league games at the Himes facility across the street.
Ellsbury is scheduled to play there again Friday morning -- the Yankees host the Marlins Friday night -- in order to give the front office the ability to backdate Ellsbury if he winds up having to open the season on the DL.
With only two Grapefruit League games left, it's pointless to use Ellsbury in either one -- not when the Yankees risk losing him for two weeks rather than the first five days of the regular season, should there be a "setback," as Joe Girardi mentioned.
But this kid-glove treatment of Ellsbury indicates that the Yankees are wary of his reputation for being fragile and want to be extra careful with their $153-million centerfielder.
Although last week's precautionary MRI came back clean and Ellsbury reported no issues in Wednesday's minor-league game, the Yankees still don't feel comfortable letting him loose. On Thursday he took batting practice and ran the bases without any visible discomfort. Coming off the field, he gave two thumbs up and said he was fine.
But even if Ellsbury avoids beginning the season on the DL -- as the Yankees anticipate he will -- should they be concerned about his readiness? We're going on more than two weeks without Ellsbury facing a major-league pitcher, and the game is going to speed up a bit next week at Minute Maid Park.
There is evidence to suggest that Ellsbury, despite the extended absence, still can be a factor when the games count. In 2011, Carlos Beltran barely got on the field for the Mets during spring training as he rehabbed from January knee surgery. He logged a total of nine at-bats, and the Mets flushed any chance of backdating him by using him in a Grapefruit League game in the final week.
"I was building up to the running part," Beltran said after a workout Thursday, "but I was able to go in the cage, spend an hour or more hitting from both sides of the plate, do my lifting. I was doing everything else related to my preparation, but I know it takes a while to get the timing down."
Maybe not as long for Beltran, who still got off to a decent start by hitting .281 with three homers and an .832 OPS in that first month. When the Mets traded Beltran to the Giants on July 26, his OPS was up to .904 and he had slugged 15 homers in 98 games.
Provided that Ellsbury is healthy, can he make the same zero-to-60 transition that Beltran was thrust into that year?
Before experiencing the calf twinge during a March 15 workout, Ellsbury was hitting .174 (4-for-23) with two doubles and a home run in nine games. After stealing 52 bases last season, Ellsbury does not have any as a Yankee -- but it's been two years since he's had one during spring training.
As Beltran's 2011 performance showed, these spring training games don't provide a very good read on the future.
They don't really have much use at all, other than to allow pitchers to build up arm strength.
Beltran, as a fellow outfielder, has shared the same practice groups as Ellsbury and hasn't detected any noticeable issues. "I see him in the [indoor] cages all the time," Beltran said, "and the only difference will be the live pitching. He's a little behind on that, but you never know. Once the season starts, sometimes people are capable of changing their mindset -- just turning on the switch."
The Yankees would like to see that Tuesday in Houston. But Ellsbury has to get there first.