In addressing reporters Sunday in Fort Myers, manager Terry Francona expressed excitement at the return of Ellsbury, who played in only 18 games in 2010 due to broken ribs. The skipper also indicated that there are enough options in place to take pressure off Ellsbury, if need be.
“It’ll be fun to watch Ellsbury,” Francona said. “A year ago at this time we were talking about him being our left fielder, our leadoff hitter and being that game changer. Well, now we got that game changer, who’s playing left field. We can move Ells back to center and hopefully allow him to continue his development.”
Once he uttered the word “development,” Francona realized that it might label Ellsbury a project. That’s obviously not the case for a guy that hit over .300 and set a franchise record for stolen bases in 2009. Quickly, Francona added on.
“He missed a lot of time,” Francona said. “Early on does that slow him down? We’ll see. I hope not. If it does we’ll have ways to take the pressure off of him. We can hit him lower in the lineup. We’ve been pretty open about that. If he’s feeling good we’d love for him to hit leadoff. If not we can protect him.”
Protection figures to come in the form of that new game-changer, Carl Crawford, although Francona never named names. Crawford hit leadoff many times earlier in his career and Ellsbury is no stranger to being dropped in the lineup, as he was for a stretch in both 2008 and 2009, his only two full seasons as a major leaguer.
Both have blinding speed (between them, Ellsbury and Crawford have six American League stolen base crowns). What could cause a lineup shuffle has more to do with how often they reach base.
“In my opinion, on-base percentage is more important than stolen bases,” Francona said. “Sometimes your guys who can run are better off at the bottom of your order. … We’ll just try to use good judgment. If you have a guy leading off that can steal 70 bases, that’s a weapon. If he’s not getting on base, it’s not much of a weapon.”
Francona added that stolen base percentage, the success rate for theft attempts, is also very important. If Ellsbury or Crawford, or a third party, is stealing bases at a better rate than any other leadoff candidates, that would help them get the nod. Crawford himself stressed this in meetings with Red Sox officials in Houston this offseason, Francona said.
Essentially, it’s a delicate balance.
“If we run smartly, it’s way better, and our guys know that,” Francona added. “We don’t want to rein them in either. If we’re going to be fast, I would love to use it, but making outs on the bases doesn’t help you win.”
Ellsbury has been working out and conducting baseball activities without limitation for some time. He should be good to go once Grapefruit League action begins and figures to bat leadoff on April 1, when Boston opens its regular season at Texas. If there are any road blocks along the way, the Red Sox are prepared.