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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

It's hard to get a clear Crisp picture

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- There are several elephants in this big room that houses the Boston Red Sox. One is catcher Jason Varitek. Is he going to hit again? Then there's Dustin Pedroia. Any chance the kid is in over his head? Oh, and let's not forget erstwhile dynamo leadoff center fielder Coco Crisp.

Is is possible that Crisp is nothing more than the soft player we saw last year? No arm. No power. No sizzle. No impact.

We all thought Crisp -- a guy with a great name and a better smile -- was going to be the next big deal when the Sox traded for him after Johnny Damon followed the money to the Bronx. In the spring of 2006, Crisp was a Grapefruit League sensation, hitting .434 with eight steals. Then he fractured his left index finger in Baltimore April 8 and overnight he went from being a young Reggie Smith to an old Dwayne Hosey.

It hasn't been any better this spring. Currently batting .184, Crisp hurt his left shoulder in early March and missed nine days before returning against the Devil Rays in St. Petersburg last Saturday. He played his 13th preseason game yesterday, smoking a first-pitch double down the right-field line in the second inning. Crisp walked in the fourth, then took a third strike while facing John "Way Back" Wasdin in the sixth.

"I think he's swinging the bat really well," said general manager Theo Epstein after the Sox' 3-2 loss to the Pirates at City of Palms Park. "You can throw spring training stats out the window, especially in his case. He's had bad luck. But I'm encouraged that the ball is coming off his bat better and he's running well. I think we're going to see the real guy this year."

Crisp didn't want to talk before the game. Approached in the clubhouse while reading a magazine at 11:30 a.m., he declined a request to be interviewed. He was not in the clubhouse when the game ended.

The last time he said anything to writers, he made some odd remarks regarding perceptions of his play.

"I don't really care what the people think about me," Crisp said in the visitors' clubhouse at St. Pete Saturday. "As far as me wracking my brain about what anybody thinks, I don't do that. I hope they enjoy watching us play as a team, I do something, they enjoy that part of it. But I don't care if people think I suck or if they think I'm good. I just go out there and have fun."

Hmmm. There's a good idea. You come to Boston strapped with the pressure of replacing Johnny Damon. You get hurt, post abysmal numbers, get hurt again, then tell the fans you don't care what they think. It's as if Crisp spent the winter at the Keith Foulke Institute of Public Relations.

None of that matters if a guy can play. But the jury is still out on Crisp in Boston. He's 27 and appeared to be on an upward curve when he arrived from Cleveland. His average went up every year with the Tribe, topping out at .300 with 16 homers and 69 RBIs in 2005.

Last year he played only 105 games and slumped to .264 with 8 homers and 36 RBIs. He also stole 22 bases and was caught only four times. But it was a hollow year in every way. Spoiled by the everyday presence of Damon for four seasons, Sox fans were frustrated by a leadoff center fielder who seemed to have no impact on the outcome of games.

"I'm not disappointed," said Epstein. "I'm disappointed that he got hurt last year."

Fast-forward to spring of 2007, and Crisp has lost the leadoff job to Julio Lugo. He'll start the season batting in the eighth spot in the order most days. He has seven hits this spring. On the plus side, he's looked significantly better when batting lefthanded, and the Sox will see a batch of righthanded pitching out of the gate.

There's been some mystery regarding Crisp's shoulder injury. It's a little like that magic foul ball that somehow went off Nomar Garciaparra's heel and sandbagged his final half-season in Boston. Crisp said he hurt the shoulder swinging from the right side.

"I don't actually know how he did it," said manager Terry Francona. "I don't know if he jammed it or bruised it. He was just sore, and righthanded, he remained sore so we kept him out when we faced five lefties in a row.

"The first day back in St. Pete, he looked great. If you send him down to get him at-bats, it's not going to do him any good. He doesn't want to do it. He's not going to get anything out of it. So we're going to get him as many at-bats, here, as we can without running him into the ground. There's a reason spring training is the way it is. We want to get him ready."

"He did bang up his left shoulder a little bit," said Epstein. "But he's taking batting practice from both sides. He should be fine.

"The injury really hurt him last year. He had to have surgery at the end of the season. But usually hitters with his trend lines don't take a step backwards. At 27, he should be in the prime of his career."

Crisp is signed through 2009, with a club option for 2010, but if he remains injured or ineffective, how long before the Sox make a move in the outfield? J.D. Drew can play center. Wily Mo Peña looks like an SUV in center field, but he plays the position better than he plays right. Down on the farm, David Murphy will start the season in center at Pawtucket and wonderboy Jacoby Ellsbury (a triples machine who looks like a young Damon) will start at center in Portland.

Meanwhile, it's Coco's job to lose. And a Nation waits and wonders.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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