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Central casting

Ellsbury seems to be leading man, so what role will Crisp play?

Email|Print| Text size + By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / February 20, 2008

FORT MYERS, Fla. - There they were: Jacoby Ellsbury, nervous, incredibly excited after being alerted by manager Terry Francona that he would start in center field in Game 6 of last season's American League Championship Series. Coco Crisp, disappointed, possibly devastated, as he was relegated to a bench role for the remainder of the playoff run.

Though that run lasted just six games - all it took for the Red Sox to come back on the Indians and vanquish the Rockies - the decision has reverberated from Boston all the way down to Fort Myers, as position players - and the first position battle in years at Red Sox camp - are set to descend on the minor league complex today.

For the first time in a long while (last year's search for a closer doesn't count), the Red Sox have a bona fide competition on their hands - if Crisp isn't traded, that is. With Ellsbury having the inside track after last October, plus the signing of Bobby Kielty, which seemed contingent on Crisp's exit, the Red Sox may enter the season with only one of the two center fielders on the roster.

Or they might enter it with both.

"I think it's a good situation for both of us," said Ellsbury, who came in early to spring training (Crisp had not arrived as of yesterday). "It pushed me that much harder in the offseason; I'm sure it did Coco as well. We have a good relationship and we'll make the best of the situation."

Ellsbury, though, was the one whose name came up in trade talks over the winter. When the Red Sox contemplated trading for Johan Santana, one of the packages offered to the Twins included the 24-year-old rookie. That prompted a massive response from the fans he had converted with his 33-game regular-season stint and his playoff heroics (.360 average, 7 for 16 in the World Series, plus that catch in left field).

He had already hit .353 in his brief tenure in the majors, making memories with his second-to-home dash on a passed ball. He brought excitement, the same excitement Crisp engendered in the beginning before it sputtered amid injuries and underperformance. After being traded from the Indians before the 2006 season, Crisp broke his left index finger on a slide in Baltimore in his second series with Boston. He was never the same, his batting average dipping from .300 in 2005 to .264 and .268 in Boston. He still had the defense and the speed, but so, too, does Ellsbury.

This is not the first time that Crisp has been involved in a battle with a younger player. Crisp was the center fielder in Cleveland when Grady Sizemore emerged, stealing in and sneaking off with his position. That time, Crisp was not forced into a seat on the bench; he shifted to left field.

"That's their decision to make," Ellsbury said. "I went into the offseason, worked hard to be the center fielder. But it's their decision and I'll respect it either way."

It's not a situation Francona has been in often with the Red Sox. Most of the team's position players have had spots locked down for years, like Jason Varitek and Manny Ramírez, or have come into spring training with an assured spot, like Dustin Pedroia and Julio Lugo and J.D. Drew last season. With Jonathan Papelbon's brief flirtation with the starting rotation last season, there was a nominal closer competition, though that faded when Papelbon returned to his role.

Perhaps David Ortiz's situation is a more apt comparison. Between third base, first base, and designated hitter, the Red Sox had Bill Mueller, Shea Hillenbrand, Jeremy Giambi, Kevin Millar, and Ortiz. That battle left Hillenbrand traded to Arizona, Giambi gone, and Ortiz ready to take his place as the king of Boston with a chokehold on the DH position.

Then again, there was John Valentin and Nomar Garciaparra, with Crisp in the role of Valentin and Ellsbury playing the part of Garciaparra. Not exactly, but close. Valentin entered camp in the spring of 1997 having manned shortstop for the Red Sox for more than four years. Garciaparra was the hotshot rookie, drafted in the first round in 1994 out of Georgia Tech.

Just as Ellsbury seems to have an edge, so too did Garciaparra that season. The Sox seemed committed to him, even as then-manager Jimy Williams was reminding people that Valentin was his shortstop.

Sounds familiar.

"I think it's somewhat important - if you [media] guys lose sight of it, that's OK - I think it's important for our staff and the ball club to not lose sight of what Coco did for us last year," Francona said. "He played center field as good as you can. He played banged up when he probably shouldn't have at times.

"It got to a point where I think we felt like we needed to make a change in the playoffs. And that happens. And Coco handled it with grace, which we appreciated.

"I just think coming into camp, we're not going to forget as an organization that he's the incumbent."

Like the 28-year-old Crisp, the 30-year-old Valentin wasn't quite an old codger ready for retirement. But there is no place to slot Crisp in as a starter, as Williams did when he moved Valentin to second base.

That means the Red Sox will have to be down to one center fielder as the season opens. That might mean one of them on the bench. That might mean one of them with another organization. Either way, there seems to be some competition in camp for the first time in a long while.

"With whatever level you're at, you're always fighting for your job," Ellsbury said. "When I was in high school, as a freshman, I was fighting for that center-field spot. Didn't let it get to me. When I was in college, as a freshman, trying to fight for that center-field spot. In pro ball. And now, same thing.

"It's the best players in the world, and you just have to be ready for it. I keep on saying I'm willing to get better, but I know both of us want it. We're going into this spring training getting ready for the season. I'm sure both are getting ready for the starting spot."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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