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He's central to Sox' plans

Ellsbury's game still developing

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / March 18, 2008

TAMPA - Coco Crisp got five at-bats (one hit) playing in two games against Pirates farm teams (Triple A and Double A) in Fort Myers yesterday. Which means that, if all goes well, Jacoby Ellsbury won't be the only man playing center field for the Red Sox, as he has for a couple of weeks while Crisp nursed a groin injury.

Ellsbury hasn't really taken advantage, as he is hitting just .225 after going 2 for 3 against the Yankees yesterday. If anything, Ellsbury has left himself vulnerable to closer examination of his game.

"He's got a lot of development left," said general manager Theo Epstein. "A couple of things on Jacoby. One is to bring his BP swing into games. If you watch him in BP, he's really developed a classic swing. A natural loft and backspin. The ball jumps off his bat.

"In the game, sometimes he doesn't quite have the same approach. He can be late in the games. He can cut his swing off a little bit.

"That's the natural evolution of any young hitter - to bring a good BP swing into the game in different parts of the strike zone. Some guys never figure it out. Some guys it takes weeks, years, and we'll see where Jacoby goes.

"He has a combination of athleticism and aptitude. I think it will happen with him. It's a matter of when. I think he can be a good player even before he makes that adjustment.

"Once he can take that good swing into the game with him, he'll be able to drive the ball consistently and take his game to another level.

"Defensively, he's got some things to work on, too. He's got all the tools to be an excellent defensive center fielder. He still needs to learn to judge the ball off the bat of major league hitters, learning different walls and warning tracks and different things. There is still some development out there for him."

Does this mean the Sox are down on Ellsbury? Not by a long shot. But the organization still realizes that while Ellsbury could be a superstar, he's not there yet.

"He hasn't really done anything yet in the big leagues except for a very nice contribution over a short time last year," Epstein said.

Yesterday, Ellsbury showed more of what he showed late last year. He had two singles, a walk, and a stolen base in an 8-4 loss to New York.

Crisp, meanwhile, will play in another minor league game today in hopes that he can join the team on the Japan trip when it departs tomorrow.

Crisp walked into Terry Francona's office yesterday and told the manager he was feeling fine and wanted to get some swings.

Because Crisp has been out so long (since March 2), teams interested in trading for him - such as the Cubs and Mets - haven't been able to scout him. It could be that both Crisp and Ellsbury start the season on the Boston roster, with Crisp seeing action against lefthanded pitching. Maybe that was the plan all along, but few in baseball are expecting the Sox to hold on to both.

The expectations for Ellsbury continue to be through the roof.

"Everybody expects you to go out and perform, but that's what I expect of myself, so I don't mind," Ellsbury said. "The guys on the team have been great. They've told me to stay relaxed, play hard. They want me to succeed.

"In years past, I'd be going back to minor league camp right now and getting a ton of extra work in. I actually feel a little fresher this spring training. Because we played into October, and we're going on this trip, everything has sped up a little bit."

In assessing his spring, Ellsbury said, "I've been pretty happy with my at-bats. I've been getting deep in the count, and that's something I wanted to do. I probably haven't had as many hits as I'd like, but I feel like I've hit the ball well.

"That's what spring training is for, to make contact, to prepare your swing for when the games actually count."

If Crisp passes today's test, he may play in tomorrow's major league game before the team heads to Japan. "Coco had another really good day," said Francona. "He felt really good. Coco was all really good news.

"Everybody is going to play some Wednesday. We're going to have a normal day on Wednesday. We're going to come in around 8:30 and have BP and have a normal day. Guys are already aware of that."

Crisp, who seemed a long shot to stick with the Sox at the start of the season, may be around for a while. In the meantime, the hope is that Ellsbury begins to find that next level, a level that everyone believes he'll reach.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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