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Production values

Red Sox outfield has elements that may increase its appeal

Carl Crawford batted third in his Red Sox debut. “That would be fine with me,’’ said Crawford, hitless in three at-bats. Carl Crawford batted third in his Red Sox debut. “That would be fine with me,’’ said Crawford, hitless in three at-bats. (Hans Deryk/Reuters)
By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / March 1, 2011

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — The outfield juggling act started early last season for Red Sox manager Terry Francona as Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron suffered injuries that changed the look of the team.

Fractured ribs led to Ellsbury playing only 18 games while a hernia limited Cameron to 48. There were nights when right fielder J.D. Drew barely knew the players alongside him.

“I couldn’t name everybody we used,’’ he said. “That’s the truth.’’

By the time the season had ended, the Red Sox had started 11 outfielders in 44 combinations.

The offensive results were predictable. Sox outfielders hit .245 with a .317 on-base percentage and a .412 slugging percentage. They were the worst group in the American League, far below the league average of .270/.337/.424.

“It’s not hard to manage. It was sometimes hard to win,’’ Francona said. “We knew who we had and we knew we were asking a lot of some young guys. There were some challenges. I wouldn’t say they weren’t fun, because I kind of enjoyed them. We just at times weren’t good enough.’’

So it was significant that Francona had his three starting outfielders — Carl Crawford, Ellsbury, and Drew from left to right — in the lineup for yesterday’s 7-6 exhibition victory against the Twins at City of Palms Park.

That they were 2 for 9 with a run scored didn’t matter. It’s what they mean to the rebuilt Red Sox.

Unlike teams built around Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, and Manny Ramirez, this Red Sox outfield is not a powerful bunch. Crawford has never hit more than 19 homers and Ellsbury’s best was nine in 2008. Drew has averaged a modest 19 home runs during his four seasons in Boston.

But the trio offers speed, versatility, and promise. The Red Sox believe Crawford is maturing into a middle-of-the-order hitter and that Ellsbury can be an All-Star.

“You look at the production, what could be there. That’s the whole idea,’’ Francona said. “Carl can steal bases, hit for average, drive in some runs from up in the lineup. Jacoby brings that speed element also. J.D. hopefully a little bit of everything. That’s why you have them.

“You have to come up with a certain amount of runs somehow. It doesn’t matter how you do it. At some point you have to figure out a way to be productive. There’s a lot of ways to do it.’’

All three are lefthanded hitters, meaning the righthanded Cameron could see ample playing time.

“When I look at us, I see a lot of possibilities,’’ Cameron said. “It’s a good mix.’’

Ellsbury hit leadoff yesterday, with second baseman Dustin Pedroia second and Crawford third. Francona warned not to read too much into it, although he admitted it was an “obvious possibility’’ for Opening Day.

“That would be fine with me,’’ said Crawford, who was 0 for 3 in his spring debut. “I have no problems with it. I’m still going to play the way I play no matter where he puts me. I get a chance to drive in runs and when I get on base, I’ll have the big guys behind me still, so I can still steal and get pitches for those guys to hit.’’

The question is whether Ellsbury will be ready to hit leadoff after his truncated 2010 season. He started 2009 as the leadoff hitter, lost the job after two months, then regained it in late July.

“It’s been interrupted because of his health,’’ Francona said. “He was really starting to grow into it. At times we hit him down in the order to protect him a little bit. I think we’ve always said when he’s leading off, that’s probably our best lineup.’’

Ellsbury dismissed a question about hitting leadoff, saying he has done it “all of my career.’’ But the Red Sox want to see proof he’s ready. Otherwise he could hit ninth to start the season.

“He missed probably 500 at-bats [last season]. If it looks like maybe that one less at-bat a game early on would help him, that’s what we’ll do,’’ Francona said. “There’s no way to scientifically know. But we’ll watch his at-bats.’’

Ellsbury was 1 for 3 yesterday, singling and scoring in the third inning. He has impressed the Sox so far this spring.

“He came into camp swinging the bat way ahead of where I expected him to be,’’ Francona said.

For the Red Sox, yesterday was about promise. Ellsbury said it felt like he and Crawford “belong playing out there.’’ And while Crawford admitted to some nerves, he knows he’s part of an outfield that could turn into one of the best in the league after last season’s disaster.

“Once we all get clicking at the same time, it’s going to make it very tough for opposing pitchers,’’ he said.

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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