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Posted by Maureen Mullen January 1, 2009 05:56 AM

Nothing stands in the way this time for Jacoby Ellsbury. The path to center field is clear. That is, if he remains in a Red Sox uniform; rumors swirling this week had Ellsbury possibly heading to the Marlins. Another trade — the November deal that sent Coco Crisp to the Kansas City Royals for reliever Ramon Ramirez — seemingly cleared the path for Ellsbury to be the Sox’ starting center fielder.

“I wasn’t really too surprised,” Ellsbury said of the trade. “I guess anything can happen. But, yeah, it’s a great opportunity for me … and that’s why I’m working so hard this off-season, to be ready and ready to go.”

The situation could have been difficult last year — an incumbent veteran and a flashy rookie vying for the same position.

“[Sox manager Terry Francona] did a very good job of informing us and letting us know what was going on,” said Ellsbury, who turned 25 in September. “Both of us had very good attitudes. Coco had a great attitude with it towards me, at least, from what I could see. And I think we accepted our roles very well. … And this year, yeah, my role is definitely going to change, and I’m excited for the opportunity.”

Ellsbury was speaking by phone from his Oregon home, where he was relaxing during the holidays before returning to Arizona for workouts at the Athletes’ Performance facility with teammates Dustin Pedroia, Jed Lowrie, and Kevin Youkilis.

One of the things he learned during his rookie season was the importance of consistency — especially with the Red Sox being perennial playoff contenders and the additional month of baseball always a possibility. His off-season workouts reflect that.

“I think maybe just a little bit more baseball specific, but as far as harder, not really,” he said of his workout regimen. “I think the biggest thing is now that I went through a full season, I know how I need to take care of my body in terms of preparation before the season. … And working out with some of the guys, that helps out quite a bit.”

Ellsbury hit .280 in 145 games with nine home runs, 47 RBI, 98 runs scored, and a league-leading 50 stolen bases (an 82 percent success rate) last season, finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting behind the Rays’ Evan Longoria and Chicago’s Alexei Ramirez. He is errorless in his big-league career and ended his rookie season with an 18-game hitting streak.

Although he went 6-for-18 against the Angels in the ALDS, his bat chilled in the ALCS against the Rays, when he went hitless in the first three games. He was benched for the rest of the series, except for a pinch-hit appearance in Game 4, drawing a walk.

“Well, I started off the first series, I played very well, and then it was one of those things, I guess,” he said. “I didn’t feel tired or anything like that. ... I wish things could have gone a little bit differently, but they didn’t. So, no excuses or anything, just a bad time to go cold with the bat.”

Ellsbury lit up the league as a call-up in 33 games in 2007, hitting .353, stealing nine bases without getting caught, and sprinting from second base to score on a wild pitch in a memorable game against the Rangers. In the 2007 World Series, he hit .438 (7-for-16) with three RBI and four runs scored.

He entered 2008 burdened with anticipation. “I think I set my expectations for me higher than anybody,” he said. “So I really didn’t feel that pressure from anybody’s outside expectations, because I’m sure mine are higher. I have some personal goals that I usually set before the year, but usually I really don’t talk about them. …

“I still feel everything went very well [in 2008]. I had a successful year, but at the same time, I feel like I’m going to get better. I’m going to keep on improving. I’m still a young player.”
He has goals for 2009, too. Stolen bases and runs scored will be on his list, but he has more than personal goals in mind.

“I haven’t really thought about them too much right now,” he said. “Just working as hard as I can off the field before the season starts. … But the postseason, that’s where we all want to be. That’s where we expect to be.”

Maureen Mullen covers the Red Sox for OT and can be reached at mmullen@globe.com

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Charles P. Pierce writes for the Boston Globe Magazine. A long-time sportswriter and columnist, Pierce is a frequent guest on national TV and radio.
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