BOSTON -- Jacoby Ellsbury will turn 30 in September. Wasn't it just yesterday that he used the World Series as his personal coming-out party, the most exciting Red Sox center fielder since Freddie Lynn?
"I'm still young," Ellsbury said with a smile. "Time flies when you're having fun. I debuted at 23. That's seven years, almost. I've seen a lot of different things, a lot of different changes. It's been fun."
Well, most of it, anyway. The .438 average against the Rockies in the 2007 World Series, the duck boats followed up by a parade in his hometown of Madras, Ore. The electrifying steal of home against the Yankees' Andy Pettitte in 2009, the second straight year he led the American League in steals, setting a club record with 70. A spectacular season in 2011, when he added a previously missing component, power, to his game, bashing 32 home runs and 46 doubles.
The rest? Not so much. Two injuries that Jonny Gomes, a new Sox teammate and longtime Ellsbury workout partner, termed "car accidents," each of which cost him huge chunks of two different seasons. A highly public dispute with the Red Sox medical staff over the diagnosis of his fractured ribs. An undeserved reputation, fueled by talk-show ignorance, that he was a "soft" player. And playing on a team that has now missed the playoffs three straight seasons, last year sinking to only its second last-place finish since 1932.
And now, in his free-agent year, the widely shared conviction that Ellsbury won't grow old in a Red Sox uniform, that even if he comes close to replicating his 2011 performance, agent Scott Boras will take him to the highest bidder. Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy told Ellsbury a couple of weeks ago that he'd shave his head if Ells was back next season.
Any talk this spring in camp about future Red Sox center fielders has revolved around top prospect Jackie Bradley Jr., so strong is the belief that Ellsbury will be gone in 2014 either by exercise of his prerogative to leave or because the Sox will find Boras' contract demands too exorbitant. Another possibility is that the Sox will be out of contention at the trading deadline and decide to move Ellsbury then, hoping to get some return beyond a couple of compensation draft picks.
Ellsbury said he understands the speculation.
"It's all fair stuff," Ellsbury said. "You go through so many variables. There's a million variables that can happen. You try to focus on what you can control. If you try to stay with that, for the most part you're going to alleviate the outside distractions of what you can't control."
The reality is, of course, that for the first time in his career, Ellsbury does indeed have control over his future. A big year this season, and he should be in great demand, giving him a chance to recoup some of the millions he lost in salary arbitration this winter because of last April's partially dislocated shoulder.
But any chance of the Sox launching a preemptive strike and taking him off the market with a contract extension before he reaches free agency was essentially lost because of the injuries, which have made it all but impossible for the Red Sox, or any other team, to determine his market value. The 2011 Ellsbury, should he reappear, will command dollars at the top of the free-agent pyramid. The player who registered little impact upon his return last season (.682 OPS in 323 plate appearances) makes future projections a high-risk enterprise.
Ellsbury insists, however, that the way the Red Sox evaluate him has not been impacted by the injuries.
"It's not a nagging hamstring injury. It's not a nagging injury. … They were very happy how I came back. It's tough when you get hurt at the beginning of the season, after all the hard work you put in the offseason, and you're always trying to climb back.
"But [the Red Sox] know me the best, how hard I worked to get back as fast as possible. My teammates know that, too. I don't see it as an issue at all," he said.
Financially, the Red Sox have positioned themselves, in the aftermath of last August's megatrade with the Dodgers, to compete in a high-stakes auction, if that's what it becomes. The Sox have $87.9 million in guaranteed contract obligations in 2014, but that figure drops to $29.25 million in 2015. Lots of flexibility there.
A willingness to pay top dollar remains. What has changed, the Sox have signaled as they re-chart their course after unloading the seven-year contracts they gave to Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, is a willingness to give contracts of that length again.
Crawford is the last outfielder to sign a seven-year deal. The biggest free-agent prize among outfielders this winter was Josh Hamilton, whom the Angels signed to a five-year, $125 million deal. Hamilton, who turns 32 on May 21, has a well-documented checkered past that raises huge risks about his ability to stay healthy and maintain a high level of performance, and still was able to command that salary.
A huge rebound year from Ellsbury, and Boras can be expected to use Hamilton as a comparable while emphasizing Ellsbury's squeaky-clean image and the fact he will be a young 30, given that he lost nearly two seasons because of his injuries.
Some players have been known to place extra pressure on themselves in their walk year. Shane Victorino said he fell in that group last season, a sentiment echoed by his manager in Philadelphia, Charlie Manuel. Others have flourished.
"I guess, if anyone is going to put pressure on me, I always put most pressure on myself," Ellsbury said. "Each year is the same, as far as preparing. I'm trying to help the team win. From that standpoint, how I prepare, how I go about my business, nothing changes. That's the best thing about it, the consistency."
Ellsbury says "it's always a possibility" the team could approach him about an extension, although he's not lobbying for that conversation, and neither are the Sox.
"The team knows how I feel about them, and they've said the same thing about me," he said. "Both of us have to focus on winning this year. This year is important not only for me, but the team.
"Everything's great when we're winning. I know that's their main focus, and that's my main focus, getting the team back to winning ways. For the guys who were here in 2007, we feel that each and every new guy comes in here, it's not a matter of if we get to the playoffs, it's we're going to get there, we're going to make a run. And that's what they want, too."