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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Boston Red Sox's Jacoby Ellsbury is so confident with his ability to play left field this season, there's no need to seek the advice of one of the best left fielders in team history.
So instead of talking about the nuances of playing in front of the Green Monster at Fenway Park, Ellsbury talks to Jim Rice about his golf game.
"I talk to Jim all the time, but I haven't talked to him about that," Ellsbury said. "I'm sure I will talk to him while we're here. We kind of joke around more about golf and who can drive it farther, and I say I can, and Jim will tell you I can, too. Nah, he'll say he can. Maybe one of these days we'll go out there and get it done."
|Jacoby Ellsbury played a total of 80 games in left field in 2007 and 2008, so his move won't be to totally foreign soil.|
There's no doubt Rice was a big hitter during his playing days with the Red Sox from 1974 to 1989, and word is he's still a pretty big hitter on the course. Ellsbury relies more on speed than power on the diamond, but don't be surprised to see him really come into his own in every aspect in 2010.
When the Red Sox signed Mike Cameron during the offseason, manager Terry Francona and general manger Theo Epstein spoke with Ellsbury about switching to the corner position in left. Management stressed it wasn't a demotion. Still, Ellsbury was a bit disappointed, especially given that he was extremely sound defensively in center last season.
Ellsbury understands this move won't be permanent, and it's also not the first time he has played left field for the Sox. He played a total of 80 games in left during the 2007 and 2008 seasons, so he's familiar with the position. He played 153 games in center field last season.
"I felt comfortable. It's something that's a little bit different; it's unique than any other ballpark," Ellsbury said of playing left at Fenway. "I think it will be a smooth transition, but at the same time they've said I'll play a little center field, too."
Former Red Sox center fielder Fred Lynn believes this will be a good move for both Ellsbury and the club.
"Because it's Fenway, it's a whole different animal," Lynn said from his home in California. "I never played left field in Fenway. I'm sure I could do it, but you would be wasting my arm strength and speed. I never saw Ellsbury throw anybody out, so maybe he'll get more assists over there. It's always an asset to have somebody who can run on your flank because you have to assume your center fielder will be faster than the guys on the corners. Any time you put more speed on the flank side, it will benefit the entire outfield."
Ellsbury's biggest challenge will be to learn the bounces and caroms off the Monster.
"He's going to have a lot of chances to throw guys out," Lynn said. "Most left fielders play shallow because it doesn't take much to get it over your head, so you want to take away all the base hits that you can. He has to learn a couple of things out there."
When he's not roaming the outfield pasture, Ellsbury's offense will be a major factor in the club's success.
He's your prototypical leadoff man, but Francona decided last season that it would be best for a short period of time to move Ellsbury down in the batting order. The manager thought it would allow Ellsbury to relax, even though he didn't want to be there.
"When he came back to the leadoff spot, he seemed more able to hit deeper in the count and he wasn't worried about hitting down 0-and-2, so he wasn't worried about swinging at the first pitch. He worked the counts better and because of that, he got more pitches to hit."
Ellsbury talked a lot last season about being more aggressive at the plate, and he believes his comments confused people.
"As a leadoff hitter, a guy who can steal and is a base threat, if you get too lackadaisical and try to draw walks, they're going to pound the zone, and you're going to get behind in the count," Ellsbury said. "When I was a little more aggressive, that's when I saw more breaking balls, and that's when I started to draw more walks. I need to stick to my game. It's the same for anybody. When you get pitches to hit, you have to swing the bat."
If Ellsbury is not on base, it doesn't help the rest of the order, and the club's ability to score runs suffers.
"You can't do anything if you're not on base. You're just jamming up the rest of the lineup," he said. "I'm always trying to get better. No matter the type of year I had last year, I'll try to build on that and that's always been my thing. I don't want to be satisfied where I'm at."
Some of the best base stealers in the history of the game played left field, including Lou Brock and Rickey Henderson, so Ellsbury hopes the notion that playing left will save his legs and help his offensive production proves true.
"I hope it works out like that," Ellsbury said. "It's hard to say because I haven't played a full season [in left field], so ask me at the end of the year how my legs feel. It would be nice if it did save my legs for the offense. A lot of the best base stealers over the years have been corner guys, so there may be something to that. I'm not sure, but hopefully, because it'll be nice to save my legs a little bit."
Cameron also is very sound in center and possesses the speed to wreak havoc in the vast area he has to defend. Because both Cameron and Ellsbury have tremendous closing speed, strong communication will be needed to avoid a major collision.
"It's kind of like when Coco [Crisp] and I were out there," he said. "There weren't too many balls that were landing. It'll give confidence to the pitchers because a fly ball out there is going to get caught. It'll be nice, and I think we're going to be solid defensively in the outfield. It's always fun to play with guys you know can play and have been around."
It will no doubt be a bit strange to see Ellsbury in left field on a full-time basis, but once he makes the transition seem smooth, the change will become an afterthought.
"He's all about the team," Lynn said. "It's going to help the club, so he's all for it. Once in a while you might catch someone with a fairly large ego who would feel a little bristly about it, but I don't think he's that type of kid. He's going to see the positive aspects of it. Maybe it will save his legs a little bit and he'll be more effective as a leadoff guy and score more runs. It has the potential to be a very positive move."
The Red Sox think so.
Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox and Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.