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Saturday, February 16, 2013

Ellsbury, Red Sox know what’s at stake this season

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Jacoby Ellsbury breezed into Red Sox camp Thursday, one day before he was required to show up, and insisted he’d be open to discussing a contract extension during the season.

Yeah, and Kevin Youkilis wants to dine with Bobby Valentine. ...

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FORT MYERS, Fla. – Jacoby Ellsbury breezed into Red Sox camp Thursday, one day before he was required to show up, and insisted he’d be open to discussing a contract extension during the season.

Yeah, and Kevin Youkilis wants to dine with Bobby Valentine.

By now, nine months before he’s eligible for free agency, the odds are non-existent that Ellsbury will forego the opportunity to test his value on the open market. And on the off chance the 29-year-old center fielder did consider it, his agent, Scott Boras, surely would disabuse him of the notion.

It makes even less sense for the Red Sox to rush into a long-term deal with Ellsbury, especially since it was due only to the benevolence of the Los Angeles Dodgers last August that they were freed of a combined $296 million commitment to Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford.

The fact is, after this season, Ellsbury will work for the highest bidder, and the Sox are perfectly content to let the situation play out. After all, no player will be more motivated this year than Ellsbury, and a motivated Ellsbury can only be good for the Red Sox.

“I don’t think it becomes a distraction for him,” manager John Farrell said of Ellsbury’s looming free agency. “Hopefully (it affects him) in a good way. I know he’s focused on his daily work and getting back on the field and demonstrating what he can do.”

That didn’t happen nearly enough last season. Not after Ellsbury’s right shoulder crunched under the weight of Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Reid Brignac on April 13 at Fenway Park, causing a partial dislocation and sidelining him for 79 games. Even after his return on July 13, Ellsbury batted .278 with a .314 on-base percentage and four homers in 293 plate appearances, a far cry from 2011 when he was arguably the best position player in the American League.

“I just never really got back,” Ellsbury said.

Moving forward, Ellsbury’s best shot at a Powerball-sized payday next winter will hinge on his ability to approximate his MVP-caliber numbers from two years ago. Another 30-homer/30-steal season and he’s looking at riches in excess of Crawford’s $142 million or even Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp’s eight-year, $160 million deal.

It’s evident Ellsbury is aware of the stakes.

“I’ve got those blinders on and I’m focused,” he said. “Just excited about the opportunity for us to win. I got a great offseason workout in and pretty much did everything needed to prepare for this year. I feel great coming into spring training.”

The Red Sox are betting on Ellsbury, too. They could’ve traded him in the offseason to acquire additional pitching, although after last year, his value wasn’t particularly high. So, Ellsbury is staying put, and that includes the leadoff spot in Farrell’s lineup.

“A healthy Jacoby Ellsbury is a darn good player, one that two years ago set the tone for this team with his production, middle-of-the-order production at the top of the order, can steal a base,” Farrell said. “To have him back healthy, we’ve all seen what he’s capable of.”

The Red Sox already have taken steps for life after Ellsbury. Shane Victorino is a two-time Gold Glove center fielder, and top prospect Jackie Bradley Jr. is moving swiftly through the farm system.

“Would we like to have (Ellsbury) here? Yes,” team president Larry Lucchino said. “We’d very much like to have him here, like to have him be part of, as (general manager) Ben Cherington likes to say, the next great Red Sox team. But I don’t think it’s appropriate to have too much of a discussion about a negotiation process right now.”