Ellsbury's evolution far from complete
Speedy outfielder always looking to improve his game
BRADENTON, Fla. -- He is 26 years old and is already in possession of a World Series ring, an all-time club single-season record for stolen bases, a steal of home on national television against the Yankees and the reputation of a player who sparks his team with his legs and bat.
But there is the sense that Jacoby Ellsbury is still in the evolution phase, leaving some wonderment about what he might eventually become.
Will he hit for more power? Will he consistently be in the range of the 70 steals he had last year? Will the move to left field turn him into a Gold Glove-caliber outfielder?
"Good players do get better," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "As long as they stay healthy, they do get better."
But how much better, and in what form?
"You just don't know," said Francona. "It will be fun to watch. If he stays healthy, it will be fun to watch his progression, because he's not done [evolving]. We just want him to go play and play as good as he can. What it will lead to, who knows? That's kind of the fun of good young players. We don't know."
There is an ease about Ellsbury. Sure, he wants to keep getting better, and he will work toward that end. But he is secure in his process.
"You're always trying to improve as a player, but I think if I continue to do what I've been doing, I'll be in good shape," Ellsbury said. "I'm not trying to force anything."
Rays manager Joe Maddon expressed multiple times over the past couple of days that he thinks Ellsbury can turn into a home run threat, saying that he could hit as many as 20 this season.
"But the last thing we want to do is tell him [to hit homers]," Francona said. "We just want him to go play. If he swings at strikes, he's going to be a really good player. He's going to get on base. He's going to hit more balls on the nose, because he's got great hand-eye coordination. He's strong. He can run. There are a lot of good things about him."
Ellsbury would never begrudge Maddon from projecting his power, particularly when it is so complimentary. At the same time, the left-handed-hitting outfielder knows what the Red Sox need from him, and it doesn't require putting the ball over the wall 20 or more times.
"I don't think it's necessary," Ellsbury said. "I'm a leadoff guy. If it happens, it happens. I'm definitely not going to force the issue on that. I'll hit the ball hard and see what happens after that. But, yeah, that's kind of where I stand on the home run."
Maddon has no statistical basis for his projected jump in Ellsbury's power. In fact, he hit nine homers over 554 at-bats in 2008, his first full season, and then hit eight in 624 at-bats last year.
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"I don't think it's a strength thing, because I'm plenty strong," Ellsbury said. "If I square the ball up and it's in the air, it's going to go. When I hit them, they're gone by quite a ways. They're not just barely over the fence. As a fast left-handed leadoff guy, do you want to hit the ball in the air or do you want to hit line drives or hit the ball on the ground? It's just about the type of player I want to be."
The one thing the Red Sox did want Ellsbury to change last season was his plate approach. If he was going to be the leadoff man, they wanted a little more patience. For roughly six weeks, starting at the beginning of June, Ellsbury moved to the lower third of the order.
When he returned to the leadoff spot in July, he had the approach that allowed him to stay not only for the rest of that season, but perhaps for the rest of his career.
"When he does swing at strikes, you see how strong he is," Francona said. "The ball comes off his bat really well. And then if he uses the whole field, he's going to get rewarded for that, because he runs so well."
Of course, Ellsbury's biggest attribute is his speed, which led to those 70 stolen bases in 2009, shattering Tommy Harper's club record of 54 from 1973.
How many does he want to steal this year?
"I guess it kind of always dictates on the defense -- what they're trying to do," said Ellsbury. "Any time you steal anywhere around that, I'd say it's pretty good. I'd be happy with that."
Could Ellsbury see himself snagging triple-digit bases, a la Rickey Henderson or Lou Brock?
"I mean, maybe if I was playing in the '80s and they had the high leg kick instead of the slide step," Ellsbury said. "You never know though. You can never say it's not a possibility, but 100 is a lot of bags."
As for Ellsbury's acclimation to left field, that is going as seamlessly as he expected.
"I've felt comfortable from Day 1," said Ellsbury. "Just from playing out there in the past, there's a sense of comfort. It's never been an issue for me, just because I have the experience from the past."
Ellsbury looked comfortable on both sides of the ball on Wednesday, leading off the game with a single and making a nice diving catch to rob Ramon Vazquez of a hit in the second.
"I think he's going to be a really good left fielder," Francona said. "He's left-handed, he's quick. I thought when he first came up in '07, he played a really good left field."
In general, Ellsbury just has one true goal for 2010.
"I'm always trying to better myself," Ellsbury said.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.