It was the one lingering question throughout Spring Training this year for the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox: who would roam centerfield? The two players vying to be penciled in to manager Terry Francona's lineup were rookie sensation and World Series star Jacoby Ellsbury and incumbent for much of the 07 season Coco Crisp.
Many people thought the decision was easy: Ellsbury had passed Crisp last season in September with his timely hitting, speed on the basepaths and stellar defense. Crisp, who probably should've won the Gold Glove last season with what seemed like a nightly highlight reel play, couldn't hit a lick last season and Francona made a change in the playoffs, which paid immediate dividends.
In 11 postseason games in 2007, Ellsbury batted .360 (9-for-25) with 8 runs scored and a pair of stolen bases. In the four-game sweep of the Rockies in the World Series, Ellsbury went 7-for-16 (.438) with four doubles and combined with Dustin Pedroia to basically lead the Sox to a game three win, as the duo at the top of the order combined to go 7-for-10, scored three runs and drove home four in a 10-5 win.
During this shining moment for Ellsbury, where was Crisp? Fox cameras would periodically show Crisp in the dugout, usually with a jacket or sweatshirt on, staring out on the field. He did see late-inning action in game 1 (a 13-1 Red Sox win, went in as a defensive replacement for Manny Ramirez and went 0-for-1 at the plate); in game 3 (10-5 Sox win, came in as part of a double switch for JD Drew and went 1-for-1); and came in to pinch run for David Ortiz in game 4 and stayed in as part of a double switch to play CF (with Ellsbury moving to left for Ramirez).
With that, many a Sox fan thought the job was Ellsbury's come 2008 and Crisp would be traded. He had been mentioned in a couple of deals, one to the Cubs, one to Texas for a backup catcher and countless others to teams (like the Twins and Rays) for bullpen help. But Crisp hurt himself (no pun intended) by being hampered with injuries most of the spring, basically taking himself out of the running to take the CF job from Ellsbury or earn himself a trade to another team.
Ellsbury didn't help to make the competition for the CF job a moot point, either, by struggling offensively during Spring Training. Maybe it was the lack of actual competition (with Crisp sidelined), but Ellsbury batted just .224 (11-for-49) with just four extra base hits and going 4-for-5 on stolen base attempts. He led the team in Spring Training at-bats (Jed Lowrie had 46, Pedroia 46) and still couldn't take advantage of the extra playing time.
Now that we are headed into the fourth game of the 2008 season this afternoon in Oakland, and as the Red Sox prepare for a weekend series in Toronto and the home opening series vs. Detroit, the question still looms: who should be the team's centerfielder?
Crisp has recovered from his spring injury and has seen playing time in each of the first three games of the season, including a start last night at Oakland with the continued injury problems of Drew. Crisp is 2-for-7 with a double in the early going.
Ellsbury has been the starter for the Sox in CF or RF so far this season, and has two hits (both singles) in nine at-bats. He did have a key RBI single last night in Oakland to drive home the game-tying run.
Until Drew is healthy and can play, both Crisp and Ellsbury will be in the lineup. If you go for offense and speed at the top of the lineup, then the choice is Ellsbury, who can hold his own in the outfield as well. Crisp provides stellar defense as one of the top defensive outfielders in the league, but his bat is inconsistent (hitting .264 and .268 in his two seasons in Boston after batting .300 and .297 in his final two seasons in Cleveland) and he has just 50 doubles and 14 homers in two seasons for the Sox; he had 42 doubles and 16 homers in his final season for the Indians.
Last year, Francona stuck with Pedroia, who was in his first full season in the big leagues, even though the rookie was hitting around .200 over the first two months of the season. He was rewarded, as were Red Sox fans, with the AL Rookie of the Year and a major part of the lineup and the infield through the summer and into the playoffs.
This year, Francona and Theo Epstein need to do the same with the centerfield job. Ellsbury should be the choice and the everyday starting centerfielder, while Crisp should be traded for either bullpen help or some pitching/hitting prospects. The Cubs would seem to be a logical landing spot, as Felix Pie is terrible and the Cubs could benefit from the defensive skills of a Crisp.