FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Jacoby Ellsbury has literally millions of reasons to have a big season.
If he does, his Red Sox will stand to benefit, even if the two-timeAmerican League leader in stolen bases doesn't finish the season in a Boston uniform.
Ellsbury, 29, has been severely limited by injuries in two of the last three seasons. In between, he had a remarkable 2011 -- .321, 212 hits, 32 homers, 39 steals, 119 runs -- good enough to be Comeback Player of the Year and finish second in AL MVP voting.
After missing 79 games with a partial shoulder separation last season, he avoided arbitration by accepting a $9-million contract for 2013. Boston's decision: Does it try to negotiate a long-term deal with Ellsbury's agent, Scott Boras, or trade the only Red Sox player ever to produce more than 30 homers and 30 stolen bases in the same season?
Either way, how Ellsbury performs in 2013 will have a great impact on upcoming contract negotiations and trade value.
"He's got a lot to play for," Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington said early in spring training. "He's missed time [two] of the last three seasons because of on-field injuries. You can't fault him for that."
Deserved or not, however, Ellsbury received the "fragile" label in 2010 when an April collision with third baseman Adrian Beltre left him with fractured ribs that originally went undiagnosed. Slow to return to action, he went on the disabled list three times, appearing in only 18 games that season.
But Ellsbury, who stole a team-record 70 bases in 2009, has avoided injuries to his legs and is raring to go. "I've had a whole offseason to prepare,'' said Ellsbury, who once played 232 consecutive games without an error. "I feel good. I'm not worried about [bouncing back].''
Manager John Farrell said a healthy Ellsbury provides "middle of the order production at the top of the order" and is optimistic that his injuries are a thing of the past.
"We can't predict numbers," Farrell said, "but he's healthy, he's positive, he's upbeat. He's setting himself up [for] a strong year.''
The introspective Ellsbury always has disliked talking about himself, especially when it comes to contractual affairs.
Of the possibility of a trade, he said, "It's one of those things that's sort of out of my control. I've only known one organization and I've enjoyed it. I love the fans. They've been great to me. I love my teammates. We won a World Series, and the Red Sox are the team that gave me my chance.''
Helping them win, he insists, remains foremost in his mind.
"We'd like to get off to a great start," he said. "The best atmosphere, of course, comes when we're winning, like in 2007. We were one game away from getting back to the World Series in 2008. I'd like to get back to those winning ways again."
As long as he's on the field, Ellsbury is a fan favorite, and the Red Sox are saying all the right things about wanting him to stay. "We'd really very much like to have him here to be part of a core," team president Larry Lucchino said.
But the Red Sox have alternatives in centerfield and in the leadoff spot, with Shane Victorino signed to a two-year deal and first-round pick Jackie Bradley Jr. on the not-so-distant horizon.
If the Red Sox elect to trade Ellsbury, the Mets could be among the suitors. One postseason rumor had the Rangers dangling lefthander Derek Holland. And if Ellsbury should remain with the Red Sox all season and opt for free agency, the Yankees certainly could come into play.
In any scenario, many Boston observers believe Ellsbury is headed out of town. "No way he will be playing for the Red Sox next spring," wrote Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, known for his curly locks. "I'd bet my hair on it."
For now, all parties want Ellsbury to return to form, something the 2011 Gold Glove winner said he was unable to do when he batted only .271 with four homers last season.
"Last year was tough because the injury happened just as the season started,'' he said. "Even when I came back, it was an uphill climb. This year, all we can do is prepare. But the most important thing is us coming together and winning."
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