Ellsbury open to sliding down batting order

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Ellsbury open to sliding down batting order

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Jacoby Ellsbury had 660 at-bats in 2011, his breakout season, and all but 31 of those came in the leadoff spot.

Whether Ellsbury remains in the leadoff position in 2012, however, is open to some debate. After belting 32 homers and compiling a. 552 slugging percentage, there's some thought in the organization that Ellsbury might better serve the team hitting third while, say, Carl Crawford takes over the top spot in the lineup.

That would give Crawford the chance to be more aggressive on the bases and take full advantage of his speed. Ellsbury, meanwhile, showed last year that he can be a valuable run producer and, hitting third, could now do so with more runners on base and in scoring position.

"There's not many who have that same package (of skills)," said Valentine. "If he's not totally unique, he's in a real small sample. He's just a joy."

Valentine believes Ellsbury could succeed in the No. 3 spot and has already spoken to the outfielder -- at least informally -- to sound him out on a potential change.

"I think he could," said Valentine. "He just hasn't, which makes it a little bit of a mental challenge."

"I guess, for me, I would keep my approach," said Ellsbury, "(keep) everything the same. And I've told (Valentine) whatever he thinks the team needs -- if it's better for me to hit down in the order or stay at leadoff -- I'm going to do whatever he feels best to get us the most wins. So if he thinks me staying at the top of the order is the best thing for the time... I'm not sure. I haven't talked about how he plans on working spring training. If he looks at mixing it up a little bit, seeing how different lineups look.

"But as far as right now, I'm just trying to get my timing, trying to get everything like that. But I'm sure that here in a couple of weeks I could probably have a better answer for you."

Grapefruit League games don't begin until March 4, and from there, Valentine will likely be experimenting with differing batting orders, depending on availability of veteran players on long road trips and other concessions to the spring schedule.

Toward the end of March, he'll probably settle in on what he'd like to do with the lineup, though he has cautioned several times that, in some past springs, the lineup he used on Opening Day was not one he used even once during spring training.

"I think that's going to be an interesting situation that will probably evolve this spring into the season," said Valentine. "The last thing in the world you want to create is confusion or doubt -- any of those things. Right now, (Ellsbury) seems to be open and Dustin (Pedroia) was in the office the other day and he seems to be free and open and Carl is ready to have a conversation.

"There's a lot of stuff going on."

Ellsbury's 2011 season, for which he was second in A.L. MVP voting, has given him the confidence that he can thrive almost anywhere. No longer the slashing and running player he was in his first few seasons, his improved strength and ability to drive the ball has made him more well-rounded.

"I've always taken or tried to be a complete player," he said, "tried to do everything. So yeah, for everything to come together, I guess you could say last year was something I was always working on. I just try to be a complete player and that's what I take pride in."

Pedroia has said that he doesn't like leading off, which would seem to take him out of the mix. Earlier in his career, Crawford had the same thoughts, though last year, he said hitting first wouldn't be an issue.

"It's hard for me to say at this point," said Ellsbury. "I haven't hit third on this team before. So I don't know how we'd go about mixing the lineup and that sort of thing. Certain guys feel comfortable with hitting certain positions. I've hit in different areas in the lineup and it hasn't really bothered me. I feel comfortable, but at the same time I think that time will tell. I really don't have an opinion either way at this moment."

Belichick on start of 42nd season: 'Each year is different'

Belichick on start of 42nd season: 'Each year is different'

FOXBORO -- He may be in his 42nd year in the National Football League, but for Bill Belichick, no two seasons are the same. As training camp practices get underway for the Patriots on Thursday, he'll be dealing with scenarios and skill sets that he hasn't yet seen.

This isn't Groundhog Day for him. Every year is different.

"It absolutely is," he said Wednesday. "Even though fundamentally I think a lot of things are the same -- things you have to do in camp in order to prepare for a season -- but each year is different.

"Players are different, teams we play are different, things change in the league, there are some rule modifications, or whatever. Things like that. So, every year is different and the chemistry – each team is different. Even with some of the same players there’s still always a little bit of a different mix. We’ll just have to see how it all goes. I don’t try and predict it. I don’t try and control it. It will just work itself out. We’ve got a lot of snaps out there, a lot of days, a lot of training camp days. It will all take care of itself."

Different as the Patriots situation may be to start this season, players who have come to know Belichick have come to expect a consistent approach. With so many variables swirling around each team every year, Belichick's mindset is constant.

After 42 years and four Super Bowl titles, it's clear he believes he's found something that works.

"I think the thing that’s remarkable about Bill is his approach," said Matthew Slater, one of the longest-tenured Patriots on the team, a fifth-round draft pick in 2008. "He hasn’t changed at all, and that consistency in his attitude and preparation, the things that he values and the things he tries to stress to his team. It’s really remarkable.

"I think it would be easy for him to become complacent. It’s human nature, once you have success you kind of exhale and think you have it figured out. And if anyone has it figured out it’s Bill Belichick. But you wouldn’t know it by the way he prepares, by the urgency with which he coaches us, the hours he puts in. That’s really been impressive to me in my time here, whether we go out and win a Super Bowl or don’t make the playoffs, he’s always been consistent in that regard."

For second straight year, Branch opens camp on active/NFI list

For second straight year, Branch opens camp on active/NFI list

FOXBORO -- Unless there's a late change to his status, Alan Branch will not be practicing with the Patriots when they open training camp on Thursday.

The veteran defensive lineman was placed on the active/non-football injury list on Wednesday, making him ineligible to practice with the team until he's removed. Branch will still count against the Patriots 90-man roster while he's on the active/NFI list.

Branch began training camp on the active/NFI list last year as well. It was reported then that he had failed a conditioning run, which led to him being held out of practices until Aug. 10.

Once Branch was cleared to play, he was one of New England's most effective and durable interior defensive linemen. He played in all 16 regular-season games, starting all but one. He was on the field for 40.5 percent of the team's snaps, seeing time in a rotation with a handful of others that included then-rookie Malcom Brown.

Headed into camp this year, Branch figured to play a significant role up front yet again, teaming up with Brown as well as free-agent signee Terrance Knighton and rookie fourth-round draft choice Vincent Valentine. With Branch unavailable for practice, that should free-up snaps for his teammates who play the same position -- a group that includes the three names mentioned above as well as two more free-agent adds in Markus Kuhn and Frank Kearse.

Branch was present for mandatory minicamp this spring, but he did not attend New England’s optional OTA practice sessions.

Source: Sox seek smaller pieces, not big names, at trade deadline

Source: Sox seek smaller pieces, not big names, at trade deadline

BOSTON -- According to an N.L. talent evaluator who is familiar with some of the Red Sox ongoing talks with teams leading up to the non-waiver trade deadline, the Sox seem focused on adding a bullpen piece and/or back-end starters.

The need for the former is rather obvious, given the current injuries to Criag Kimbrel and Koji Uehara. The Sox can use some upgrades and another experienced arm to guide them through the final two months.

As for the rotation, it's not a surprise that the Sox aren't serious bidders for more glamorous names like Chris Sale, since that would require them to gut their farm system.

But the team's starter depth is perilous, with only Clay Buchholz in reserve. It makes perfect sense that the Sox would be seeking someone else to help provide them with insurance against further injuries or under-performance.