FORT MYERS, Fla. -- This could have been the most stressful Spring Training of Jacoby Ellsbury's career.
Not only is Ellsbury entering his free-agent season, but his potential replacement (Jackie Bradley Jr.) is lurking. In fact, Bradley is creating a certifiable buzz throughout camp -- sort of like Ellsbury did in 2007.
Then there is the matter of overcoming an underachieving, injury-plagued season of a year ago, when Ellsbury never got untracked after separating his right shoulder in the home opener.
But a recent 10-minute interview with Ellsbury revealed that he's, in fact, never been more confident or secure with where he is at.
Though there's an assumption by some that Ellsbury will never again match his dream season of 2011, the veteran center fielder doesn't blink when surmising that he's capable of turning in an even better 2013 campaign.
"I think I can," Ellsbury said. "I'm young. I feel stronger than I was in 2011. I'm more knowledgeable. So yeah, there's a lot of positive things that I took from that season that I'm going to incorporate into this year, and I feel great, my body feels good. So with all those things put together, why not?"
Quiet by nature, Ellsbury is rarely so expansive on his goals, but don't let his reserved personality fool you.
"Yeah, I mean, I always have the highest expectations," said Ellsbury. "Whatever the media has for me, I train and work to perform at the highest level possible."
Ellsbury is the utmost competitor -- something that has perhaps been lost among the general public because freak injuries in 2010 and last year robbed him of what should have been two prime years.
There's a reason that Dustin Pedroia chooses Ellsbury as the teammate he works out with the most in the winter time out in Arizona. They are a funny match -- the boisterous Pedroia and the shy Ellsbury.
But their competitive juices are very much the same.
"I'm super competitive. He's the only one who can get away with the screaming and yelling," Ellsbury said of Pedroia. "Anyone else, I don't think they can pull that off. Yeah, he speaks for all of us in here sometimes. He'll tell you how competitive I am."
"He's here to win," Pedroia said. "I don't think he showed up worrying about getting a contract extension or anything like that. He's going to show up to help us win a ballgame. He's very important. We all know what he can do when he's healthy."
It isn't just during games that Ellsbury's competitive nature comes out.
"I mean, anything I do, it's always a game -- always a competition. Whether it's a drill out in the outfield or the batting cages or whatever it is, something at home with three of my brothers. We're always super competitive. That's always how I've been, even as a little kid. I don't like to lose."
Before each season, Ellsbury will pull out a piece of paper and list some numeric goals.
Just don't try to ask him what they are. Did he surpass his goals in 2011, when he hit .321 with 119 runs, 212 hits, 46 doubles, five triples, 32 homers and 105 RBIs while garnering a second-place finish in the American League Most Valuable Player Award voting?
"I'm going to leave that to the fans to speculate on that," Ellsbury said. "Maybe one of these days I'll bring the piece of paper in and show it to you. That's the fun part about it. You set a goal at the beginning of the year, and maybe I set it too low and I need to increase it [sometimes]. The goals are always kind of changing, but I did write them down [in 2011] and I kept them the same. There were some I exceeded and there were some I didn't meet."
"Everyone always wants to ask, 'What are they this year?' I always set personal goals," Ellsbury said. "I'll write them down, and I haven't written them down yet [for this year], but I know what they are in my head. I'll look at that periodically and see how I'm doing."
Ellsbury, at least outwardly, doesn't display any concern about his contract.
"I've talked to [general manager] Ben [Cherington], and they know how much I love playing here and they know how much I love the fans," Ellsbury said. "They've treated me great since I was drafted, and I won a World Series here and I appreciate the Red Sox giving me the opportunity when I was drafted. So yeah, they know how I feel, and I met with Ben and I know how they feel about me."
With the Red Sox and Ellsbury both trying to regain their grooves, the center fielder can see why his contract hasn't been high on the agenda -- at least not yet.
"Our main focus is winning this year," Ellsbury said. "All that other stuff will take care of itself. There will be a time when I'm sure we'll discuss something. The time's not now, but we want to win. I want to win."
Ellsbury didn't give a yes or no answer when asked if his contract could be discussed at some point during Spring Training.
"It's kind of one of those things where both sides want to win so bad that … there will be time for it and both sides will go over it and they'll call my agent [Scott Boras] and they'll let me know if a decision needs to be made at some point," Ellsbury said. "I know that both of us -- we just want to get back to the winning ways. I know how it felt in 2007 winning it all and we came one game away in 2008 from getting back to the World Series, and that's what we want each year.
"That's the expectation we have in the clubhouse. It's not just a thought. It's 'We're going to do it.' It's that mentality that we want to keep with this group and for future years down the road."
When Ellsbury says the word future, it's hard not to think about Bradley, a gifted center fielder out of the University of South Carolina who seems to do everything so smoothly.
"I've seen him in the games and when we're taking fly balls in the outfield drills and stuff like that, and I want him to feel like he can ask me any question he wants and I'll try to help him out as best I can," Ellsbury said. "It's fun. He's a young player and he gets a chance to see how guys who have been around go about their business, so it's definitely a great learning experience for him. Definitely from what I hear and everything, he has a bright future."
What if Bradley's bright future helps to push Ellsbury out the door?
"I try to control what I can control, but yeah, you just want to be there for the young player," Ellsbury said. "At some point, there's always someone behind you. No matter who it is, how they play, there's a Draft every single year. There's trades every single year, and if it's not Jackie, it's someone else that's trying to come up -- and it's been like that every single year.
"It's just part of it. There's always someone behind every one of us, but you just want to go about it in a professional way, and if he has any questions, help him out and hope he does the same when he's [a veteran]."
Coming off the first last-place finish of his career, Ellsbury can't wait to wash that sour taste away.
"It's a new team, a new bunch of guys and the guys that we have, the talent we have, I think that's why everybody is excited -- for the opportunity of this season," Ellsbury said. "It's just a good bunch of guys that we have right now."
If Ellsbury has a rebound season, the impact on the Red Sox should be sizeable.
"First of all, he's healthy. He's looked strong," said manager John Farrell. "Everything right now, just in a quick look, it looks like he's going to be the Jacoby Ellsbury that we know. We can't predict numbers, but he's healthy, he's positive, he's upbeat. He's setting himself up for a strong year."