(Editor's note: Rob Bradford spoke to Carl Crawford in September about the possibility of signing with the Red Sox in the offseason.)
The recruiting stories still amuse Carl Crawford.
The most recent one, of course, came during the 2010 All-Star Game festivities, when Angels outfielder Torii Hunter made sure his locker was next to that of the Tampa Bay outfielder. Hunter is no dummy. He is contractually obligated to be in Anaheim through 2012, so why not have Crawford come along for the ride?
Going back, there was the visit to the University of Nebraska as a high school senior. Crawford, a three-sport standout from the Houston area, was being pursued by the Huskers to become their next option quarterback.
"I went on my recruiting trip to Nebraska and it was four or five o'clock in the morning and we were still out," said Crawford, who was being shown around by current NFL running back Correll Buckhalter. "I was still in high school and I wasn't used to that. Then I realized these guys do this all the time. I was nervous and scared. I committed the next day."
Now it might be the Red Sox' turn.
With an opportunity to delve into free agency waiting less than two months down the road, Crawford realizes it might be coming. So, with that in mind, what can these Sox do to trump all the others?
"I don't know," Crawford said while sitting in the Fenway Park visitors dugout during the Rays most recent trip through town. As he talks the 29-year-old giggles, busting out a smile he seemingly has no problem wearing the majority of his days.
"I'm really looking forward to everything. I've been looking forward to the whole year, absorbing the whole experience because it's going to be a year to remember."
Crawford figures to become the most heavily recruited free agent this coming offseason, carrying a skill-set, athleticism, work ethic and history of production unmatched among the players figured to be available in the '10 open market.
Whichever team is going to lock up the outfielder better be ready to commit to one of baseball's heftiest investments, significantly more than the $10 million Crawford is making this season.
So, the question is: Should the Red Sox jump in head-first when it comes to attempting to lock up Crawford as their next left fielder?
A strong case can be made.
WHAT HE'S DONE
To start with, Crawford's history has been consistent and strong. There has been very little room for interpretation throughout his nine-year big league career, hitting between .296 and .315 in all but one of his last seven seasons.
His OPS has been upwards of .800 in five of the last six years, while averaging 13 homers and 54 steals per 162 games throughout his career.
It doesn't also hurt that Crawford has had solid success against the Red Sox, dating back to a walk-off home run in Theo Epstein's first game as a general manager back in 2003. Against the Sox, the left fielder is a .300 hitter with 12 homers and 62 stolen bases in 66 attempts over 144 games.
Fenway Park might not be the most conducive to his swing -- with the majority of Crawford's power being distributed to right field -- but a .275 batting average with four homers and 26 steals in 27 chances over 76 games isn't too shabby.
The reality is that while it might be fun to get the Jumbotron treatment this most recent time through Fenway, Crawford already has his thoughts pretty well organized.
While some players might use each series as a resource for what lies ahead (Jason Bay admitted to asking teammates about what it was like to play in different cities during his final months with the Red Sox), the outfielder is content in relying on the information he has has gathered since entering the majors in 2002.
"I've been everywhere for so long, I pretty much know every place," Crawford said. "The only time you really think about it is at night when you have down time. But you really don't have to think about it that much because you know something is going to happen."
WHAT HE'S GOING TO DO
As assuring as Crawford's achievements have been to this point, teams like the Red Sox would be more concerned with what he is going to do.
With that in mind, the question has to be asked of Crawford: Do you think your next five years will be better than your last five?
"That's what I would like to think," he said. "I'm just starting to learn. My game was a lot of times hitting the ball in play and trying to run. Now I've got a feel on how to see the ball and I'm driving it better. I figure if I didn't have to steal 50 bases I would actually be a better hitter. I would have more strength in my legs to hit all year long, because that wears down over the course of the year."
And evidently this year -- which has Crawford carrying a .302 batting average along with 43 steals and 15 homers -- is no different.
"It's every year. Every year," Crawford said. "I feel like if I didn't have to run as much my offense would be better."
The numbers support Crawford's claim that he is maturing as a hitter. He is just six extra-base hits shy of reaching his career-best (63), while seeing more pitches per plate appearance (3.77) that at any time during his tenure with the Rays.
So could Crawford, who has spent the majority of his time hitting second, sometimes manning the leadoff and No. 3 spots, evolve into a middle-of-the-order type, not having to be so identified with his legs?
"It's possible, but you never know how it works," he said. "I'm always working on my swing, so it's a possibility. With time you experience more. You understand more. You pay attention more. You kind of study things a little better. The more important thing is that you just understand what is going on a little better.
"If I tried to run every time I got on, I could steal 70 or 80 bases, easy. But as I've gotten older I've realized you don't have to do that because you can be just as effective getting a big lead and scaring a pitcher. They get so afraid when I get on. Why steal and let them relax and have them be like, 'OK, he stole now I can relax.' I want them to be worried all the time. I only steal when our team needs a bag. It was fun to steal every time I got on, but know I try and be a little smarter with everything I do."
IS THERE A FIT?
There are reasons for the Red Sox not to make Crawford a priority this offseason, starting with the amount of money it will take to secure his services. There also might be concerns that on a team that could be starved for a presence against left-handed pitching, especially if Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre depart, getting another lefty hitter might not be the way to go. (Although Crawford did actually hit .318 against southpaws in '07.)
But there is also potentially a really solid fit, as well.
The Red Sox still need a left fielder for the coming years, with top prospect Ryan Kalish thought to be next in line for the right field job once J.D. Drew's contract expires following next season. And the free agent market for outfielders is thought to be uninspiring following the 2011 season, certainly not possessing the kind of presence Crawford, Jayson Werth, and Adam Dunn figure to bring this time around.
And the Sox do figure to have some money in the next few years to invest in a lineup anchor, such as Crawford.
Some of the financial allocation could very well go to Beltre, or Martinez in multi-year deals. But Mike Lowell's $12 million comes off the books after this season, as could David Ortiz' $12.5 million if the Sox don't pick up his option. Then there is Drew's $14 million after next year.
At the very least, a phone call to Crawford's agents at Legacy Sports Group will be made by the Red Sox. After that is where the real debate begins.
"It really hasn't been hard at all and that's mainly because we've been winning," Crawford said of performing in a contract year. "That took a lot of pressure off me so my mind doesn't have to drift and I can just think about playing the games.
"Other guys have said there would begged days and bad days. Fortunately for me there's been more good days. I wasn't really worried about it. Whatever happens is going to happen. I prepared myself for the season so I was ready for whatever was going to come my way."