Red Sox Spring Storylines
Spring Training is in full swing for the Red Sox down in Fort Myers, but the vibe this year is different from past seasons.
Since spring storylines have traditionally revolved around Manny Ramirez this decade, the lack of all things Manny has cast a calm over camp.
If you recall, Spring Training 2008 was brief and full of headlines. The Red Sox were defending champions and preparing for the Japan trip. This spring it’s pretty much the opposite. A year after kicking off the regular season historically early (March 25), Opening Day ’09 will not come until April 6 because of the World Baseball Classic.
Additionally, with five key players (Dice-K, David Ortiz, Jason Bay, Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia) participating in the WBC for four different countries, Fort Myers is missing many familiar faces.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t issues warranting close monitoring. Be sure to keep an eye on the following storylines, in Florida and around the world, as the new season approaches.
The health of J.D. Drew and Mike Lowell It’s not worth mincing words: the Red Sox offense cannot survive another pair of injury-plagued and thus underperformed seasons from Drew and Lowell. Last year the two missed a combined 102 games, but their losses were mitigated by Manny’s production and career years from Pedroia and Youkilis. With Manny gone and it being unrealistic to project Pedroia and Youk to match their production from a year ago, the team is staking the middle of the lineup on two guys with health concerns. How Drew responds to a cortisonal shot in his lower back and how Lowell recovers from offseason hip surgery are issues of great concern. Let’s put it this way: if come June, Terry Francona’s lineup card has a six-through-nine of Rocco Baldelli/Brad Wilkerson, Mark Kotsay, Jason Varitek and Julio Lugo/Jed Lowrie, the Red Sox will be in serious trouble.
The Papelbon setup crew The only thing resembling a closer controversy Francona has dealt with in recent past is when and how often to summon his stopper. Ever since a shoulder injury forced the team to shut Papelbon down at the end of the 2006 season, the goal was to reduce the amount and length of his appearances. The problem last year was Tito didn’t have a go-to guy in the eighth inning until Justin Masterson emerged late in the season. Manny Delcarmen was constantly battling himself and Hideki Okajima finally started getting figured out by the opposition. With Ramon Ramirez (2.64 ERA, .222 BAA in 2008) and Takashi Saito (career 1.95 ERA and .182 BAA) on board to bolster an already strong bullpen, Francona should be able to shave about 10 appearances off the 67 Papelbon logged in ’08.
Josh Beckett’s body language Beckett has far too much pride to ever let on about an injury, which is why he took so much heat down the stretch last year amid a sustained stretch of mediocrity. The guy simply won’t admit to being hurt (which he was). The best indicator of how he’s feeling is to watch him on the mound and in the clubhouse. When he’s wearing that understated scowl and breaking off biting curves to complement his gas, then colorfully and curtly addressing reporters after outings, that’s when you know Beckett is right. All signs point to him being healthy and ready to replicate his dominant 2007 season. That’s what the Sox need.
David Ortiz’s WBC performance If Drew and Lowell are vital to the success of the offense, Ortiz is paramount. Something in the neighborhood of a .300/35/115 season is necessary from Big Papi in order for the top-heavy Boston lineup to push across enough runs to consistently win ballgames. He reported to Spring Training in great shape and was talking the talk. He’ll be playing first base in the WBC for the Dominican Republic, which will give him an opportunity to showcase what he claims to be a healthy knee. Yet obviously the focus will be on his left wrist and how — if at all — it will impact his swing at the plate. After the least productive and most injury-riddled year of his career with the Red Sox, Ortiz wants to make a statement. Over the next four weeks, as he dons the colors of his country, Big Papi should provide a clear picture of what he’ll be toting into the batters box in ’09.
Keeping Smoltz in perspective Patience, everyone. Yes, John Smoltz as a Red Sox is a tantalizing prospect. His presence early in the season is by no means integral to the identity of the team, however. The Sox have six viable starters (Beckett, Dice-K, Lester, Wakefield, Penny, Masterson) entering the campaign, and as much as everyone wants to see Smoltz firing away from the Fenway rubber, there’s no reason to rush things. If the last five years have taught us anything, it’s that the Red Sox are perennial contenders and must accordingly have the big picture in mind. Smoltz’s 15 postseason wins and 2.65 career postseason ERA are all one needs when taking into account the end game of winning a title. For the time being it’s best to view Smoltz as a guaranteed midseason acquistion.