Skip to content

Archive for

Boston Ramblings

Heady times in Boston once again.

The Red Sox and Yankees are set to tango at Fenway in their inaugural ’09 series beginning Friday. The Patriots will be on the clock Saturday, as the 2009 NFL Draft fires up. And once the Celtics take care of the Bulls, both the Green and Bruins will be appearing in their respective conference semifinals for the first time since 1992.

A few thoughts about each…

AM I THE only one yearning for an infusion of hate into Sox-Yanks? Isn’t that what made this whole thing the preeminent ongoing sports drama, way back when?

You ask any Red Sox or Yankees fan what they remember most clearly about the rivalry in recent past — apart from The Comeback — and a Boston fan will say Varitek’s Glove in A-Rod’s Face, while a New York fan will recount Pedro’s Body Slam of Zimmer.  These enduring images characterized and defined the rivalry, made it drop-everything, must-see television 19 or 26 times annually.  ESPN and Fox salivated all over it.  Passionate followers cleared their schedules and did everything they could to score the hottest ticket in town.  Casual fans tuned in because, hell, anything could happen.  No matter who you were, Red Sox-Yankees always found a way to find you.

Nowadays?  The media outlets aren’t nearly as enthralled, which is largely a reflection of popular sentiment.  And quite frankly, it’s because they have barely anything to hype.  The big storyline going into this weekend surrounds Joba Chamberlain and David Ortiz.  Joba, who has thrown at Kevin Youkilis on a few occasions, was called out by Big Papi, if you can even classify it as such.  Ortiz basically said that since Joba has shown head-hunting proclivities, he’s going to find it difficult to gain respect throughout the league.  (His comments contained almost as much vitriol as a certain drive-by argument…)

Would it be that out of line if Big Papi had said something just a tad more incendiary, to you know, send a message? I for one would love to see Joba hurl some chin music at Ortiz, watch Papi step out of the box and tell Joba to watch his corn-fed behind, then blast one into the center field bleachers.

IT’S PRETTY MUCH impossible to predict what the Patriots will do come draft day, which is why it’s so much fun tossing around various conspiracy theories.  Using the last two drafts as indicators, there’s truly no telling what Bill Belichick is up to.

Two years ago, the Randy Moss-to-New England rumors had come and gone before the draft, yet Belichick pulled a cat of out a hat in New York and in came Moss for (even at the time) a laughable fourth-round pick.  And a year ago, clearly deviating from his track record of only selecting linemen high in the first round, Belichick traded down from the seventh to tenth overall pick and selected linebacker Jerod Mayo.

While the possibility of Julius Peppers becoming a Patriot has been declared dead for all intents and purposes, it is for that very reason that it could still be alive.  When Peter King reports that New England is looking to trade its first-round and a second-round pick to move into the low top 10, but professes to have little idea as to why, the theories are free to fly.

All that’s for sure are the following facts: 1) New England was initially offering a second-round pick for Peppers, which was not enough, 2) Having shored up their secondary (signing Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden) and running game (Fred Taylor), the outside linebacker position is the Patriots’ only glaring weakness, 3) A low top 10 pick is an excellent bargaining chip, given the caliber of talent available there, as well as the slightly smaller financial obligation necessary to sign the player.

If Peter King doesn’t have a bead on what the Patriots will do, it’s legitimately anyone’s guess.  But that’s what makes following Belichick’s moves on draft day so intriguing.

THE CELTICS WERE the champs again on Thursday night in Chicago.  After a pair of scintillating games at the Garden that could have gone either way, Paul Pierce took command of Game 3 from the outset and the Celtics defense suffocated the suddenly overmatched Bulls all night.

Even with Kevin Garnett on the bench in a suit, it was a vintage performance from the Green on the defensive end, as they held Chicago to under 41 percent shooting and forced 22 turnovers.  For the first time in the series, Pierce played like the best player on the court.  And Rajon Rondo, who battled to a stalemate with Derrick Rose in Boston, took decisive control of the point guard showdown, racking up 20 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists and 5 steals.

This series may still be extended — Chicago was 28-13 at home before Thursday — but for the Bulls, there’s ultimately no recovering from such a colossal beatdown in their own building.  Especially against the champs.

I HAVE NEVER written about the Bruins, because 1) I don’t know enough about hockey to throw my weight around, and 2) the Bruins have done nothing but disappoint for a very long time.  They infamously blew a 3-1 series lead against Montreal as the No. 1 seed in 2004, then attempted to reverse the script last year as the underdog, before falling to the Habs in seven.

All I remember from last year’s playoffs was how a few choice Boston crackpots decided to beat up visiting Montreal fans leaving the Garden.  It was an unnecessary and classless thing to do, though it paled in comparison to the disgraceful act staged by Canadiens fans before Game 3 Monday in Montreal: booing the American national anthem.

It was fitting that the Bruins proceeded to snuff out Montreal’s season with a pair of systematic thrashings, while formalizing a tidy four-game sweep in which Boston outscored the Habs 17-6.   I can officially say I’m back on the bandwagon, and am eagerly anticipating the Bruins’ projected second-round matchup with the New York Rangers.

To bring this rambling column full circle:  Maybe a little Bruins-Rangers is just what the doctored ordered for a suffering Boston-New York rivalry.

(Unless of course Joba decides to throw one behind Big Papi Friday night.)

Celtics Ticket-less for Playoffs

Tom Brady might be sitting courtside at TD Banknorth Garden on Saturday — when the Celtics officially begin their title defense — but unlike last postseason, he will not be the most important guy in street clothes next to the Celtics bench.

Unfortunately, that honor will go to the Big Ticket.

What many feared last month after Kevin Garnett’s brief and unsuccessful return from a knee strain is now a bitter reality: The MVP of the Celtics, Mr. Anything’s Possible himself, is out indefinitely.

We have all witnessed how the fire burns inside this unparalleled athlete. We saw him spill his guts every night for 12 years in Minnesota. We were awed when he brought his act to Boston and did the same over a surreal 97-game stretch last season; a series of extended encores punctuated by a world championship. And we were grateful when a long-suffering basketball town was returned to its rightful perch atop the hoops world.

Now, with 14 years and well over a thousand games under his belt, it appears his heart and passion for the game have proven to be more enduring than the knees entrusted with carrying all that extra weight, literal and otherwise.

There are still no reports of structural damage in his injured right knee, just a career’s worth of wear and tear of the highest degree. (Seems like the term “wear and tear” grossly understates the matter, no?) He hasn’t been officially ruled out of the entire playoffs, but it’s probably wise to keep expectations at a minimum going forward.

It’s tough not to be down at this point. When KG was healthy, the defending champs — spurred by an historic 27-2 start — were the story of the league.

Yet not long after that run, the main plot of 2008-09 season shifted away from the Celtics and towards Lebron and Kobe, Cleveland and LA.  Garnett went down, the Cavs were unbeatable at home (falling only to LA), and the Lakers had wrapped up the West before MLK Day.

While Cavs-Lakers was accordingly billed as the surest Finals since, well Lakers-Celtics, and would’ve had a good chance of happening even if KG was healthy, it’s a damned shame the Green won’t get a real shot at defending their crown. Anyone who tells you Cavs-Celtics would have been a foregone conclusion with Garnett back is full of it.

Garnett’s loss is a striking blow to a team that wore the championship belt and bullseye all year, battled multiple injuries throughout, integrated new players, and still emerged with 62 victories. It was an admirable first chapter to the team’s first title defense since 1987. Now, with the end game pretty much determined, all that’s left to see is how it concludes.

I don’t think it’s optimistic to believe the Celtics will fulfill their end of the bargain and give Lebron the rematch he’s wanted — albeit under different circumstances.

This team has dealt with a ton of adversity.  In addition to Garnett being sidelined for 25 games, key reserves Leon Powe (12 games), Tony Allen (36 games) and Brian Scalabrine (43 games) all missed significant time.  That enabled Glen Davis to grow into his skin, and helped accelerate the transition for newcomers Mikki Moore and Stephon Marbury.

Add to that Rajon Rondo’s emergence as an elite point guard and Kendrick Perkins’  continued development (both enter the playoffs as unquestionably better players than last year), and there is a solid and experienced supporting cast around the now Big Two, who are not to be forgotten.

Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are among the proudest players in the game, and will make it their personal mission to carry this team as far as they can.  Even with rings — and Pierce with a Finals MVP — both can vividly recall the days when they were some combination of underestimated and underappreciated.

Allen has been channeling Jesus Shuttlesworth since last year’s Eastern Conference finals.  He will take it up a notch.

As for Pierce, let’s just say a lot of people didn’t take him seriously last year when he proclaimed he was the best player in the world.  He may have overstepped a bit, but after manning up and dismissing Lebron and Kobe on the biggest stage, his point held water.

For the two most important months of the 2007-08 season, Paul Pierce was the best player in the world.  He’s always relished having something to prove, the greats always do.  Now he does (again).

The Celtics likely won’t make it back to the promised land without their leader, but that doesn’t change the fact that the belt is theirs until somebody rips it off them.

Knowing this team and its coach, knowing Allen and the reigning Finals MVP, I wouldn’t bank on anyone not named Lebron or Kobe taking the honors.

MLB Preview 2009

Need a comprehensive preview of the 2009 MLB season?  Want to know who’s going to make it through the gauntlet that leads to October?  Itching to find out which teams will rise out of nowhere to become legitimate threats?  Wondering how all the hardware will be distributed?

Well then, please read on.

AL East Champions — Boston Red Sox (96-66)

The Red Sox have been the team of the decade thus far.  They’ve won at least 93 games six times, played for four pennants and hung two banners.

Boston’s success has revolved around developing homegrown talent through its farm system (Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jonathan Papelbon), and filling in the holes through trades (Hanley Ramirez for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell before the 2006 season) and free agency (recent signings of John Smoltz, Brad Penny and Takashi Saito).

Combine that with a prolonged dedication to defensive proficiency, and you see how drastically the core philosophy of the franchise has changed in the last 10 years.  The Red Sox are a team built for the long run, both the grind of a 162-game season, as well as the future.

While the health of cogs David Ortiz, J.D. Drew and Lowell will be closely monitored throughout the ’09 season, Boston’s pitching and defense is good enough to make up for any offensive shortcomings.

The Red Sox will retake the AL East and make another run deep into October.

AL Central Champions — Cleveland Indians (89-73)

If the Indians have taught us anything in recent past, it’s that they are all about expectation.  When they’ve avoided it (2005 and 2007), they’ve flourished (average of 95 wins).  When they’ve encountered it (2006 and 2008), they’ve flopped (average of 80.5 wins).

Now that CC Sabathia is a distant memory and Fausto Carmona is fresh off a back-to-earth ’08 season, there is very little expectation in Cleveland.  Though that’s not to say there isn’t a quality ballclub there.  With a 26-year-old MVP candidate in Grady Sizemore at the top of the lineup, the Tribe will plate runs.  Versatile newcomer Mark DeRosa will complement the likes of Ryan Garko and Jhonny Peralta to form a solid one through nine.  And remember the name Shin-Soo Choo (1.038 OPS after the All-Star break last year).

The pitching staff is a question mark, especially given that no one is banking on a repeat of Cliff Lee’s 22-3 campaign of a year ago.  But then again, few are counting on much from Carmona, who was shaky and broken down last year after a 2007 season that saw him throw 230 innings (he had never thrown more than 173 innings at any level).  Given that he relies primarily on a hard sinker, so long as he consistently locate his pitches, there’s no reason to believe he won’t bounce back with a big season in ’09.

As for the bullpen, which was nothing short of a train wreck last year, Joe Borowski — along with his 89-mph fastball and countless blown saves — is out as Indians closer.  That alone is cause for elation among Cleveland fans.  New fireman Kerry Wood, health issues notwithstanding, is going to totally transform the vibe of that bullpen, not to mention the late-game managing strategies of Eric Wedge.

With a well-rounded club and scant expectation, the Tribe will do what they do best: fly under the radar en route to the postseason.

AL West Champions — Oakland A’s (88-74)

They are turning back the clocks in Oakland.  The days of Billy Beane jettisoning any and all valuable commodities for prospects are over.  By signing Matt Holliday, Orlando Cabrera and Nomar Garciaparra, and bringing back old friend Jason Giambi, Beane’s A’s are going for it.  Now.

They will be relying on a young and largely unproven rotation, headlined by an ace, Justin Duchscherer, who is not likely to post another sub-3.00 ERA.  But as opposed to last year, the Oakland hurlers will not take the mound knowing they must totally shut down the opposition to win, because their offense (worst in the AL in 2008) finally has the ability to plate a significant amount of runs.

Don’t underestimate how a change in clubhouse culture can affect play on the field as well.  With a veteran-laden, high-powered offense and a throwback leader in Giambi, the A’s clubhouse will be a light and comfortable atmosphere in which the young arms can mature without significant pressure.  Beane’s well-established track record of developing pitching would indicate that one or more from the top-prospect trio of Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill and Vincent Mazzaro will make the leap in ’09.

The injury to projected closer Joey Devine is a blow to the bullpen, but the Oakland relief corps will still feature a variety of quality options (including Brad Ziegler, Russ Springer and Michael Wuertz).

Behind the new bats and a new mentality, the A’s will recapture the AL West after a two-year hiatus.

AL Wild Card — New York Yankees (94-68)

The new Steinbrenner contingent invested nearly half a billion dollars into their enterprise.  How then is it possible that the Yankees will finish as a second-place team?  Because the Red Sox have better pitching.  That doesn’t mean the Yankees staff isn’t formidable, because it is.  For whatever reason, CC Sabathia is not a fast-starter.  While his April struggles are dominating the headlines in New York right now, over the long run his poor debut in pinstripes — however extended it may be — will be old news once he wins 20 games and finishes at or near the top of the Cy Young balloting.

It wouldn’t be prudent to hold A.J. Burnett — the other high-priced newcomer to the New York rotation — in the same regard as Sabathia.  Last year marked only the second time in the last eight seasons that Burnett started 30-plus games (he’s averaged just under 24 starts per season in that span).  If Yankee fans aim for 20-25 starts from Burnett, they won’t be disappointed, because when he does pitch, he’s very good (3.81 career ERA, 8.40 K/9).

Behind Chien-Ming Wang and Andy Pettitte, Joba Chamberlain is slated to be the fifth starter.  Everyone knows he’s much better than that.  Considering the questions surrounding Pettitte (who will be 37 in June and posted a career-worst 4.57 ERA last year) and Wang (who spent considerable time on the DL), Joba is really only the fifth starter in theory.

Whatever hurdles the pitching staff encounters, the Yankees offense will more than make up for.  Sticking Mark Teixeira in the middle of that lineup is going to pay immediate dividends, and will be even more devastating once Alex Rodriguez returns.

The Yankees will be back in the playoffs.

Not Quite Enough

Tampa Bay Rays (91-71) Hands down the third-best team in the AL, but the rules say only two from the same division can make it.

Los Angeles Angels (87-75) Too much uncertainty surrounding the starting rotation, compounded by aging key contributors, will ultimately stall the Halos.

Sleepers

Texas Rangers Opposing staffs better hope to be throwing their frontline guys when clashing with a Texas offense that is genuinely fearsome.

Kansas City Royals Studs in the rotation and a sneaky-good lineup should have the Royals sniffing their first winning season since 2003.

Awards

Cy Young Josh Beckett

MVP Grady Sizemore

————————————————————

NL East Champions — New York Mets (92-70)

A new year, a new stadium, and new hopes in Flushing.  Gone is the hex-house that was Shea Stadium.  Citi Field is the new home of the Metropolitans.

Just like recent versions of the Mets, the ’09 one will feature an offense with considerable speed and power, as well as a deep bench.  The recent signing of Gary Sheffield gives added depth to the corner outfield tandem of Daniel Murphy and Ryan Church.  With one of those three coming off the bench every night, as well as Fernando Tatis and defensive specialist Alex Cora, Jerry Manuel will have versatile guys at his disposal late in games.

Late in games.  Those three words have haunted Mets fans over the last three years, as the staple of the Mets bullpen has been blowing leads late.  Just as Shea Stadium was dismantled in the offseason, so too was the New York relief corps.  Out went failed setup men Aaron Heilman and Duaner Sanchez, and in came documented closers J.J. Putz and Francisco Rodriguez.  No longer will the eighth and ninth innings be disaster central for the Mets.  To the contrary, in fact.

That swings the onus back to the starting rotation, which will be strong if John Maine and Oliver Perez can sufficiently back up frontline starters Johan Santana (already a far more vocal leader this year) and Mike Pelfrey (dominant in stretches last year).  Add it all up and the Mets will be leading many games late — and locking them down at the end.

The revamped bullpen will be the main reason why the Mets get over the hump and back to the postseason.

NL Central Champions — Chicago Cubs (98-64)

It’s tough to say what’s more difficult for Cubs fans to endure: knowing their team is guaranteed to be bad, or knowing their team is guaranteed to be the best — and fearfully counting down the days until the playoffs begin.  In years past, it was the former that Cubs fans had to come to grips with.  After consecutive NL Central crowns and a pair of embarrassing sweeps in the playoffs, it is now the latter.

There is, however, no getting around the fact that for the Cubs, the 2009 regular season is going to serve as nothing more than a 162-game warmup for a five-game series in October.  Remember the Cleveland Indians of the late 90s?  That’s the last team that was as much of an obvious runaway favorite as this year’s Cubs.

Chicago added Milton Bradley to a lineup that scored 855 runs last year, 56 more than any other team in the NL.  They will have a full year of Sean Marshall (and not Jason Marquis) as the fifth starter.  If Rich Harden can approach the 25 starts he made last year, they will have one of the game’s filthiest pitchers as their fourth starter.  Kevin Gregg is the new closer, with nasty setup man Carlos Marmol ready and willing to take the reigns when necessary.

The Cubs are going to win a lot of games, and for better or worse, with each one the disturbing reality of October is going to become a little more apparent.

NL West Champions — Los Angeles Dodgers (89-73)

Traditionally, when a team loses its ace and closer, panic tends to set in.  That was initially the case for the Dodgers when Derek Lowe signed with the Braves and Takashi Saito headed east to Boston.  Until the beginning of March, the Dodgers were nothing more than a young team with promise and a suspect pitching staff.

That is, until Scott Boras ended his four-month standoff with general manager Ned Colletti and agreed to terms on a new contract for Manny Ramirez.

Just like that the Dodgers offense transformed into one of the NL’s best.  Of course all this is old news to Dodgers fans.  Their team was mired in mediocrity for the first two-thirds of last season before Manny arrived.  After Ramirez abused opposing pitching staffs over the final two months of the season and into October, it became abundantly clear that one player can indeed be the difference between middle-of-the-pack status and bona fide contender.

While the offseason was replete with angst in Tinseltown, Manny’s presence has settled all nerves.  The pitching staff still has issues (Is Chad Billingsley a true No. 1? Can Clayton Kershaw take the next step so soon?  As the full-time closer, will Jonathan Broxton avoid the horrid stretches that have plagued him in the past?), but what was proven last year was a little Manny can go a long way.

How about a full season of Manny?  You know the answer.

NL Wild Card — Philadelphia Phillies (90-72)

By virtue of their dash to a world championship last fall, the Phillies changed a lot of perceptions about their franchise and city.

As for their chances of a repeat, let’s just say recent history isn’t on their side.  Of the eight World Series champions this decade, only the 2001 Yankees made it back to the Fall Classic.  Four failed to even qualify for the playoffs in the year of their title defense.

The Phillies will be able to avoid becoming the fifth team on that list, because their offense features three MVP candidates and a newcomer (Raul Ibanez) who is a run-producing machine.  They will have to score a boatload of runs, as their starting rotation is full of holes.  After Cole Hamels (who threw 262 1/3 innings last year and has been dealing with elbow problems), the Phils top three will round out with Brett Myers (erratic) and Jamie Moyer (46 years old).

Having Brad Lidge to close games is key.  His consistency and a potent offense will get Philadelphia to where it wants to be: in the postseason with a chance to defend its crown.

Not Quite Enough

Arizona Diamondbacks (87-75) Playing a full season in a division with Manny (five HR, 1.588 OPS in 12 games vs. ARI last year) will be the D-backs’ undoing.

Sleepers

San Francisco Giants A talented and well-rounded rotation will have the Giants breathing down the necks of the contenders out west.

Cincinnati Reds With young aces and young sluggers headlining in Cincy, the Reds will lack consistency but prove to be a headache for the duration.

Awards

Cy Young Johan Santana

MVP Manny Ramirez

——————————————————————–

Playoff Picks

ALDS

Red Sox over A’s; Yankees over Indians

NLDS

Mets over Dodgers; Cubs over Phillies

ALCS

Red Sox over Yankees

NLCS

Mets over Cubs

World Series

Red Sox over Mets

PLAY BALL.

Red Sox Preseason Report Card

The 2008 Red Sox were a deep and balanced team that fell just shy of the World Series.  If it weren’t for some big-time pitching from Matt Garza and David Price in Game 7 of the ALCS against the Rays, the Sox probably would have hung their third pennant in five years.

Understanding how close they had come, the Boston front office entered the offseason with the intention of shoring up the gaping hole in the middle of the lineup left by Manny Ramirez.  They dutifully pursued Mark Teixeira, only to be dissed at the last moment.

With the big prize off the market, Theo Epstein took a page from the Patriots handbook, signing a handful of veterans (John Smoltz, Brad Penny, Takashi Saito, Rocco Baldelli) — undervalued by their former teams for various reasons — to modest and incentive-laden deals.  These new faces have fortified the established nucleus from last year’s 101-win team.

As Opening Day 2009 inches closer, the Red Sox will begin the season with an even deeper squad than a year ago.  Let’s hand out some preseason grades.

Starting Pitching: A-minus

Led by the emergence of Jon Lester, the starting pitching was solid last year, with two caveats: Josh Beckett was not the Cy Young-caliber ace he had been in 2007, and there was never an established fifth starter.

As everyone knows, Beckett battled a strained oblique that dogged him repeatedly late last season.  That injury appears to be old news, as Beckett started more games (7) and logged more innings (27 2/3) than any other Sox hurler this spring.  He says he feels good, and his spring numbers (2-0, 3.25 ERA) back up the claim.  Beckett will be the Opening Day starter and looks poised to regain his status as staff ace.

As for the fifth slot in the rotation, there is nothing short of a logjam, which is excellent news.  Brad Penny is set to get the nod on April 12, the first day the team will need a fifth starter.  Penny is fresh off his best outing in a year, having repeatedly exhibited the mid-90s heat that propelled him to consecutive All-Star games in 2006-07.  If Penny returns to form, the Sox will have the best starting staff in baseball.

To illustrate the quality and depth of the Boston rotation, consider these points: Justin Masterson is fully capable of starting, Clay Buchholz gave up a total of seven earned runs in 25 innings this spring (and will begin the season in Triple-A), and John Smoltz is anxiously waiting in the wings.  If all goes well, let’s just say the team is fortunate that Tim Wakefield is such a good sport.

Bullpen: A-minus

Top closer in the game?  Check.  Dominant setup man capable of closing?  Check.  Multiple middle and long relief options?  Check.  Situation-specific matchup relievers?  Check.  Roger that.  Bullpen is a go.

While it all begins and ends with Jonathan Papelbon, technically it only ends with him when talking about the myriad arms that will be available to Terry Francona this year.  Given the rocks in the rotation, it’s fair to assume Tito will be consistently bridging no more than the seventh and eighth innings to Papelbon.  And on the rare occasion that a starter gets lit up, a mop-up man will not be necessary.

At his disposal will be mainstays Masterson, Hideki Okajima and Manny Delcarmen, each of whom can fulfill a variety of roles — including long relief.  Add to them newcomers Ramon Ramirez (likely a matchup guy) and Saito (who, if healthy, will be among the filthiest setup men in baseball), and toss in a lefty specialist (Javier Lopez), and voila!  Quite a dynamic stable out in the ‘pen for Tito to mix and match at his discretion.

Offense: B

It’s no secret that the Red Sox will find it difficult to approach the 845 runs they scored last year, third-most in baseball.  While fans have become accustomed to watching them cross the plate in droves (they’ve averaged 892 runs a season over the last six years), the ’09 Red Sox offense will revolve around smart baserunning and timely hitting.

And of course, health.

Assuming David Ortiz plays something close to a full season, and Mike Lowell and J.D. Drew avoid long stints on the DL, the lineup will have sufficient pop.

The evolution of Jacoby Ellsbury will continue and Dustin Pedroia should post similar numbers to his MVP season of a year ago (with a slight decline in the power categories).  Concerns have been voiced about the bottom of the lineup, but as it stands now, Jason Bay, Jason Varitek and Jed Lowrie will round out the lower third of the batting order. Bay is a five or six hitter in most lineups, and Lowrie tore it up this spring (.349, 11 extra-base hits).  That leaves Varitek as the only easy out in the order.

Again, operating under the assumption that the offense can avoid a catastrophic blow, this should be a unit that can plate something in the neighborhood of 800 runs.

Defense: A-minus

With a .986 team fielding percentage, the 2008 Red Sox tied for tops in the league with the Blue Jays and Yankees.  They committed 85 errors, two more than New York and one more than Toronto.

This year the defense projects to be even better.  In the outfield, Ellsbury now has a full year in center under his belt, and an entire season of Bay in left will be an obvious upgrade from Manny (notably on the road).

Every infielder has captured at least one Gold Glove, except for Lowrie, who committed only two errors in 97 games last year while boasting a sterling .992 fielding percentage.

Overall Preseason Grade: B-plus

As shown, the 2009 Red Sox are a loaded team.  There are indeed concerns about the middle of the order, but in this day and age, it’s all about pitching, pitching, pitching.

Considering the number and quality of arms on their pitching staff, the Red Sox should have no problem winning 90-plus games and returning to the playoffs for the sixth time in the last seven years.