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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Friday is Moving Day...

Friday is the day when they pack up all the equipment for spring training so I guess it's time on the BBB to start thinking about the Sox. Here's an article from today's Herald to get your brains jumpstarted. The BBB is looking for a Red Sox contributor. You know how to reach me if interested...

Plenty of questions as Red Sox head to spring training
The Starting 9

By Michael Silverman
Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Red Sox [team stats] went two whole seasons without winning a championship between 2004 and 2007.

Beginning next week in Fort Myers, we get to find out if the 2010 team looks capable of sticking to that same schedule -- or plunging this region into another unimaginable 86-year swoon. We all know there is no in-between.

The 2010 Red Sox are coming off a one-and-done postseason in 2009, followed by an offseason dedicated to bolstering its run-prevention abilities. Did they re-shape a still-good team into a championship-calibre squad? Let’s divide that question by nine.

1. Will the offense have enough thump?

Maybe this question should simply read: “Should the Red Sox wait until July 31 or (ital) March (end ital) 31 to trade for Adrian Gonzalez?” The Red Sox are going to have a deeper lineup this season, especially in the bottom third with new guys Adrian Beltre and Marco Scutaro likely to be hitting there. The heart of the order, however, remains unfulfilled.

Manny Ramirez [stats]’ fill-in, Jason Bay, is gone, and for that matter so is Ramirez, so exactly how have the Red Sox solved the matter of finding thunder in their lineup? In the name of Mark Teixeira, they have not. The team scored 872 runs last year, third-best in the league and their OPS was second-best at .806. It is hard to see those totals going in any direction other than downward in 2010, with the roster as is. What will determine how quickly the Red Sox dial up the Padres to talk about Gonzalez will be how steep of a drop it will be and if the pitching and defense can cover up for it.

2. Will an improved defense and pitching translate into more wins?

See above, because if the offense does not come through, the “run prevention” facet of the Red Sox is going to be the sole path to October success. Winning 3-2 games is just as effective as winning 8-7 but the Red Sox do not play in the National League. Their defense should be spectacular, especially with Beltre at third, and their pitching, particularly the rotation, looks plenty deep at this moment. The logic behind moving Jacoby Ellsbury [stats] to left field is air-tight. It may not be pretty right off the bat, however, as Ellsbury, who will not have a Green Monster to practice with in Fort Myers, learns the new angles. Billy Wagner was a nice get for the final push of last season, so it is hard to rate the 2010 bullpen as improved, given the cast of characters battling for the final spot. The Red Sox like to think they are a more balanced team now with most of the pitching and all of the defense bulked up. The sooner the tipping point on that theory is tested, the better.

3. Can David Ortiz [stats] afford to get off to another slow start?

May 20, 2009. That was the day Ortiz hit his first home run of the 2009 season, in the Red Sox’ 40th game. That he finished the season with 28 home runs and 99 RBI is something of a minor miracle. This year, it would be mind-boggling if the Red Sox are that patient with him again, not with the thin mid-section of the lineup they are trotting out. Ortiz is a huge issue for the Red Sox, whose need for more power is vast. If Ortiz can supply it like he mostly did in the final four months of the season, a lot of their potential offensive struggles are going to be defused, providing an immense lift for the team. But with a 34-year-old slugger who has shown signs of breaking down and inexplicable inconsistency in each of the last two seasons, it is a stretch to say that Ortiz is going to return to the Big Papi of old. He is in the final guaranteed season of his contract with the Red Sox, however, and it appears as if he dedicated himself to extensive conditioning over the winter. He will be asked to produce immediately.

4. Six starters, five spots - will Tim Wakefield [stats] be the odd man out?

This may not be an amusing spring to be Tim Wakefield. Barring an injury to one of the rotation’s big three of Josh Beckett [stats], Jon Lester [stats] and John Lackey, one member of the other three starters -- Wakefield, Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka [stats] -- is going to find himself out of a starter’s job come the start of the regular season. As of early February, Wakefield is the leading candidate, a tough break for him but understandable considering he is coming off an off-season back injury. He apparently is on schedule to hit spring training in fine shape but some unconscious age discrimination could come into play for Wakefield. The team is unlikely to be counting on 200 innings from a 43-year-old who has averaged 160 his last four seasons, but Wakefield has a track record of overcoming odds. Buchholz and Matsuzaka likely will be given every opportunity to make regular starts. Pitching depth, or the lack of it, is frequently exposed by the end of spring training. Wakefield, or somebody else, might mind, but the Red Sox would not mind finding themselves having an excess, even a healthy excess, when they are ready to break camp. They will ensure that even if there is no real injury to a starter, somebody will look a little too pale by the time the team heads north.

5. After two good-not-great seasons, how will Josh Beckett perform in a contract year?

This will be Beckett’s 10th season in the majors yet he is still in his 20s. He will turn 30 in May and this should truly be a fascinating season for a bulldog competitor whose greatest Red Sox season (2007) is two-plus seasons behind him. The Red Sox locked up a pitcher (John Lackey) with a track record quite similar to Beckett and there is no escaping the conclusion that he is insurance in case the Red Sox or Beckett decide this marriage will not or should not continue. And if Beckett does leave -- a mid-season trade cannot be completely ruled out -- the Red Sox can rest assured he will deliver everything he has got this season. Like most great pitchers, Beckett has plenty he feels he still has to prove. Only his health stands in the way of what should be a comeback season of sorts for him after seeing his walk rate and WHIP creep up and strikeout rate per nine innings dip down. Having never been in a contract-drive year before, Beckett seems a safer bet than most to be at his best, even if he would never admit it as a motivation.

6. How touchy are things going to get with Mike Lowell?

Both sides will downplay it, but there is no getting around how awkward the Lowell-Red Sox relationship will be from Day 1. The Red Sox had a deal in place in December with Texas to ship the third baseman out only to have a left thumb surgery crop up. Now, Lowell will need most, if not all, of spring training to get himself into shape and show that he can help another team. That is a formula for a lot of pressure, either above or just under the surface. The Red Sox and Lowell are smart enough to realize that the quickest way to get Lowell out of town is to handle this smoothly, quietly and without out-in-the-open bickering. Both Lowell and the Red Sox likely will keep a stiff upper lip when it comes to minimizing the stress involved in what is a dilemma but it will be an elephant in the clubhouse from Day 1.

7. Has Dice K ended his freelance assignment and accepted a full-time job with the Red Sox?

When Daisuke Matsuzaka divulged to a Japanese media outlet this winter that he hurt his hip last winter and hid it from the Red Sox all year long, it came as news to the Red Sox. They know Matsuzaka well enough by now, however, not to be shocked. Life with Matsuzaka in the first three seasons has never been dull. After essentially meeting expectations in his first year, Matsuzaka’s nibbling tendencies were matched by his survival skills in 2008 before his season came crashing down on him last year. The hip-WBC episode culminated in an essentially lost season that included the Red Sox placing Matsuzaka in a timeout in Fort Myers to rehab his shoulder, get back in condition and accept the fact that he works and plays for the Red Sox and is not on his own program. By all accounts, Matsuzaka got the message but this winter’s revelation was a bit of a reminder of what a wildcard the talented pitcher is. Like Beckett, Matsuzaka is 29 and already has reached remarkable heights in his international career. He could offer this rotation so much, yet his track record pitching in the MLB is spotty. More than anyone else in the rotation, Matsuzaka has the most to prove.

8. If the third time is a charm, did Theo Epstein finally find a shortstop in Marco Scutaro?

Of all the new acquisitions from this winter, Scutaro’s two-year deal worth $12.5 million with mutual options for a third year could easily wind up being as significant as that of Lackey in the rotation. Edgar Renteria, Julio Lugo [stats], an injured Jed Lowrie -- this position has been underperforming to an almost abnormal degree the last few years. All the Red Sox want is a shortstop who can be relied upon to have decent range, soft hands, capable of making strong and accurate throws and, if he cannot hit well, at least get on base a lot. They have not found that shortstop in the John Henry/Theo Epstein/Terry Francona era and although two World Series rings have helped ease the pain, it sure would make life on the diamond much easier if Scutaro were to prove to be as reliable as he looks. He may be keeping the seat warm for Jose Iglesias in 2012 but to have stability at the position in the meantime would qualify as a significant antacid to a constantly churning segment of the Red Sox.

9. Did the Red Sox make up any ground on the Yankees?

Notice how the Yankees not only are making awfully smart baseball moves these days but they are back to winning World Series? After wasting millions of payroll dollars this past decade on talents such as Kevin Brown, Jason Giambi, Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright, the Yankees got it right last year with Teixeira, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett and this year they turned two great trades for Curtis Granderson and Javier Vazquez and made an underrated signing of DH Nick Johnson. Gone are Johnny Damon (we think) and Hideki Matsui. The Red Sox hardly stood still by losing Bay and gaining Scutaro, Beltre, Cameron and Lackey but it is difficult to look at any projection formula straight in the face that does not show the Yankees still holding an edge. The Red Sox won their first eight games against the Yankees last season, then lost eight of the next nine as the Yankees developed into a championship team. The Red Sox have an awful lot to prove this season -- not only to themselves but to their perennial rivals.

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