Spring has sprung. Last week, pitchers and catchers reported for spring training, and this week it’s the position players. And so begins the long, often torturous journey toward the beginning of the season.
Sure, now it’s good. After a winter of starving for baseball, we now get our fill of stories about guys like Big Papi and Victor Martinez. But this will soon dry up, like it does every spring. The stories about the main players will soon all be told, and baseball reporters desperate for more articles out of spring training will be feeding us features on any 29-year-old prospect still hoping to someday make the bigs as a mediocre, junktime-eating middle reliever. We get a brief rush when actual baseball games begin again, even though we end up watching a glorified Pawtucket game. Then that gets old fast, and we’re left waiting, desperately for the actual season to begin.
But I’ll take it. It’s baseball, and, like everyone else, I’ll devour every Sox article I can get, and look forward to those first few spring training games, when all seems right with the world and better days are right around the corner.
Well, that was interesting.
At the beginning of this offseason — right after being swept out of the playoffs, thanks in large part to an impotent offense — the path the Sox needed to take this winter seemed clear. They needed to give their offense a boost by bringing back Jason Bay and acquiring a big bat, namely Adrian Gonzalez. Everything else — starting pitching, bullpen — seemed fine.
That didn’t happen.
Instead, the Sox seemed to go in the opposite direction, surprisingly signing elite pitching free agent John Lackey, and then bringing in a collection of misfits and cast-offs mostly aimed at improving their defense.
Despite all the hype surrounding his signing, make no mistake — Marco Scutaro is no star. Before last year’s peculiar breakout season, which came as Scutaro approaches his mid-30s (ala Gary Matthews Jr.), Scutaro has always been a bit role player in the majors. I have a hard time believing — a really hard time believing — that he can suddenly be a serious contributor on an elite baseball team. His defense might be good, but I’ll believe his offense when I see it. I maintain we might have been better bringing Alex Gonzalez back.
The Sox other signings, however, are intriguing. I’ve never been an Adrian Beltre fan, as he has been a collosal underachiever his whole career. However, playing for a contract, in Fenway park, at cheap money, and with his unquestionable defensive skills, Beltre brings a ton of upside and potential to this team.
I love the Jeremy Hermidia signing, as he has always had immense potential, but has struggled after coming to the majors probably much too early. Still very young, he has a chance to fly under the radar as a backup in Fenway, and could realistically become a break-out star.
And while I hate his strikeouts, I love the athleticism that Mike Cameron brings to this team. With him in center and Ellsbury in left, that’s one talented outfield that will be fun to watch. The defense and athleticism that guys like Cameron, Beltre, and platooner Bill Hall bring to this team could be a shot of excitement, much like the addition of Orlando Cabrera gave this team in 2004.
This — plus what is easily now the best pitching staff on the planet — should make this an intriguing, fun team to watch this season . . . even though the offseason didn’t go according to MY plan.
Pitchers and catchers, I’m ready for ya.
by Dan Mathers
Sure, Red Sox fans are almost always brimming with optimism as spring training begins. But this year fans seem especially giddy. Given the moves the team made this offseason, it is hard not to be. They’ve improved their lineup with Lugo and Drew, created a deep rotation by adding Matsuzaka and Papelbon, and their bullpen – whoever turns out to be the closer – looks to be very much improved overall. While time will tell how things shake out, this looks to be the most well-rounded Sox team since . . . would it be too crazy to say ever? Probably. So I’ll say it’s the most well-rounded spring team in a long, long time. But, of course, this being the Red Sox, there will be plenty of theater to keep fans entertained. The following is a rundown of the major storylines Sox fans will be following this spring.
Daisuke’s In The House: Don’t believe the hype. The Sox did get the best pitcher available, and he will give his team more than Barry Zito or Jason Schmidt will give their teams. And Matsuzaka will be a very good pitcher. But his domination of Japanese hitters and the media hype might make expectations too high. Don’t expect him to dominate like Johan Santana. Don’t expect him to be Pedro of the late 1990s. But given the Red Sox deep rotation, he doesn’t need to be that pitcher. He will be very good. But whether fans end up seeing him as a Sox hero or a disappointment will depend on the level of expectations put on him. Me? I’m expecting 17 wins and somewhere around a 4.00 or 4.20 ERA.
Closer/Bullpen: Theo has compiled an interesting collection of skilled veterans, promising rookies, and intriguing misfits pulled from the scrapheap. How things shake out among them will be good theater during those otherwise boring middle- to late-inning stretches of spring training games. But regardless of how roles shape up by the end of spring, things will be far from settled. You can only put so much stock in relief appearances during spring training. The real auditions will be held throughout the month of April, and hopefully things will take shape by the time May rolls around.
Beckett: Is he a bust? He is still young, and he has great stuff. But he can’t get by just on that. He is stubborn. But he is too competitive to let that stand in his way. Expect him to make adjustments and be better this year.
Manny: Is Manny happy? Will he show up? Will he play? Now that he isn’t going to the car show, we can stop worrying. Manny will be fine (I think). As long as the team doesn’t collapse, he shouldn’t freak out too much. He’ll play and help the team. He will flake out, probably around the All-Star Break, for a few days. There will be trade speculation, but don’t believe it. He isn’t going anywhere, and he will help the team like usual.
Lester: He has great stuff and sounds like he is healthy and raring to go. Despite all he’s been through, I expect him to have a great spring and pressure the Sox to find a place for him. But the team will be ultra-cautious with him, probably more than they need to be. Regardless of what happens this spring (baring an injury), he will start in extended spring training. But he’ll push his way into the rotation by mid-season and be a force by the stretch-run.
Papelbon: Forget the talk about him returning to the closer role. It isn’t going to happen. Even if Pineiro and others crash and burn, expect the Sox to first look toward making a Scott Williamson-like deal. Pap will be an important part of the Sox rotation, and it will be interesting to see if he is as good or better as a starter than he was late in 2005. I expect he will be very good. My one concern is he hasn’t shouldered the workload of a full season yet, and maybe he will tire later in the year. But a healthy, contributing Lester, giving the Sox six starting pitchers with Wake, could help spot guys mid-season and ease the wear on arms so everyone is strong by the fall.
Schilling: Sox brass say they want to begin the year before offering Schill a contract. Maybe that is smart, but they are still risking that if he goes to free agency it will take upwards of $16 to $17 mill to sign him next year instead of the $13 million he offered this spring. If he has really great stuff this spring, don’t be surprised if they change their minds and try to grab the Schilling Early Bird Special.
Introducing Lugo and Drew: It will be interesting to watch how Lugo lights up the leadoff position, and how Drew handles his new digs. Things should be fine. Drew’s reception has been rough. But he doesn’t have to be The Man in Boston. And he just has to light up a couple of mediocre single-A pitchers this spring training and fans will start to gather in his camp.
Coco: The hype is gone and he is healthy. Crisp will hit near the bottom of the order, where he should be very effective. He won’t ever fulfill the unrealistic hype that accompanied him at the beginning of last year, but he will be a solid player, and he will be better than last year. (By the way, anyone notice that Cleveland is worried Andy Marte’s struggles might mean he isn’t the next Mike Schmidt after all?)
Helton: Don’t be surprised if this talk flares up again. Pay no attention to what Helton and Rockies owner Charlie Monfort say. Helton would love a chance to play for a winner. Monfort desperately needs to dump Helton’s salary if his team will ever have a chance to compete. There aren’t many teams that can take on Helton’s salary; the Mets have Carlos Delgado, and don’t expect the suddenly cost-conscious Yanks to become players if they haven’t already. The Sox have all the leverage here. They don’t need to make the deal. The Rox do.