When you can pick up the newspaper and peruse the sports page looking for baseball scores from spring training, it’s a sure sign of warmer weather right around the corner.
This is the second part of a three part series previewing the season of our three local Major League Baseball teams the Mets, Red Sox and the Yankees.
When I first started to write these spring training columns 14 years ago I was sitting in shorts and a tank top on Long Key beach in Sarosota, Fla. for the Naugatuck Daily News.
I delicately tried to balance my laptop on my knees with my feet buried in the warm sand as seagulls swooped down overhead. After two glorious spring training trips to Florida, I now type my columns in my pajamas held up in my office with winter still raging outside my window.
The real, hardcore baseball fan gets caught up in the Major League Baseball winter meetings that are held in the dead of winter. The two main topics of this year’s meetings that drew fans interest was who would land the services of free-agent pitcher Cliff Lee and who would grab the first slugger on the market.
The Boston Red Sox fired the first salvo when they went out and traded for San Diego first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Before the dust could settle the Beantowners also signed free-agent outfielder Carl Crawford.
Those two additions put the Red Sox in contention for not only the American League East Division but for the American League pennant as well. Boston did lose Adrian Beltre to Texas and Victor Martinez to the Tigers but neither can compare to the likes of Gonzalez or Crawford.
No matter who puts on the Red Sox uniform this year you can’t take away the fact that manager Terry Francona knows how to get the most out of his troops. Francona took over in 2004 and guided the Sox to its first World Series victory in 88 years.
It wasn’t that the curse of the Bambino was broken as it was how it was done. Boston became the first team ever to battle back from an 0-3 deficit to win four in a row and take home the American League pennant.
What made it even sweeter was they did it against their nemesis New York after the Yankees beat the Red Sox in Fenway 19-8 in game three. Another World Series victory in 2007 put Francona in exclusive company as the only manager in the history of baseball to win his first eight World Series games as the Sox swept both St. Louis and Colorado.
Health was a problem last year for Boston losing seven key players to injuries that derailed another trip to the post season. An 89-73 record had the Sox come up six games short of the wildcard but this year’s additions and a healthy lineup could have the Red Sox playing baseball in late October.
General Manager Theo Epstein not only picked up two studs in Gonzalez and Crawford he retooled the bullpen adding Bobby Jenks from the White Sox and Dan Wheeler from Tampa Bay giving the Sox the deepest bullpen in all of baseball.
The pitching staff is led by Jon Lester with back-to-back 19 win, 225 strikeout seasons and the left-hander is just 27 years old. Clay Bucholz pitched his first full season in the majors and put up a 2.33 ERA, the third lowest among all major league starters, and notched 17 wins.
If Josh Beckett, 6-6 with a 5.78 ERA, and John Lackey, 14-11 with a 4.40 ERA, can come back healthy and get their ERAs back to earth, Boston will have a rotation that could rival the Phillies Fab Five.
Daisuke Matsuzaka needs to find the magic that garnered him 18 wins three years ago and Tim Wakefield is an old reliable putting up double digit wins in 7 of the last 8 seasons.
Jenks and Wheeler are former closers and should add a little insurance to Jonathan Paplebon who registered the highest ERA of his career at 3.90 but still saved 37 games. Dan Bard is a 97 mph set-up guy along with Hideki Okajima.
The infield is one of the most solid units in the American League if not all of baseball. Gonzalez at first base is a 28-year-old right-hander who put up a career high .298 average with 31 home runs and 101 RBIs. But, he’s coming off shoulder surgery and there are questions about his overall health for the long haul.
Dustin Pedroia missed 87 games last year to injury but the 27-year-old second base righty averaged through 2008-09 a .296 clip, 115 runs, 70 RBIs, 20 stolen bases and 15 home runs. If he is healthy so are the Sox chances to reach the post-season.
Kevin Youkilis at third base has shown a stable bat hitting over .300 three years in a row and through his career has averaged 23 homers, 96 RBIs and 103 runs. He missed a month and a half of the season to injury and it’s imperative that he returns healthy.
Marco Scutaro at shortstop is an aging 35-year-old journeyman who benefited from all the injuries earning extended playing time. He batted .275, 92 runs, 56 RBIs and 11 home runs. The Sox would like to see more production from that spot in the order.
Utility infielder Jed Lowrie can play all four infield positions and his age of 26 and his switch hitting abilities makes him a player who can see more playing time. In three seasons he has 499 at bats and produced 81 RBIs, 70 runs, 13 home runs and a .252 batting clip.
Behind the plate the Sox will platoon 38-year-old Jason Varitek and 25-year-old Jarrod Saltalamacchia from Texas who many feel has the potential to hit 20 home runs.
Designated hitter David Ortiz is certainly not the same hitter as when Manny Ramirez was hitting behind him. Two years in a row Ortiz suffered through a torturous April but still managed to turn a .143 start into a .270, 32 home run, 102 RBI finish. With Gonzalez and Crawford in the lineup it should take the heat off Ortiz in the early going.
The outfield is perhaps the most exciting part of the Red Sox makeup this season.
With Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury at the top of the lineup the Sox could very well become the first team in the history of baseball to score a run in the first inning of all 162 regular season games.
Crawford has an 82 percent success rate in stolen bases in his career and last year put up a .307 batting average, 110 runs, 90 RBIs and 19 home runs to go along with 47 stolen bases.
Ellsbury played sparingly due to an injury but the 27 year old was coming off a season the year before that saw him lead the league with 70 stolen bases, a .301 average and 94 runs scored.
If he is healthy the top of the Sox order will be very exciting to watch.
J.D. Drew is a stable influence in right field belting 24 and 22 home runs with 68 RBIs in 2009-10. But, at 35 years old, he will probably share time with 38-year-old Mike Cameron, who spent a lot of time on the injured list after pounding 25 and 24 homers for Milwaukee in 2008-09.
If the Sox overcome all of the injuries it went through last year and get a clean bill of health you might want to postpone that Halloween Party because Boston will still be playing baseball come late October.
PREDICTION: Red Sox will play the Phillies in the World Series.
Ken Morse is a contributing writer to the Citizen’s News