The Boston Red Sox open their 2007 schedule on Monday, and hope are high in Beantown. What do Red Sox fans have to look forward to, team-wise and blog-wise this year? Plenty!
1. Pitching. There is no question the Sox have a formidable starting five. While early on the idea of staring the season with a front-end of Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jonathan Papelbon, and Tim Wakefield was tantalizing, the idea of having no closer scared the bejeezus out of everyone. So, while putting Paps back into the closer role where he dominated last season improves the team’s chances overall, moving Wakefield into the 4th slot and replacing Paps with Julian Tavarez isn’t quite as impressive. But no worries: if Tavarez (or Wakefield, for that matter) falter, there’s Kyle Snyder from the bullpen and plenty of help down in AAA Pawtucket with the likes of Jon Lester, Kason Gabbard, and Devon Hansack – three young ‘uns any team in baseball would love to have on their rosters.
In the bullpen, as mentioned, there’s plenty of talent to get from the starters to Papelbon, with Snyder, Brendan Donnelly, Joel Pineiro (if he doesn’t get traded), and Mike Timlin from the right side, and Javier Lopez, J.C. Romero, and Hideki Okajima from the left. This is a deep staff, with an equally-deep pool of reinforcements down in Pawtucket. Arguably, the best pitching staff in the American League, and an oasis in the Baseball Desert when it comes to your typical pitching staff.
2. Catcher. Same as last year – all-around catching dude Jason Varitek back doing the 1, 2, 3, and 5 starting shift, with erstwhile backup Doug Mirabelli handling the knuckleballer Wakefield. There are concerns over Varitek’s age and his offense this spring after hitting a paltry, career-low .238 last season, but there’s few better when it comes to his preparation, handling of pitchers, and understanding the Keys To The Game. Were he ever to get hurt, the Sox like up-and-comer George Katteras, who will be playing at AAA Pawtucket this year.
3. First Base. This will probably be Kevin Youkilis’ last season playing closest to The Dugout on the first-base side, as it is expected Youk will move to third after third baseman Mike Lowell opts for free agency once this season is over. Until then, however, while Youk may not end up amongst the league-leaders in power numbers for first basemen, he is steady and rock-solid both offensively and defensively.
4. Second Base. OK, I’ll admit, this is a spot I don’t think the Sox are strong in. From all appearances, Dustin Pedroia does not appear ready for the bigs. His defense is OK, but watching him at the plate, all I can say is, “Great El Guapo’s Ghost!”. If the Red Sox offense starts off slow and Pedroia ain’t helping, don’t be surprised to see him back in Pawtucket and the steady Alex Cora in his place.
5. Third Base. A strength on the team, both offensively and defensively. Besides his quiet, steady and stabilizing influence at third, Mike Lowell has pop in his bat and should do a very nice job in the 6- or 7-hole in the Sox lineup. You don’t have to be a Soxaholic to appreciate what Lowell brings to the park both day in and day out.
6. Shortstop. I’ve never really understood why the Sox have always been so enamored of Lugo, but, now that we have him, I guess we’ll just have to see. There’s no question that shortstop is now as much an offensive as it is a defensive position on a baseball roster, and, while Alex Gonzalez played a great defensive shortstop last year, you need a player who can hit one Over The Monster more often than A-Gon did. Will Lugo’s offensive capabilities make up for the defense the Sox have given up as a result? We’ll just have to see.
7. Left Field. Manny Ramirez returns for another year of who knows what. The one thing you know you’ll always get from Manny is offensive prowess that few others in baseball possess. Does he do dumb things, like disappear during a pitching switch if he hears the Call of the Green Monster? Well, sure. Will he take a few days off around the All-Star Break? Most likely. But if the Sox are in it and Manny’s interested, there’s few more dangerous hitters in baseball. Not to mention that no other team in baseball has as feared a 3-4 combination as the Sox do with Manuel and David “Big Papi” Ortiz.
8. Center Field. Another position I think is potentially weak offensively (and, perhaps, due to his throwing arm, defensively as well). What’s up with Coco Crisp this spring? The happy-go-lucky and plucky center fielder of 2006 seems to have lost The Joy of Sox. His defense this spring has been just so-so and his bat kinda abysmal, and one wonders whether it’s because he’s been injured, or simply doesn’t relish the prospect of hitting eighth in the Sox lineup. Something defintely to keep an eye out for.
9. Right Field. J.D. Drew looks like everything advertised this spring, and I’m gonna predict the guy has a monster year. This year the Sox are going to add some new seats in the right field stands and call it “Conigliaro’s Corner”, but, as much as I respect the memory of Tony C. and what that memory means to Sox fans, we all know that right field is really The House That Dewey Built, as there may never be another patrolling that part of Fenway like Dwight (Dewey) Evans.
10. DH. “Big Papi”. Need I say more? A fave of all Fenway Fanatics, and, in my mind, the greatest clutch hitter in Red Sox history.
11. Bench. Eric Hinske can play first, third, and outfield. Wily Mo Pena will be getting his swings backing backing up Coco if he gets injured again, Cora backs up second and short. You need to have a solid bench if you want to be the Firebrand of the A.L., and I think the Sox are pretty solid here.
12. Manager. Terry Francona has done a fine of making sure the Red Sox keep Surviving Grady. BTW, we may see Mr. Little’s Dodgers in the World Series this year. Now wouldn’t an October matchup between Terry’s and Grady’s nine be interesting?
Bottom line: if the Sox stay healthy, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be a solid pick to win the A.L. pennant and get to the World Series, but it’s a long way to October. This team appears built for the long haul and ought to make it interesting.
Let the games begin!