FORT MYERS, Fla. – Now, halfway through the month of March, we can take stock of what the Red Sox have presented through their 2010 spring training thus far. First, a look at the pitchers:
JOSH BECKETT: Up until he was scratched from his Sunday start against the Twins, Beckett was having a seamless spring training comparable to his 2007 February and March. Most everybody wants to talk about an impending extension, but the reality is that Beckett has put negotiations totally in the hands of his agent, Michael Moye, and is focusing on what lays ahead on the field. Observers believe he is more at ease than at any time since arriving with the Red Sox.
What we’ve learned: Beckett believes that because of the lessons he has learned since coming to Boston, the next five years will be better than his previous half-decade. (Click here to read more about Beckett's belief in his future.)
JON LESTER: After a rough first spring outing, the lefty has given off the vibe of the top-of-the-rotation pitcher he established himself as throughout the past few years. The key continues to be Lester’s ability to control his arm side of the plate, which was the key element in setting the single-season record for most strikeouts by a left-handed Red Sox pitcher (and total a 13-4 mark with a 2.68 ERA from May 21 until the end of the season).
What we’ve learned: That despite contracts given out to the likes of Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez, Lester is perfectly happy with his five-year, $30 deal (with a team option for $13 million in 2014).
JOHN LACKEY: The righty has seemingly fit in well with his other rotation-toppers, spending at least one golf outing with Beckett and Lester while sharing similar approaches to their craft. Lackey is healthy (which was an issue at the tail end of the past two spring trainings) and seemingly has his two-seamer working in the same fashion as the Red Sox witnessed in Game 1 of the American League Division Series. (At least that’s what Jason Bay said after facing the pitcher in Port St. Lucie last Thursday.)
What we’ve learned: After spending a good chunk of the last two spring trainings working on a changeup he rarely used in the regular season, Lackey has decided to prioritize his fastball and slider this time around.
DAISUKE MATSUZAKA: Where do we start? The good: He came into camp in much better shape, having dropped his body fat from 24 to 17 percent. The bad: Two injuries, two setbacks and one big delay. Wednesday was supposed to be his first spring training game, but thanks to a stiff neck, the likelihood is that Matsuzaka won’t be throwing his first major league pitch this season until late April at the earliest. (Click here for Terry Francona's initial reaction to Matsuzaka's latest injury.)
What we’ve learned: Matsuzaka not only wants to pitch at least 10 more years in the United States but hopes to still be hurling while in his mid-40s, just like one of his idols, Nolan Ryan.
CLAY BUCHHOLZ: After the youngster showed up at a well-publicized 200 pounds, the focus is back on what made him successful in the final months of the ’09 season. Buchholz’ two-seamer — which meant a world of difference last year — has been a bit sporadic in games but good enough to offer promise heading as he vies for a spot in the rotation. Buchholz’ primary focus continues to be on making progress in regard to keeping his composure with runners on base.
What we’ve learned: Like his wife, he can act. (Click here to see Buchholz' Comedy Central appearance.)
TIM WAKEFIELD: After a visit with Red Sox team medical director Dr. Thomas Gill in late January, it became clear to Wakefield that there were going to be no issues regarding his surgically repaired back. Nothing has changed. Wakefield has had an extremely solid spring thus far, showing no ill effects from last season’s health woes while looking like the pitcher who went 5-0 with a 3.97 ERA from June 1 until he was sidelined just after the All-Star break. He also appears extremely motivated by the perceived competition he is facing in regard to the rotation’s final spot.
What we’ve learned: Wakefield is intent on forcing the Red Sox’ hand and putting himself in position to have a shot at both the Red Sox’ all-time win record and 200 career victories.
JONATHAN PAPELBON: Red Sox manager Terry Francona talked about how Papelbon didn’t feel like he had his true fastball yet but still managed to hit 94 mph in his outing Saturday afternoon. But what was the most watched pitch in Papelbon’s repertoire was the splitter he lost in ’09. After realizing that the grip he had been utilizing on the pitch was causing its ineffectiveness, Papelbon appears much more confident throwing the offering than he did at any time last season.
What we’ve learned: Papelbon continues to dig in regarding his belief that the closer role will offer the kind of payday he hopes for the future. As he points out, making four All-Star teams to go along with a World Series title since choosing closing over starting isn’t bad. “It looks like ‘Cinco Ocho’ is right and everybody else is wrong,” he said.
DANIEL BARD: His fastball hasn’t gone anywhere, and perhaps even more importantly, neither has his slider. The pitch that took off after a slight adjustment to its grip continues to be difference-maker in keeping hitters off balance. One interesting addition continues to be the emergence of Bard’s changeup, which he used on back-to-back pitches to strike out Tampa Bay’s Matt Joyce last week. He had used the change sporadically last season — even the playoffs — but is intent on showing no hesitation to throw the pitch when the right situation calls for it.
What we’ve learned: Last season we discovered how effective a radar gun can be for Bard. But now, thanks to a fairly new catcher's mitt belonging to Luis Exposito, the power of a loud glove has been uncovered. Bard admits that when it comes to having his 100 mph fastball reach the catcher’s leather, “the louder the better.” (Click here for more on Bard's secret weapon.)
HIDEKI OKAJIMA: Okajima’s presence has gone relatively unnoticed thus far in camp, and that’s a good thing for the Red Sox. He doesn’t appear to be any different than the guy who (as Gary Marbry points out) A) became one of four relievers since 1954 with 60 or more appearances and an ERA below 3.50 in each of his first three seasons; and B) has the lowest career OPS in road games (.554) in the majors the last three seasons.
What we’ve learned: Okajima has a new translator this season. He also seems content after signing a one-year, $2.75 million contract, although with Okajima having two more years of being arbitration-eligible, it should be interesting to see how the set-up man’s value escalates to uncomfortable levels for the team.
MANNY DELCARMEN: Early on, pitching coach John Farrell called Manny Delcarmen “the biggest key of the camp.” Delcarmen recently took time to work with Farrell in some extra bullpen sessions to make sure things were ironed out heading into the spring’s home stretch. He does look different from the pitcher whose physical issues took him off the playoff roster last season, but it remains to be seen if he can serve the kind of role that would be of tremendous value to the Red Sox — a potential seventh or eighth inning reliever who is torture on lefties and can pitch multiple innings.
What we’ve learned: The last few years, Delcarmen has served as the third base coach for his friend’s Coral Gables Little League team, buying the other "Red Sox" team jackets after they claimed their league’s championship last year.
RAMON RAMIREZ: Upon facing Ramirez on the first day of live batting practice, one Red Sox player said when asked by a teammate which pitcher he faced, “My man Ramirez. Nasty.” The quiet righty said he spent the offseason doing a lot more running and working on his changeup, which was really good at the outset of ’09 but tailed off (not in a good way). He, like Okajima, has been relatively unnoticed, which is just the way most relievers like it in the spring — one inning and out, with no evidence of hiccups on the box score. (Full disclosure: Usually the writers are down interviewing the starting pitcher in the middle of these games when pitchers such as Ramirez are getting their work in.)
What we’ve learned: First-pitch strikes are key with Ramirez, against whom in 2009, after an 0-1 count, opponents hit .183 with a .550 OPS, while after a 1-0 count opponents hit .264 with an .824 OPS. He also is the only Ramon Ramirez who will make the Red Sox, as Ramon A. Ramirez still has some work to do. (Click here for more on Ramirez.)
BOOF BONSER: Unless Bonser falls apart, he was pretty much slotted into the Red Sox bullpen. Despite giving up a home run Saturday, the big righty — who is coming off labrum surgery — hasn’t fallen apart. He also was at least somewhat familiar with his surroundings considering he did his rehab work over at the Red Sox' minor league training facility last summer.
What we’ve learned: Bonser wouldn’t have minded a shot at entering the closing sweepstakes — replacing the injured Joe Nathan — if he was still with the Twins. (For more on Bonser's thoughts on closing, click here.)
SCOTT ATCHISON, JOE NELSON, BRIAN SHOUSE: They may be the ones vying for the final bullpen spot, and none of them have been horrific to the point of making the race lopsided. For what it’s worth, Nelson and Shouse — who each signed a minor league deal — both have opt-out clauses, but not until after the season starts.
What we’ve learned: All three have a history with the Red Sox, although Atchison’s stay with the organization lasted all of a few weeks. His motivation for returning was perhaps the most heart-tugging, with the reliever turning down the opportunity to make a few million dollars in Japan to make sure that his young daughter got proper medical care for a condition that left her without radius bones in her arms. (Click here for more on Atchison's decision to return to the United States.)