The neverending spring training is finally nearing its conclusion. Remarkably, despite the fact seven full weeks elapsed from the reporting date for Red Sox pitchers and catchers to the time that the club migrated north for the regular season, few salacious storylines emerged. The time in Fort Myers was characterized chiefly by a quiet professionalism.
That was not to suggest that there was an absence of relevant or intriguing storylines over the course of the spring. Instead, it was merely the case that the major events and trends of the spring rarely announced themselves. That does not mean that the Red Sox did not confront a number of issues that will play a significant role in determining how the club will fare in 2009.
No. 10: The Captain Returns
The saga consumed the entire offseason: Would the Red Sox move on from Jason Varitek? Could they? And where would Varitek go if he did not come back to Boston?
Almost four months passed between the time that the Red Sox captain made his teary-eyed exit from the visitor’s clubhouse in Tampa Bay until he addressed the media after he reported to Fort Myers for spring training. The message that Varitek offered following a one-year, $5 million deal (with team and player options for 2010) was simple: he never wanted to play for another club.
The question that he was then asked to address -- but politely preferred not to engage -- over the remainder of the spring was about whether he would be a more effective hitter in 2009 than he was during a career-worst 2008 season.
There were promising signs. Varitek hit four homers as a left-handed hitter this spring. Whether that carries into the season is a question that will hover over the season. What is certain, however, is that Varitek will resume his role as a cornerstone of the Red Sox clubhouse and team on the field.
A Happy Ending for the Red Sox Captain – By Alex Speier
Varitek Looks to the Future of Red Sox Catching – By Alex Speier
Jason Varitek Goes Yard – Full Count
Why George Kottaras Is Boston’s Backup Catcher – Full Count
No. 9: A Short-Lived Shortstop Competition
In a Red Sox camp devoid of drama, there seemed one event that would be a worthy occupant of center stage. The initial days of the competition for the starting shortstop job between Julio Lugo and Jed Lowrie seemed worth the cost of admission.
After both players finished the 2008 season either limited or unable to play due to injury, both Lowrie and Lugo showed up in the best shape of their Red Sox careers. Both made no secret of their desire to win the starting job. Both got out to torrid starts this spring.
Lugo’s torn meniscus, however, required surgery and ended the competition, at least for the Opening Day job. Lowrie certainly performed in a fashion worthy of a starter this spring, hitting .349 with a .400 OBP and .635 slugging mark. Still, to this point, it remains to be seen what happens once Lugo(who hit .450 with a .478 OBP and .550 slugging mark before his injury) is healthy and back on the roster.
Julio Lugo joins D&C at Spring Training to stake his claim to the starting shortstop role
A Long Competition Awaits for Shortstop – By Alex Speier
Lugo No Fan of Shortstop Competition – Full Count
Lugo to Have Knee Scoped – Full Count
Jed Lowrie Sees the Difference – Full Count
Lowrie Looks to Provide Pop at Shortstop – By Alex Speier
No. 8: The New “Kids” on the Block
A year ago, the back of the Red Sox rotation faltered at times. The struggles of Clay Buchholz necessitated an August deal for Paul Byrd, a pitcher who was, at his best, solid rather than dominant.
This winter, the Sox armed themselves with pitchers who a pair of pitchers who are two years removed from ranking among baseball’s best. In 2007, Brad Penny finished third in National League Cy Young balloting, and John Smoltz -- a former Cy winner and future Hall of Famer -- finished tied for sixth.
The two pitchers were the most prominent (and expensive) offseason acquisitions for the Sox. In an American League East that is often a meat grinder for pitchers, their ability to move past their injury struggles of 2008 may play a huge role in the Sox’ ability to withstand their division.
The arrival of Smoltz was particularly fascinating. Presuming he steps on a mound in a Sox uniform this year, he will become just the third pitcher in major-league history (joining Warren Spahn and Phil Niekro -- ironically, both of whom also spent most of their careers with the Braves) to spend 20 or more years with one team before making an appearance for another.
John Smoltz joins D&C at Spring Training
John Farrell talks about newcomers John Smoltz and Brad Penny
Penny Living a Whole New Life With the Red Sox – By Rob Bradford
Smoltz Uses Good Friend Tiger Woods As Inspiration – By Rob Bradford
Smoltz Prepares for Life With a New Team, Again – By Alex Speier
Smoltz: ‘It’s My First Step to Being a Pitcher’ – Full Count
Smoltz: ‘Wearing a New Uniform, For Me, Is Not a Problem’ – Full Count
No. 7: Young Pitching Prospects
A case can be made that the most dominant pitchers for the Red Sox during spring training were prospects Daniel Bard, Clay Buchholz and Junichi Tazawa. Despite their Grapefruit League excellence, all three were nonetheless dispatched to the minors.
Still, based on their performances in Florida, all three are viewed as capable of making an impact at the major-league level in the not-too-distant future. Like Smoltz, the group offers the Sox the sort of reinforcements that could prove crucial to navigating the season-long struggle against attrition.
Naturally, the Sox begin the season harboring visions of contention. The performance of these pitchers offered a reminder that such a goal applies to the long haul, and not just to the coming year.
John Farrell talks about Clay’s offseason and spring training
For Red Sox Prospects, Long Line to the Rotation – By Alex Speier
Buchholz Buoyed By Sinker – By Alex Speier
Don’t Forget This Bard Guy – By Rob Bradford
Top Pitching Prospects Shipped to the Minors – By Alex Speier
Daniel Bard, Century Club Member – Full Count
Your Daily Dose of Junichi Tazawa – Full Count
No. 6: Life Without Manny
Yes, the Red Sox spent more than two months without Manny Ramirez last year. Despite those 64 games of Life After Manny, and the fact that the Red Sox had a better regular-season record without Ramirez than they did with him last year, the longtime fixture of the Sox seemed to leave a shadow that survived into this spring.
No one was more vocal about the potential lingering effects of the post-Ramirez world than longtime partner in crime David Ortiz. But while Ortiz seemed inclined to bemoan the absence of an all-time great, almost everyone else on the Red Sox encouraged a turning of the page. The team has a lineup of exceptional depth, in which a 2007 MVP candidate (Mike Lowell) will open the season batting seventh in the order, behind several players whose numbers suggest they are legitimate threats worthy of middle-of-the-order status.
Even so, no matter how good Kevin Youkilis may be in the cleanup spot or Jason Bay might be in left field, there will be some who find it impossible to embrace the notion that the Sox can be as good without Ramirez as they were with him. In some ways, that seems only appropriate, as so much of Ramirez' career in Boston was a function of perception as much as it was of on-field results.
Ortiz Meets Up With Manny (Sort Of) - Batting Stance Guy
Red Sox Look to Move on from Manny Ramirez – By Alex Speier
Ortiz Faces Reality – By Rob Bradford
The Transformation of Kevin Youkilis – By Alex Speier
Bombs Away for Jason Bay – By Alex Speier
Evidently, Manny Suffered for Eight Years – Full Count
Big Papi Sounds Off – Full Count
Batting Stance Guy Previews the 2009 Red Sox Lineup:
No. 5: Jon Lester Set to Stay in Boston for the Long Haul
Jon Lester’s 2008 season was like few in Red Sox history. He became the first left-handed Red Sox age 24 or younger to win at least 16 games since Roger Moret accomplished the feat in 1974.
Red Sox officials were impressed sufficiently to secure the services of a young, top-of-the-rotation, left-handed force for years to come. In mid-March, the team signed Lester to a five-year, $30 million deal -- the most years and money ever given to a pitcher who was not yet eligible for salary arbitration.
Lester joins Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis to form an impressive nucleus of young Red Sox players who are under team control for years to come. A pitcher whose pitching future once seemed medically uncertain is now under contract through 2013, longer than any other pitcher in the organization.
Dale & Holley talk to Lester right after he signs his new deal
What Comes Now for Lester? – By Rob Bradford
So Much Upside – By Curt Schilling
Lester Jumps To Head of Class: Deal for Pitcher Could Be Unlike Any Other – By Alex Speier
Will the Other Ace Be Here? – Full Count
Jon Lester joins D&C to preview the start of the season
No. 4: Return of the wounded
Mike Lowell was the 2007 World Series MVP. Josh Beckett was the most valuable single player over the entire course of Boston’s run to the World Series. Those players, so crucial to a title two seasons ago, were nowhere in evidence during the 2008 playoffs.
Lowell’s torn hip labrum forced him to be removed from the postseason roster in the middle of the Division Series. Beckett, unstoppable in 2007, looked incredibly vulnerable every time he went to the mound with strained intercostal muscle in his rib cage last playoffs. Both players looked almost frail at the end of last year.
With so much resting on the health of both players, it came as little surprise that their springs would receive more scrutiny than had they finished the year in relatively healthy shape. Both players could take reassurance from their spring performances.
Lowell hit .297 with a .316 OBP and .857 OPS while hitting three homers. His freedom of movement increased steadily over the course of camp, suggesting a renewed the possibility that he will once again become a contributing factor at the plate and in the field. Beckett restored a changeup as a key component of his repertoire en route to a 3.25 ERA and an Opening Day assignment.
How Beckett is Using Last Year’s Lessons For This Year’s Success – By Rob Bradford
Mike Lowell Looks Back on a Winter of Challenges – By Rob Bradford
Lowell Leaves Doubts Behind – By Rob Bradford
Mike Lowell Feels A-Rod’s Pain (And Then Some) – Full Count
No. 3: Surviving the WBC
The games of the World Baseball Classic were undeniably compelling. Team USA’s walkoff win over Puerto Rico and Japan’s extra innings triumph over Korea in the championship game both featured outstanding baseball, injecting excitement into an otherwise listless part of the baseball calendar.
Of course, that quality of play produced potential and actual risks that had the Sox holding their breath for much of March.
David Ortiz, who tweaked his shoulder in the first days of spring training, nevertheless found himself playing first base. Jason Bay ended up playing center field for the first time since 2005. Daisuke Matsuzaka ramped up to nearly 100 pitches on March 22.
All seemed intact when they returned to Fort Myers to rejoin the Red Sox. They were more fortunate than fellow Red Sox Dustin Pedroia (abdominal muscle strain) and Kevin Youkilis (sprained left ankle and Achilles tendonitis). The right side of Boston’s infield both had to leave in the middle of the second round of the tournament, and missed time once back in Sox camp.
Despite those concerns, all players professed their enthusiasm for the WBC. Their excitement did not change the fact that, in its current form, the tournament represents a source of both great excitement and anxiety for Major League Baseball.
Kevin Youkilis chats on Dale & Holley about his WBC experience
The WBC Issue – By Curt Schilling
Dustin Pedroia's WBC Blog
For Jason Bay, Centerfield (And Hockey) Are No More – Full Count
Dustin Pedroia, Sox Avoid WBC Calamity – Full Count
Blame Jeter, Not WBC, For Youkilis Injury – Full Count
Daisuke Has Returned in One Piece – By Rob Bradford
WBC Takes Panic Away From Pedroia – By Rob Bradford
No. 2: Curt Schilling Retires
It had been 17 months since he had last thrown a pitch in a major-league game, and so in a sense, it came as little surprise that Curt Schilling announced his retirement in March. Nonetheless, the impact on the baseball world was not diminished.
Schilling won 216 regular-season games, but his dominance as one of the great power pitchers of the modern era was embodied more clearly by other numbers.
He is one of four pitchers in major-league history with three or more seasons of 300 strikeouts, joining Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson and Sandy Koufax. His 4.38 strikeout to walk ratio is the best of all time, defining a pitcher with dominant pitches who could locate the baseball with ridiculous precision.
Yet it was in October that Schilling created the signature moments of his career. He went 11-2 in the playoffs with a dazzling 2.23 ERA, forging a reputation as one of the greatest postseason performers in baseball history.
Though Schilling’s final professional season was defined chiefly the disappointment of his inability to throw a pitch, that was not the focal point of the Red Sox as they recalled the pitcher’s career. He delivered on the promises that he made to Boston when they acquired him, helping to pitch the club to not just its first championship in 86 years but also to a second title in 2007. Ultimately, those two titles are the defining elements of his legacy in Boston.
Calling It Quits - By Curt Schilling
Curt talks with Dennis & Callahan in his first Boston media appearance since retiring
The Price Was Right For Curt Schilling: Ace Was An All-Time Bargain – By Alex Speier
Tom Verducci gives his thoughts on Schilling’s Hall of Fame candidacy
Mitch Williams takes some shots at Curt
Terry Francona reflects on Schilling’s career
Red Sox Reactions to Curt Schilling’s Retirement – Full Count
No. 1: The Endless A-Rod Soap Opera
No, it did not take place in Red Sox camp. Nonetheless, the biggest story in the baseball world this spring -- including the Boston camp -- was the one that unfolded a couple hours north of Fort Myers in Tampa Bay.
The Yankees’ spring training began with a bombshell, when three-time MVP Alex Rodriguez admitted to using steroids while a member of the Texas Rangers from 2001-2003. Less than four weeks later, Rodriguez had to undergo surgery to remove a cyst that developed from a torn hip labrum (the same condition that required Mike Lowell to undergo season-ending surgery last year).
The fact that Rodriguez will be out until at least sometime in May alters the complexion of the American League East. So, too, does the specter of his need to play through his recovery from surgery this season, as well as the fact that he will face a public that will treat him more ruthlessly than ever (if that’s possible) due to the steroid admissions.
In an otherwise tumbleweed-quiet spring training, it was A-Rod who brought the noise. Surprise, surprise.
Shocked? You Just Can’t Be Anymore – By Curt Schilling
Thanks – By Curt Schilling
I Am A-Rod’s Crisis Manager – By Dan Guttenplan
A-Rod the Latest Trojan Horse in Red Sox-Yankees Rivalry – By Alex Speier
The A-Roid Whiner Line
Mike Adams rants on A-Rod
The Sports Guy touches on a variety of subjects, including A-Rod