FORT MYERS, Fla.—And so it begins. Friday marks the official reporting date for Red Sox pitchers and catchers in Fort Myers. With that landmark comes a shift in focus, as the key issues move from off the field to on it.
For the most part, the questions about who will be on the 2009 Red Sox have been settled. The issue now becomes one of how those players will perform, and in what roles.
With the return of Jason Varitek, the lineup of a year ago remains largely intact. So, too, does the core of a pitching staff that will once again be anchored by starters Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield.
Even so, despite a very familiar foundation, plenty of curiosities abound as the team tries to build upon its remarkable success of five playoff berths and two championships in the past six seasons. What follows are some of the key questions that the Sox hope to resolve before leaving Fort Myers roughly seven weeks from now.
1) How healthy are the new guys?
The Sox made several buy-low acquisitions this past offseason that, if they pay off, could pay huge dividends.
John Smoltz has been a perennial Cy Young contender with an uninterrupted record of dominance when on the mound. Brad Penny is one very bad season (6-9, 6.27 in 2008) removed from his emergence as one of the best pitchers in the N.L. in 2007 (16-4, 3.03). Reliever Takashi Saito has a 1.95 ERA, joining Jonathan Papelbon as the only pitchers since 1917 with a career mark under 2.00 (minimum: 150 innings).
Yet all faced major health issues last year that limited their time and/or effectiveness on the mound. Smoltz required surgery to repair his labrum; Penny had shoulder tendinitis that contributed to his ineffectiveness; and Saito tried an experimental procedure of platelet injections as a last hope of avoiding Tommy John surgery.
If those three rebound to their pre-injury form, the Sox would have a pitching staff that potentially featured championship-caliber depth and dominance. Early signs are positive for Saito and Penny, who are both on the same throwing progression as the rest of Sox pitchers. Smoltz is on a more deliberate timetable, as the club is focused on his availability for the end of the season, rather than the beginning.
All the same, the spring will serve as a gauge as to whether the pitchers can once again achieve elite levels, or whether they will struggle to recapture their past excellence.
2) What about last year’s injured guys?
Three of the players most responsible for the Red Sox’ championship in 2007—Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell and David Ortiz—were dramatically reduced by injuries in the latter stages of 2008.
Beckett faced a variety of ailments last year (back, elbow, ribs) that seemed almost alarming, perhaps the price to be paid for his enormous contributions the previous October. Lowell’s degenerative hip condition was far more painful to play through than it was even to watch. The partial tear of the tendon sheath in Ortiz’ left wrist, meanwhile, left the slugger struggling to find comfort at the plate.
Beckett has arrived in camp without any remaining evidence of physical limitation. Pitching coach John Farrell said on Wednesday that the staff ace has checked in closer to his 2007 than 2008 form, thanks to an offseason of thorough rest followed by a vigorous workout program.
Meanwhile, though both Ortiz and Lowell (before the third baseman’s season-ending surgery last October) finished the year as mere facsimiles of themselves, manager Terry Francona insisted that their health is not a concern going forward.
“I don’t think David’s a question. I think he’s healthy and in good shape. I think that’s exciting,” said Francona. “I don’t think Mikey Lowell is a question mark. I think he’s not quite ready to start the season yet, which is how we understand it. We’ll take it step-by-step and what’s good for him. We’re trying to get him ready for opening day.
“I don’t view those guys as question marks,” he continued. “I just think we have to use common sense.”
3) Who’s the shortstop?
Julio Lugo is now halfway through the four-year, $36 million deal he signed following the 2006 season. His production last year, prior to a season-ending quad injury, was poor, as he hit .268 with a .355 OBP and .330 slugging mark while committing a whopping 16 errors in just half a season.
Rookie Jed Lowrie took over at short for the second half of the season, and seemed to drive in a run every day for roughly six weeks (he finished with 46 in 81 games, compared to Lugo’s 22 in 82) before fading dramatically down the stretch while fighting a non-displaced fracture in his left wrist. He finished the year with a .258/.330/.400 line.
Lowrie’s defense for his entire stay in the majors was flawless. He played 49 games without an error, and helped turn the Red Sox infield into a strength, with above average defense at every position.
Now, the Sox must decide how to proceed. Lugo brings greater athleticism to the table than Lowrie, and his on-base skills are valued by the Sox. On the other hand, G.M. Theo Epstein offered several reminders this offseason that young players necessarily are improving players, suggesting a bright future for Lowrie, who showed an ability to contribute both at the plate and in the field.
To this point, the Sox haven’t publicly tipped their hand about how they plan to proceed. Instead, there seems a likelihood of an open competition for the job of everyday shortstop.
“We’re going to put the team we think can help us win out there. That’s kind of stating the obvious,” said manager Terry Francona. “We have one guy we signed to a multi-year deal, and he got hurt. You have another kid who, when he came in, did great, and then he tailed off. He had some injuries, too. It’s our responsibility to figure out how our team best works.”
4) Just what, exactly, is Jason Varitek’s role?
With the Red Sox captain finally returning to the fold last week, it will be fascinating to see how his role takes shape over the coming season. The spring may provide some early hints as to whether, or how, his job will be redefined.
The Sox were open about their pursuit of a catcher of the future this offseason. Even with Varitek back for one and more likely two seasons, it would appear that the team will begin a process of transition away from the man who has averaged 124 games a season for the past decade. When Josh Bard signed to return to the Sox, he gave a glimpse into how the team might be approaching that succession.
“I think that this time (Bard’s job) will be more than just catching (Wakefield),” said Bard, who returns after a brief stint in Boston in ’06. “Whether that means, if we sign Tek back, spelling him on day games, whether that means catching more, I don’t know. I think (Francona) was very upfront about the fact that he wasn’t going to put a number on it, and I think it comes down, like any other team in this league, the better you play, the more you’re going to play.”
It seems likely that Varitek will remain the primary everyday catcher, but that the Sox may choose to search for more options to rest him after his career-worst offensive season in 2008 (.220/.313/.359). One interesting footnote to Varitek’s role: pitching coach John Farrell did not rule out the possibility of pairing Varitek with Wakefield, a role that the captain has been spared almost entirely since 2001.
5) Who else will catch?
Though Bard, who signed a non-guaranteed one-year, $1.7 million deal to return to the Sox, seems the likely favorite to share time with Varitek, that role is not etched in stone.
Bard, like Varitek, is a switch-hitter whose strength is handling left-handed pitchers as a right-handed hitter. Also like Varitek, he is coming off a disastrous offensive campaign (.202/.279/.270) that can be explained partially, though not entirely, by injury.
The Sox will explore whether catcher George Kottaras—a player who was acquired in 2006 for David Wells, and who is now out of minor-league options—can leapfrog Bard to claim a spot on the club. Kottaras is left-handed, demonstrated decent power potential in clubbing 22 homers for Triple-A Pawtucket last year, and if the Sox retain him, they would own his pre-free-agent rights for six years at minimal cost.
All the same, whereas Bard performed at an elite level offensively (while also catching one of the top pitching staffs in baseball) in 2006 and 2007, Kottaras is unproven at the major-league level. Still, the Sox will give a long and careful look to determine whether he is worthy of a big-league role. Attention will also be given to Dusty Brown, who had a career-best offensive season with Triple-A Pawtucket last year, and Mark Wagner, whose offense and defense are well regarded despite poor offensive numbers last year at Double-A Portland.
At the same time, the Sox will monitor the needs of other clubs to see if there is a potential trade that would produce a catcher of the future from elsewhere.
6) What will Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis do for an encore?
In some ways, the right side of the infield has become the face of the Red Sox franchise. Pedroia, the reigning American League MVP, and Youkilis, who finished third in that balloting, delivered both elite performance and unrelenting intensity a year ago.
Pedroia became a top-of-the-order force, going through months at a time where he seemed to collect a couple hits a game. Youkilis, meanwhile, blossomed into one of the top sluggers in the American League, finishing among league leaders in homers, RBIs, slugging and virtually every other category associated with a power hitter.
Now, the two will set about trying to prove that 2008 represented a baseline, rather than a career peak that can never be matched. The task won’t be easy given just how well both players performed last year. But given the fact that both players seemingly lived at Athletes’ Performance in Arizona, and that Youkilis is one of the first position players to have arrived in Fort Myers, it seems that both are motivated to prove that their success is sustainable.
7) Who is next off the factory line of the player development machine?
The strength of the Red Sox roster for the past couple of years has been largely a result of the team’s scouting and player development success. The past four seasons have witnessed the arrivals of Jonathan Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Justin Masterson, Lowrie and other contributors at the big-league level. All will be expected to serve as key components of the ’09 club.
Who will join them? Clay Buchholz, one year removed from status as the top Sox prospect, arrives in spring training without any certainty that he will be in the majors. His dire struggles last year (2-9, 6.75 before a season-ending return to the minors) offered a reminder that immense talent and potential are not sufficient conditions of success.
Spring training will serve as an important mechanism for Buchholz to demonstrate that the lessons of last year’s failures took hold. The signing of veterans Penny and Smoltz means that Buchholz does not have a clear path to the majors. Instead, it is up to him to force his way back to the majors.
“He knows that nothing is going to be given to him, where last year I think he looked at this situation as maybe a little bit more as one like, ‘You know what, I'm going to have a spot in this rotation regardless of what takes place in spring training,’ said Farrell. “Through last year’s experiences, he knows that whatever he attains this year, he’s going to have to earn it.”
Michael Bowden, who won his big-league debut last August as the culmination of a dominant run through the minors, will also get a chance to solidify his credentials against major-league hitters this spring. And the team will have an opportunity this spring to examine whether Daniel Bard’s startling turnaround—from near-bust status as a minor-league starter in 2007 to one of the most dominating seasons in the minors as a reliever last year—can keep him on a fast track for a potential mid-year summons to the majors.
Meanwhile, top prospect Lars Anderson—less than three years removed from high school—will be in major-league camp. Touted as a future middle-of-the-order centerpiece, his performance this spring will be monitored closely for glimpses of the potential that has brought Anderson immense attention in a career that has not passed Double-A.