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Is Boston the best team in baseball?
The Red Sox offseason registered on the Richter Scale, and the team hopes the aftershocks reverberate through October. The acquisitions of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford make the Sox instant World Series contenders, if not outright favorites. With a number of key players returning from injuries, a couple of starting pitchers seeking bounce-back seasons, and the bullpen remade in a manner more befitting a contender, the Red Sox have but one goal: Win their third championship since 2004. If there’s a downside to the high hopes, it’s that expectations will make anything less than a title feel like failure.
The Sox have two horses who couldn’t be more different. There’s stoic ace Jon Lester, a mountain of a man who goes to the mound with little more than his stuff and his stare. Then there’s loosey-goosey Clay Buchholz, a floppy-haired string bean who spends the hours before a start playing videogames on his iPad. The two returning All-Stars are the sure things in a rotation that otherwise has a number of question marks. Chief among them is what the Sox will get from Josh Beckett. The big Texan was a postseason hero in 2007, but he looked awful before, during, and after getting hurt in May and posted the worst numbers of his career. He seems bound and determined to exorcise the horror of 2010, but we won’t know until we see him. Fellow Texan John Lackey was a disappointment after signing a five-year, $82.5 million deal, and the Red Sox need him to do a better job of maintaining slim leads. As for fifth starter Daisuke Matsuzaka, in the words of manager Terry Francona, “If I sat here and told you I could figure him out, I’d be lying.”
The team’s downfall in 2010, the bullpen could be a huge part of its salvation in 2011. GM Theo Epstein made rebuilding the relief corps his biggest priority of the offseason (after Gonzalez and Crawford, anyway), and he made a splash by inking former White Sox closer Bobby Jenks and trusted Rays setup man Dan Wheeler. Jenks was non-tendered despite recording 167 saves since 2006; he and Wheeler give the pen two more power arms alongside righthander Daniel Bard. They’ll be the primary setup men for closer Jonathan Papelbon, who’s coming off the worst season of his career but is also entering a contract year. Considering how determined Papelbon is to set the market, he’ll do everything he can to produce an All-Star season. Hideki Okajima returns to be the primary lefthander. Former Yankee Alfredo Aceves looked strong coming into spring training and could add depth to an already deep staff.
If there’s a more spirited player in the big leagues than Dustin Pedroia, he probably bleeds Red Bull. Pedroia is a breed unto himself, whether it’s challenging chiseled NFL quarterback Brady Quinn to a game of ping pong at their workout facility and guaranteeing that, “I’ll drill this ball off your throat,” or telling opponents to wear their sunglasses during BP, “for the laser show.” Pedroia is recovering from a broken foot and expects to be ready for the start of the season, though the healing process was slow. If healthy, he could bat anywhere from second to fifth. Shortstop is a bit of a tossup, with incumbent Marco Scutaro returning from a painful shoulder injury that left him barely able to throw across the diamond. He’ll be pushed by Jed Lowrie, who pummeled the ball in the second half from both sides and is developing surprising power.
Here’s where the fun starts. Kevin Youkilis had a shot at his first 30-100 season until tearing a thumb ligament in a freak August injury that cost him the final two months of the season. Now fully healed, he’s ready to pick up where he left off as an MVP candidate and one of the toughest outs in the game. He’ll be sliding across the diamond to make room for the aptly nicknamed A-Gone, who should feel like a sailor on shore leave after escaping Petco Park. Gonzalez has what the Red Sox consider the ideal left-handed swing for Fenway Park, and his career highs of 40 homers and 119 RBIs could fall by the end of August. Sound like hyperbole? Just watch what Gonzalez does in a hitter’s park with a real supporting cast.
The pairing of Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury could be the most exciting in the game. The two cover an insane amount of ground, and Crawford has already declared that balls in the left-center gap, “I’ll catch.” The two are equally disruptive at the plate, and it will be interesting to see which one hits leadoff, since some in the organization believe the team’s best lineup is with Ellsbury ninth and Crawford first, even though the latter has never made a secret about his distaste for the top of the order. In right, J.D. Drew is contemplating retirement following the season, but first he wants to prove 2010 was a fluke. Drew admits he let a wider strike zone and inconsistent umpiring get in his head. He hopes to hit with a clear mind and return to his customary .900 OPS.
If there’s a question mark anywhere, it’s behind the plate. Epstein has long lusted after catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and last July he finally got his man in a deadline deal with the Rangers. The switch-hitter they call “Salty” has yet to approach the potential expected of him since he was acquired by the Rangers as part of the Mark Teixeira trade in 2007. The Sox have steadfastly backed Saltalamacchia as a full-time starter, even though he’s caught more than 55 games in a season only once. Privately, they admit the big expenditures of the offseason required them to take a low-cost risk somewhere. If Saltalamacchia falters, the team at least boasts an experienced backup in Jason Varitek, who was actually off to a whale of a start last year before breaking his foot. This is one position worth monitoring, however, as the Sox may be forced to look outside the organization for a solution if Saltalamacchia doesn’t pan out.
David Ortiz really wanted a long-term extension. The Red Sox instead exercised his $12.5 million option. As Ortiz enters what could be his final season in a Red Sox uniform, the DH appears poised for another strong season. The key will be avoiding the brutal Aprils that have plagued him the last two seasons. With a deep lineup around him, Ortiz should see plenty of pitches to hit. The Sox may rest him against tougher lefties, since he hit southpaws at only a .222 clip last year, but he’ll get his RBI opportunities. With the Sox potentially carrying 12 pitchers, the bench will be relatively thin. Lowrie can play anywhere in the infield, while the right-handed Mike Cameron will play some outfield and maybe even spell Ortiz at DH. Varitek and possibly someone like outfielder Darnell McDonald round out the reserves. The fact that Varitek and Lowrie switch hit lessens the need for a lefty here.
In Francona and Epstein, the Red Sox boast two of the best in the business. Francona is a master communicator who knows the ins and outs of succeeding in a cauldron. His teams maintain an even keel over 162 games, which is harder to do than it sounds, and he never panics. In the front office, Epstein is extremely aggressive at the trading deadline if the team needs help, though it certainly appears he already did his best work this offseason. Add the two together, and the Red Sox are in extremely good hands.
The Red Sox received a mulligan after getting buried in a hailstorm of injuries last year, but this year it’s World Series or bust. On paper, the Red Sox have the best lineup, the best rotation, and maybe even the best bullpen in the American League. Between the insanely athletic Ellsbury and Crawford in the outfield and on the bases, the notoriously clutch Youkilis and Pedroia in the lineup, and the prodigiously powerful Gonzalez and Ortiz, the Red Sox should be a pleasure to watch. They’ll be expected not just to play with style, though, but also to win with it.