Sox armed and ready for season
BRADENTON, Fla. - Today, finally, the Red Sox will bid farewell to Florida. And when they do, the Sox are positioned to take with them a collection of pitchers like they may have never toted before.
Healthy ones, too.
"It's been a lot easier to get your pitching ready, just because we've had so much time," manager Terry Francona said yesterday before Josh Beckett made his final spring outing in a 4-3 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at quaint McKechnie Field. "We really went slow with the starters. Last year, we were scrambling."
What happens from here is anybody's guess, but barring an unforeseen snag in the next few days, the Sox will enter the regular season next week with the 12-man staff they projected to have at the start of the spring training. Last year, thanks to Beckett's problems and a trip to Japan for the opener, they had no such luxury. This year, minus Brad Penny's shoulder weakness in the earlier stages of camp, the pitchers made their turns, got their work in, built up stamina.
In Red Sox history, rarely has there been a time when they broke camp with such pitching talent and depth, ace through closer. Beyond No. 5 starter Penny, there is even depth on the disabled list and in the minor leagues. John Smoltz, Clay Buchholz, and Michael Bowden all figure to help the Sox at some point, as does Daniel Bard, the fireballing righthanded prospect who looks like a closer-in-the-making.
All of that gives the Red Sox, particularly Francona, more options than a Chinese menu, which is something every manager desires.
Managing the staff, after all, is one of the biggest parts of the job.
"I spend the majority of my time constantly thinking about the pitching because you can really screw it up [if you're not careful]," Francona acknowledged. "If you mess the pitching up, you don't just lose a game, you could screw it up for a while. I'm probably overcautious with it, and if I am, I won't apologize for that."
Nor should he.
More than any sport, baseball is a test of attrition, particularly as it pertains to the pitching staff.
For now, the Red Sox also appear to have a diverse staff, both in the rotation and in the bullpen. The season-opening rotation consists of a hard-throwing righthander (Beckett), a hard-throwing lefthander (Jon Lester), and a knuckleballer (Tim Wakefield). Daisuke Matsuzaka sometimes seems to throw more pitches than Jason Varitek has fingers, and Penny has learned to record more ground outs in the middle of his career.
In the bullpen, on any given day, Francona could have as many as six pitchers capable of retiring lefthanded hitters and six pitchers capable of retiring righthanded ones, an astonishing ambidexterity that should allow him to protect people such as the aging Takashi Saito, while employing Javier Lopez (better against lefties) and Ramon Ramírez (better against righties) in their ideal situations.
With the pitching staff, in particular, the Red Sox seem to have an answer for almost everything.
All of that seems to put additional burden on Francona, the first manager in more than 60 years to enter a sixth consecutive season in Boston. With pitching coach John Farrell at his side, he has proven shrewd at handling the staff. For every game, Francona carries a card that outlines each reliever's workload for the previous week, including game appearances and in-game warm-up sessions. The idea is to distribute the burden so no pitcher is overtaxed, which is also part of the reason the Red Sox do not have a prototypical long reliever.
Last season, the Red Sox had 10 games in which the starter failed to go at least four innings - three from Buchholz, one from David Pauley, one from Matsuzaka in his first start off the disabled list. In a dire circumstance, the Sox always know they can summon a pitcher from the minor leagues. Beyond that, Francona would just as soon minimize damage by going to his bullpen early, then piece together the rest of the game so as to not overwork any pitcher.
This year, when the Sox employ that philosophy, Francona should, in theory, have a skilled major leaguer on the mound for every pitch.
"As long as we get length from our starters, we should be OK," said Francona, offering famous last words for many a manager.
Added the skipper with regard to the absence of a true long man, "I'd rather have a pitcher that can help us win a game than sit on the bench for 10 days waiting for something bad to happen that we don't want to happen."
A year ago at this time, Beckett's back injury and the trip overseas had the staff in some disarray as the season began, a particularly worrisome development given the difficulty of the early-season schedule. The Sox survived nonetheless. Now a team built more on its pitching is preparing to leave Florida for Boston, where the 2009 season awaits.
Following today's Florida finale against the Twins, the Sox start flying north. And when they get there, their arms won't be tired at all.