One month away
With Opening Day on the horizon, readers have questions and concerns despite a quiet camp
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Where's controversy when you need it? Oh, right, Tampa.
It's certainly not here at City of Palms Park -- or anywhere in Fort Myers, really -- as the Red Sox go through an entirely drama-free spring training. (At least, so far. There's time yet.) It's been all about the baseball, with just a small break for some injury-related news with the injection in J.D. Drew's back Monday, and the delay of Brad Penny's first trip to the mound this spring. That's it. It's as if the Yankees have co-opted all the issues in the American League East -- or even baseball -- and there's none left over for all the rest of the teams.
But that doesn't mean that this Red Sox team can set its sights on the postseason already. There is a long way to go before that point, a path filled with two other good teams in the division and health concerns to a larger portion of the 25-man roster than most anyone in the front office or on the field would like.
Quite a few of the concerns that I saw in my inbox in the past few weeks have been about the team's offense. Will David Ortiz's wrist be OK? Will Mike Lowell's hip? Will Drew's back? As much as I'd like to have a crystal ball, I can't answer those questions. But I can acknowledge them -- along with queries about what it means to be out of options, Jason Varitek's hitting skills from the left side and non-roster invitees.
So here goes. And remember, as long as this spring training of peace might seem, it's exactly one month until Opening Day.
I can hear the crack of the bat at Fenway Park already.
Amalie: Are you worried about the hitting prowess of this team? You cannot win only on pitching. Defense and hitting are important parts of the game. Defense is only average and the hitting so far this spring has been tepid at best.
Neil, Virginia Beach, Va.
A: Yes, absolutely. There are a lot of questions with this Sox offense, most of which have to deal with the health of the lineup. David Ortiz, Mike Lowell, and J.D. Drew all have injury concerns with a month left before the start of the regular season. It's not necessarily about not having Manny Ramirez hitting behind Ortiz. It's more about three hitters in their 30s with a wrist problem, hip problem, and back problem respectively. I wouldn't really read all that much into the hitting so far this spring, since things can get a little crazy in the windy Grapefruit League parks. But with a pitching staff -- both rotation and bullpen -- that could be among the best in baseball, the Red Sox offense is looking like it could be a somewhat weak link, if those three key players fail to return to form.
What does it mean that the Red Sox are out of options with catcher George Kottaras?
Don, Butte, Mont.
A: Because George Kottaras is out of options, that means that he has to pass through outright waivers to be sent to the minor leagues if he isn't added to the 25-man roster at the end of spring training. Outright waivers mean that if another organization wants to claim him, he would automatically go to that club. But that team would have the same problem, since he would have to end up on their 25-man roster or go through outright waivers again. So a claiming club would essentially be adding him to the major league roster. This means that, if the Sox don't want to have Kottaras on their major league roster, he is a candidate to get traded.
Hey, Amalie. Thanks for keeping up with these mailbags, especially the focus on the minor leagues! Keep up the great work! My question is about Varitek -- what are your thoughts about moving him from the catcher role to first base in light of his production dropoff (whether it's with the Sox over the next two years or thereafter)? Something similar to how Scott Hatteberg was used with the A's or Mike Piazza. Do you think Varitek would ever consider the switch?
A: Thanks for reading! That wouldn't make much sense for Jason Varitek, or for the Red Sox. The skills that Varitek brings, the ones that caused the team to re-sign him this winter, are behind the plate. That's where he can help the Sox. His greatest strengths as a baseball player are calling a game and dealing with pitchers. For a guy who hit .220 last season, with a bat that looked slowed, it wouldn't make much sense to move him to first base, where the team has an MVP candidate and Gold Glove winner. It's not something he would ever consider, nor would the team.
I might be off here but didn't Manny go without an agent for the last contract? So he would have kept most if not all of the $20 million per season if the Sox picked up the option years. With Boras's fee at the discussed levels, won't Manny be making less cash in LA than he would have made in Boston?
A: When Manny Ramirez got his $160 million contract with the Red Sox, his agent was Jeff Moorad. His agent in the intervening years, between then and when he signed with Scott Boras before last season, was Greg Genske. But you're right with one aspect -- Ramirez isn't making a whole lot more in LA than he would have with the picked-up option years in Boston.
We heard a lot about the "near divorce and reconciliation" of the Sox and Jason Varitek this winter, but now that he's in camp we've heard nothing about baseball skills. How's he doing, especially in hitting?
Drumm, San Diego
A: Drumm, Varitek is working extremely hard with hitting coach Dave Magadan on repairing his lefthanded swing. He understands that he didn't exactly have a lot of success from that side, and that it's harder for him to remain consistent as a lefthanded batter. Of course, all the hard work he can put in won't necessarily turn Varitek into Joe Mauer at the plate. I've seen some solid contact from the catcher, but it's hard to predict whether that will carry over into the season, and whether that will be enough to create a bounce-back year offensively for him. I know Magadan has been impressed with how Varitek is responding to the work the pair are doing on the spring, and has high hopes -- for what it's worth.
The Stanford scandal had caused the accounts of Johnny Damon and Xavier Nady to be frozen. IMG, a sports representation group, was possibly steering its clients to Stanford. At last look, Jed Lowrie was a client of theirs. If he is still a client, does this event affect him? Thanks.
Roland, Calabash, NC
A: Jed Lowrie's agent is now a part of CAA, not IMG, he told me. His agent is Brodie Van Wagenen. He was not affected by the Stanford Financial scandal, though Jacoby Ellsbury (a Scott Boras client) was.
Is there any update on John Smoltz and what his program is right now to be ready to pitch sometime this season?
Jeff, Huron, S.D.
A: Smoltz is extremely eager to take the mound in a regular season game, though his timeline actually gets him there at the beginning of June. Smoltz told me he is scheduled to get on a mound for the first time in less than three weeks. He's likely to stay in extended spring training after that, unless the weather in Boston is unseasonably warm. After that, he'll work slowly to build himself up to join the rotation in June with an eye toward keeping himself healthy enough to pitch in the playoffs for the Sox.
Hey Amalie, is there any news on Junichi Tazawa? I haven't heard a thing about him since pitchers and catchers reported. Is he at the major league camp, the minors or is he in Japan training for the WBC?
A: This question came in before games had started, so perhaps Evan has been able to get all his Tazawa news previously. If not, here we go. Because Tazawa is on the 40-man roster, he's in major league camp. He is not participating in the WBC. He's been extremely impressive in his first couple of outings, including one against college players in which he got three outs on just four pitches. John Farrell raved about him to me, especially about his fastball command. He's certainly going to have a steep learning curve, based on his limited experience in Japan, never having played professional baseball there. This makes him different from most of the Japanese players who have come to the States and made a mark on the majors. But the Red Sox have such an established framework for Japanese pitchers at this point that they hope that will lessen the burden on Tazawa in making the transition. The plan was to start him at Double A, though nothing has officially been decided yet.
With relatively little competition for the 25-man roster, I'm curious which other invitees warrant our special attention during spring training -- who are the non-roster invitees with interesting stories or up-and-comers we may be less familiar with that we have an opportunity to see at Fort Myers this year?
Mike E., Washington
A: The obvious name is Lars Anderson, one of the top 20 prospects in all of baseball, according to Baseball America. He could find himself in the majors either late this season or in 2010. Another player to watch is catcher Mark Wagner, who is on the 40-man roster, so he's not exactly off the radar. But on a team that's looking for its catcher of the future, Wagner might have the potential to fill that role. This is his first chance at major league spring training, and he's working with bullpen coach Gary Tuck, as are all the catchers. We've also seen a couple of nice swings from some lesser names, like Paul McAnulty and Angel Chavez (who is now playing in the WBC for Panama). And don't forget 100-mile-an-hour man Daniel Bard, a reliever who could also see Boston sooner than later. All these guys will get a bit more time in spring training games because of the WBC (with the exception of Wagner), so you'll even be able to get a read on them better than you would in other years.
Obviously there is an offensive concern this year. Was it ever a thought to pick up Adam Dunn to possibly platoon, if not fill the void in the outfield when Drew goes down, because we know he will go down at some point this year. Dunn's bat seems like a logical fit to compliment the lineup and the "?" in the outfield.
A: I think there was certainly a temptation when the Red Sox realized that players like Bobby Abreu and Adam Dunn were still on the market toward the end of the offseason, and could be had for discounted prices. But Dunn still signed for two years and $20 million, which is not exactly chump change (even in the skewed world of baseball finance). That kind of money would have been hard to justify for a player without good defensive skills. The Sox were already set in the outfield with Jason Bay, Jacoby Ellsbury and J.D. Drew, and for a team that prizes defensive ability, Dunn just didn't quite seem to be a fit, even though his power bat could be desperately needed. Especially not in a bench role.
Amalie -- Given the presence of Takashi Saito, Wes Littleton, and Ramon Ramirez, do you think the Sox might decide to send Justin Masterson to Pawtucket to start, along with Michael Bowden and Clay Buchholz? John Farrell seems to want to keep him stretched out. Is Littleton in sort of the David Aardsma spot for the Red Sox, too potentially valuable to risk losing on waivers?
Jon, Arlington, Va.
A: Justin Masterson is essentially guaranteed a spot on the major league roster this season. And while it's almost certain that he will be in the bullpen, the Red Sox have left open the door open for Masterson to start if need be. With the news that Brad Penny was pushed back -- and as of now doesn't have a firm date to pitch in a game -- Masterson could be used as the fifth starter to start the season. (The Sox actually don't need a fifth starter until their second turn in the rotation in April.) Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden would also be candidates for that spot. But I would say there's little for Masterson to worry about in terms of where he'll be when the season starts. It seems clear that will be Boston. As for Wes Littleton, the team definitely likes him, but he might be tough to keep based on how stacked the bullpen is. As you indicated, he's out of options, so he's in the same position as George Kottaras.
If Varitek hadn't signed with the Red Sox, and failed in getting a contract from another team forcing him to sit out the season, would a team still have to forfeit a first-round pick in order to sign him in 2010? I know it's going to be a simple yes or no question, but I've been unable to have anyone answer it with any amount of certainty. Thank you. I love reading your mailbags.
A: Josh, if Varitek were to have signed after the June draft -- as it appears Paul Byrd might do -- the team signing him would not be forced to give a draft pick, according to a baseball source. That compensation expires at the upcoming draft. For Varitek and the Sox, it's now a moot point, obviously.
Amalie -- Thanks for all your work at the Globe. As Boston guy who lives in Denver, it's my link to all things Sox. Theo/Tito were talking the other day about how they are bringing a lot of the kids from Triple A on down to practice with the big club during the spring. Does this represent a shift in thinking with the powers that be? Has this been done before? Will it help speed the development of the kids? Or is it just another example of the Sox being ahead of the curve in the majors?
A: I wouldn't necessarily say that it's a shift in any way for the Red Sox, but there are more minor-league types here than there were last year. There are two factors for this. One, the team is not going to Japan this spring training. Whereas last season there was little time to get at bats and looks for the kids because of a need to get game-ready earlier, there isn't that demand this season. It's a slower progression, and therefore there are extra at bats and innings for the minor leaguers. Two, the WBC is being played this year. Not only are there more games because of the extended spring training due to the WBC, but with a starter in Japan for the first six or seven weeks of spring training, and four position players gone, the Sox have the space for them. There is a benefit to having the minor leaguers learn what it's like to be with the major league team early, before they're called up to the big club. There is definitely evaluation going on, and an assumption that the experience will help them, both in terms of baseball skills and in terms of integrating themselves into the club.
Hello Amaile, love your take on all things Sox. Is it me or does there seem to be a quick jelling with regards to chemistry with the team this year? Everything I've seen and read so far, seems to point to a pleasant atmosphere. Or is it just that Manny is not orchestrating the circus this time around? Thought and comments are welcomed.
Rob, Scarsdale, NY
A: The fact that there aren't a whole lot of new faces around these parts certainly helps with that. But these Red Sox are hardly the same as that team of just five years ago. They have been built in Theo Epstein's image -- professional types without the drama of, say, Manny Ramirez. That's not to say that there won't be drama coming at some point in the season, but it seems much more likely to be on the field than clubhouse or off-field issues. I can agree that it has been a pleasant atmosphere thus far in Fort Myers, Fla. (Some might call it boring.) There wasn't even a whole lot or news (or any) until J.D. Drew went up to Boston to get an injection in his back on Monday, and Brad Penny was scratched from yesterday's start. Everyone arrived on time and, with the exception of a few of the injured guys, ready to go.
I have a question about David Ortiz and Mike Lowell. Do you think that they will ever be performing like they did the year they won it all in 2007? And is there any chance the Sox might try to make a trade if Ortiz and Lowell are not performing well in spring training? Thanks.
Drew, Richmond, Va.
A: No, I don't. That doesn't mean that both won't be productive major league hitters. I'm not saying that at all. But Mike Lowell had a career year in 2007, with totals equal to or significantly higher across the board (with the exception of home runs and slugging percentage) than he had in any other season of his career. Those numbers are tough to match, and I doubt even a healthy Lowell could replicate them. Other than that, I don't think anyone could predict, at least accurately, what Lowell will be able to produce, based on his ability to come back from his surgery. Not even Lowell himself. I asked him yesterday if he had concerns about his abilities at the plate, and he said he did not, at least in regards to his health. He is a little worried about making sure that he has his timing down to start the season, given his delay in getting ready at full strength. As for David Ortiz, it's hard to know how he is swinging now that he has joined the Dominican Republic WBC team. But I don't think he'll approach the 41 to 54 home runs he put up from 2004 to 2006. That might leave him closer to the 35 he hit in 2007, though I'd be shocked if he hit .332, as he did that season. And remember, Lowell just turned 35, and Ortiz will be 34 in November. There won't be a trade in spring training, as the team will give each player a bunch more time than that to prove what he can do. At the trading deadline is another story. There are a couple of names out there -- Matt Holliday, anyone? -- but we won't know exactly who might be available until we see the success or failure of some teams.
Hey Amalie, so like a lot of Sox fans, I've been hearing a lot about Lars Anderson but haven't gotten a chance to see him in action. What type of player do you foresee him becoming -- good defense, good power, good OBP? And honestly, is he going to be our Ryan Braun this year or another Calvin Pickering? Thanks.
Shane, Sherman Oaks, Calif. (my heart is in RI)
A: I'll give you burgeoning power, great OBP, adequate-but-improving defense. I don't know that Lars Anderson will ever match Kevin Youkilis's defensive skills, but he's quite handy with a bat. He has a great deal of patience at the plate, though he has worked on his aggressiveness (by order of the team) in the last year. He has what Terry Francona referred to as "loft" in his swing, which could turn into power as he matures at the plate. Right now he has more of a line-drive type lefty swing. Most people I've spoken to think he has a great future ahead of him. Even Francona, who likes to temper expectations, was discussing Anderson's power potential earlier this week, and seemed excited about his prospects.