Opening Day for the Red Sox is almost here. These are the final days for preseason predictions, expectations and observations. Then reality takes hold against the Texas Rangers on Friday and the Sox have to prove that we were right to believe the hype.
With that said, here are five returning players with the most to prove this season for the Sox:
1. Josh Beckett -- Where else would you start than with the enigmatic ace-turned-fourth starter? Not only did Beckett not draw the Opening Day assignment, but the Red Sox would rather take team-building advice from Buck Showalter than pitch Beckett against the defending American League champions, pushing him back to the fourth game of the season against the Indians. That speaks volumes about the level of concern for his confidence coming off an injury-plagued and ineffective 2010 season because at $17 million per season you would hope the Sox would feel okay sending him out against the American League All-Star team.
The Red Sox keep trying to Jedi-mind-trick us into ignoring Beckett's lack of spring training success -- 6.64 earned run average in five games, .314 opponent batting average. It's about the process, not the numbers we're told while the results of pitching coach Curt Young's tweak of Daisuke Matsuzaka's routine are trumpeted. Spring training is meaningless, but it would have been a tad reassuring to see Beckett mowing down batters like the good old days, no?
Beckett's second start of the season, scheduled for a Sunday night tilt with the Yankees, will be more telling than his first. In 10 starts last season against American League East opponents, Beckett was 1-4 with a 6.95 ERA. Half of those starts were against the Bronx Bombers, who tagged Beckett for nine home runs and a 10.04 ERA.
2. Jonathan Papelbon -- Papelbon paraded around Sox camp with a T-shirt that said "Doubt Me" on it. Many Sox fans are happy to oblige. The first time Papelbon blows a save this season talk radio and Twitter will blow up with calls for his immediate ouster from the closer's role. Last year was not vintage Papelbon. He had a career-high eight blown saves and posted career-worsts in home runs allowed (seven) and ERA (3.90). With his long-anticipated foray into free agency awaiting him at the end of the season, Papelbon has been provided the perfect stage to prove his worth on a team that could go deep into October if he does his job.
If he loses it, then his big payday becomes a blown opportunity as well. Few managers are as loyal as Terry Francona, so a few blown saves early aren't going to get Papelbon removed from the closer's role. Sorry, Sox fans. But the front office built fireman fail-safes into the bullpen with Daniel Bard and Bobby Jenks for a reason.
3. Jarrod Saltalamacchia -- There are more letters in Saltalamacchia's (14) last name than games he has caught in his Red Sox career (six). Salty is the biggest unknown for the Red Sox, who have coveted his talent for years and anointed him the starting catcher on a World Series contender. Saltalamacchia certainly looks the part, as he is a Josh Hamilton doppelganger. But the 25-year-old switch-hitting backstop began last season with the Rangers as their Opening Day catcher and by the time he was sent to the Red Sox in July he was toiling in the minors trying to combat a throwing disorder.
Sox pitchers complimented Saltalamacchia's receiving skills this spring, and in an extremely small sample size of six games his catcher's ERA of 4.27 with the Sox was very similar to Victor Martinez's 4.28. Of course Martinez was not renowned for his defense, one of the reasons he is no longer with the Red Sox, and Saltalamacchia is not going to hit .302 or slug 20 home runs. The plug could get pulled on the Salty experiment quickly, if the pitching staff is underperforming.
4. Jacoby Ellsbury -- Front and back have different meanings for Ellsbury this season. He is back in center field (what happened to UZR?) and at the front of the Sox lineup. No Sox player has looked better in spring training than Ellsbury, who mentioned prior to last year's lost season that he thought he was on the brink of more power. Limited to 18 games last season by his fractured ribs Ellsbury was a punchline and a punching bag for Sox fans. His desire to play and toughness were openly, often derisively, subject to public debate.
This season, Ellsbury can quiet all his doubters and remind everyone why they were so upset he was out in the first place -- because he is a dynamic talent. Besides proving he's not a durability liability, Ellsbury has to prove he can be an effective front man. No one is expecting him to duplicate his .386 on-base percentage from the Grapefruit League, but he has to improve upon a career .330 OBP in the lead-off spot.
5. Mike Cameron -- The gregarious outfielder has an opportunity to be one of the real feel-good stories of this Sox season. A controversial signing during the infamous "bridge year" offseason, Cameron's debut with the Sox was disastrous. He played 48 games with a torn abdominal muscle, but his speed and defense were severely compromised. His arrival hastened the team to move Ellsbury to left field, and you know the rest.
Cameron starts this season as a reserve outfielder. He's going to have a chance to be the baseball equivalent of a great sixth-man because the Sox have an all-lefthanded starting outfield and David Ortiz, who is bedeviled by lefties, at DH. Signed by the Sox coming off four straight 20-homer seasons, Cameron kills lefties like Glenn Beck. He has a career OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage) of .866 against lefthanders. In his last full season, Cameron posted a .954 OPS against lefties. If his body holds up he's could make a big impact off the bench. If not, then the Sox contributed $15.5 million to his retirement fund.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.