So, um, how was your offseason?
Not quite sure where the “off” fits into it any longer; baseball’s six months with no action on the field are more akin to a “preparatory” season these days. Well, whatever you call it, today it is sort of, officially over. Spring training kicks into gear with the ubiquitous “pitchers and catchers” reporting to Fort Myers, points north, south, and faraway west to Arizona. It’s not the season, granted, but it’s players in jerseys, and the end of a multiple-month soap opera on Yawkey Way.
A year ago, the Red Sox came to camp defending World Champs. In 2006, they are the Once Upon a Time World Series heroes, a team of new faces and talent ready to start and build what will be the nucleus of this franchise for seasons to come.
The good news? No more “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” book signings, or has-been Saturday Night Live stars serving as distractions.
The bad news? More questions than you’d expect Ken Jennings to come up with.
Here are 10 of them:
1. Can Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke return to 2004 form?
The two biggest reasons the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 were the two largest reasons why they were not able to repeat last season. Schilling's price for sacrificing his ankle in the 2004 postseason was a lost 2005, which included a stint as closer, one that while not highly successful was valiant all the same.
For Foulke, there were just a handful of outings in which the closer looked comfortable. He was shut down early in September after a horrid few months and headed for knee surgery. Surly as ever, he wouldn't speak with reporters earlier this week, but was overheard marveling at the work he had done in the offseason on his changeup, an encouraging sign.
As for Schilling, at age 39, it may be too much to ask for a 20-win season, but he is reportedly in the best shape he's been in years. With the ankle no longer a lingering concern, he can be expected to regain his status as ace of the staff.
2. The next Clemens: Beckett or Papelbon, which is it?
Neither. I hate "next" comparisons. Why does there always have to be a "next" Nirvana, a "next" Willie Mays, a "next" all-purpose gelatinous canned meat? Why is there a constant need to hold onto the past by promoting its nostalgia in the future on another entity?
If there's anything "next" in these two, it's Boston's next two big studs. A 25-year-old 15-game winner with the Marlins in 2005, Beckett was the most significant acquisition in the AL East this winter. Even with shoulder and blister concerns, Beckett is slated to become a mainstay in the Boston rotation. If injuries force him to miss 10 or more starts, was it a deal still worth making? Absolutely.
Papelbon's tenacity on the hill was no better illustrated than in Game 3 of the ALDS last October, when he escaped a pivotal jam in the game's middle innings, departing the mound pumping his fist. The caution, however, is that Red Sox Nation is expecting the world of him, when it's realistically too much. That being said, Papelbon has had an ERA above 3.00 just once in his three-year professional career, 6.34 with Single-A Lowell in 2003.
The hope is both can combine to win 30 games. Realistically, it will probably be somewhere around 25, depending upon how much time Papelbon spends in the bullpen as opposed to the rotation. Either way, they are the most exciting, young one-two punch this city has seen in some time.
3. How will 'Manny being Manny' manifest itself this year?
Ah, yes, the question to which nobody knows the answer. Ramirez will be busy with the World Baseball Classic to start the spring, so we won't know for some time if he follows suit on his reported "threat" not to report to camp if he wasn't traded. Then again, Enrique Wilson will be in Fort Myers, so maybe he'll follow the bait.
As for when he first becomes a distraction, how's April 5 as a guesstimate?
4. Will Alex Gonzalez be with the club on Opening Day?
Personally, I doubt it. The fact that his contract isn't guaranteed means that he needs to put on a show over the next month just to win his job. At that point, the Red Sox brass may come to their collective senses and realize that Alex Cora is no different than what they would get out of Gonzalez, and also will have the option of plugging a more experienced Dustin Pedroia at short at midseason.
5. Is the bullpen better? Please?
Hard to see how it could get any worse. Foulke is a big part of the success of the pen, of course, but he wasn't the only dud out there last season, when Alan Embree morphed into Matt Young, and John Halama found himself released by midseason. In his three seasons as general manager, Theo Epstein has never completely figured out the bullpen, although there have been moments of brilliance (late 2003, '04).
Another year for Epstein, another re-tooling. Mike Timlin, even at age 40 and coming off a solid season, provides solid setup duty, while Julian Tavarez could serve as the ideal bridge from starter to Timlin. The jury is out on whether Manny Delcarmen and Jermaine Van Buren are ready to shoulder a major league load.
The major wild card in the 'pen might be Rudy Seanez, an absolute disaster in his first stint with Boston in 2003, when he had a 6.23 ERA over nine games. Seanez has pitched far better over the past few seasons with the Royals, Marlins, and Padres, for whom he posted a 2.69 ERA last season. Petco is a far more forgiving park than Fenway, but if he puts up anything similar to those numbers, the pen 'might be a reliable source for Terry Francona.
6. Will Mike Lowell make fans forget Bill Mueller?
Short answer -- no. Long answer -- maybe.
While Lowell should be more adept at third, a Gold Glove in his history books, that's what we all heard about Edgar Renteria if you remember. Lowell also needs to bounce back from a season in which he hit just .238 for the Marlins, an ugly campaign in which he had an on-base percentage of just .298. Ugh.
One concern not yet mentioned about Lowell: In his attempt to show he's still got offensive prowess, will he make the same mistake other righthanded batters have made coming into Fenway, trying to yank every pitch over the left field wall? If so, expect more Kevin Millar than Nick Esasky.
7. Is Coco Crisp ready for his breakout season?
If Crisp is going to be an effective leadoff hitter in this lineup, he needs to learn how to watch more pitches. Crisp walked just 44 times last season with Cleveland, but the good news is that his walks have increased dramatically every season he's played in the big leagues.
Everything about Crisp says star on the rise, and perhaps there is no other city where he could have marketed his nickname any more to its fullest. Dr. Charles has to be drooling at the possibilities in store. That being said, here's predicting he gets off to a slow start trying to do too much in the season's early weeks.
8. How exactly are Matt Clement and David Wells still here?
If Clement weren't owed $18 million over the next two seasons, he'd certainly be gone by now. He generated plenty of offseason interest from other clubs, but not at the price tag. The Red Sox would have had to pay a significant chunk of that, and after already doling out cash to the Braves for Renteria, that wasn't an option.
Clement is a serviceable pitcher, a potential 15-game winner, who turns into someone else completely by July. And after his disastrous ALDS start in Chicago, most thought he had punched his final ticket out of town. He could be trade deadline fodder for someone, but knowing his history, who's going to take that chance?
Wells will be gone soon, I think. The Red Sox have been holding out valiantly for what they get in return for a 15-game winner, deciding San Diego's Dave Roberts was not enough. Still though, Wells is 42, so you have to wonder how reasonable they're being in their demands.
Then again, Kevin Towers did for some reason trade Brian Lawrence for 52-year-old Vinny Castilla, so I guess holding out may not be so bad after all.
9. Will it be "Yooooouks," or "You s*&^%?"
In baseball terms, he's had just a handful of at-bats, but 2006 is the year Kevin Youkilis finally gets his starring role. What to expect? He's not going to be a perennial All-Star like Wade Boggs, but I like to compare him to Mueller for the way he works at the plate, making pitchers come to him more, tiring them out. With speed, he'd be an ideal top of the lineup guy, but in this group, more likely a seven or eight guy.
A .290 average, 15 home runs, 85 RBIs aren't too much to ask from a guy who will continue to lose some at-bats to JT Snow, especially in the late innings.
10. Is Roger Clemens walking through that door?
Look, like the new "Die Hard" movie, it would be great to see but it just has too much of an expensive disaster written all over it. Save the money, put it into long-term deals for the young pitching you have now, and maybe make a run at Andruw Jones in the offseason.
I'm sorry, the preparatory season. Which is now officially over.
Welcome back, baseball. We'll see you in about six more weeks.