Now that the truck is on its way, following our ridiculous annual overtures to bid the rig bon voyage, we can rest assured in the fact that baseball season is but seven weeks away, and for the second time in the past four Opening Days, the Red Sox will be honored as World Series champs. Terry Cashman, stay away. Far away.
Up until last week’s startling news about Curt Schilling's spaghetti shoulder, it had been a relatively quiet offseason for the Olde Towne Team, odd by any stretch of a normal Sox winter in town and certainly the polar opposite of the last time they were champs. That was an offseason highlighted by Johnny Damon’s “Idiot” promo tour, public sniping directed toward Alex Rodriguez, Pedro Martinez’s defection to the Mets, Derek Lowe’s signing with the Dodgers, and the whereabouts of the World Series ball.
This time around ... well, they re-signed Mike Lowell and Schilling and might or might not have had serious interest in Johan Santana. Beyond that, the Red Sox seemed content to allow the spotlight to shine on the undefeated Patriots. There was no cross-country chase for Daisuke Matsuzaka, no Thanksgiving Day deals to speak of. Glenn Geffner and Charles Steinberg both left for more temperate climates, with a mixture of sadness and good riddance in particular circles. Sean Casey signed on in a backup role, generally regarded as a nice move for the team. Doug Mirabelli re-signed in a backup role, a move nobody really applauded except for Tim Wakefield.
The World Series trophy made a few stops throughout New England, but nothing like the comprehensive journey it took three years ago. The starting rotation will feature, one way or another, five guys who all pitched here in 2007. Ellsbury will likely be the one change in the starting lineup. In short, the 2008 Red Sox should look pretty much just like the 2007 Red Sox.
That’s a stark difference from the 2005 club, which may have been one of the worst teams ever to win 95 games.
Really, I’m not sure how they did it other than off the strength of the David Ortiz-Manny Ramirez combo, which drove in nearly 300 runs that season. Schilling began the season on the DL, and not one of Matt Clement, Bronson Arroyo, Wakefield, David Wells, or Wade Miller had an ERA below 4.00. World Series heroes Keith Foulke and Mark Bellhorn struggled and were mercilessly booed. Alan Embree completely lost his fastball overnight. Edgar Renteria became one of the most expensive busts in the franchise’s history.
Yet, the team was good enough to earn a wild card berth in the final days of the season in a strange weekend of dual celebrations at Fenway Park; the Yankees one day for winning the AL East, the Sox the next for hanging onto the wild card. The White Sox swept through the Red Sox in the playoffs, leaving everyone with a bad taste in the mouths that were left gaping open 12 months earlier when the Red Sox won the World Series in improbable fashion.
But in 2008, Theo Epstein had a different approach to preparing for the season, not so much status quo as having faith in the system he has built for the franchise. And considering his recent track record in paying for free agents (J.D. Drew, Julio Lugo), the fact that the team was content to head into the year with its current stock of talent didn’t only make the farm system pleased, it deliriously tickled the fans.
No player since Nomar Garciaparra has made such an instant impact with the fans as Ellsbury, who has been a hit since his mid-summer debut. Clay Buchholz tossed a no-hitter in just his second major league start, and the only concerns as to how well he can succeed at the major league level may involve his durability. People seem to be jumping off the Jon Lester bandwagon, even though he was the World Series Game 4 winner, and managed to put up a 4-0 mark after rehabbing from his bout with cancer. Kevin Youkilis won a Gold Glove, Dustin Pedroia Rookie of the Year.
They are significantly different from the patchwork squad that made up the 2005 team. A little less than a third of the roster will be home-grown talent. In 2005, only Trot Nixon, among regulars, could make that claim.
Of course, that doesn’t erase any concern with the makeup of this club. Is Ramirez already looking toward free agency? Will Ortiz’s knee continue to act up following offseason surgery? Does Jason Varitek have another offensive season in him? Will Jed Lowrie make it difficult not to sub him in for Julio Lugo should the latter be overwhelmed again in 2008? Can Drew have more moments like the ALCS grand slam against the Indians, and less of pretty much everything else leading up to that point? What does the Schilling injury mean going forward? Can Josh Beckett repeat his Cy Young caliber season? Can Daisuke Matsuzaka turn the corner in ’08?
All answers are TBD, of course. But make no mistake, by standing pat the Red Sox prove once again the faith they have in their system, one that delivered budding superstars Jonathan Papelbon, Pedroia, Buchholz, and Ellsbury. If there’s more of that coming along, then why exactly would you sink any sort of investment into the Kyle Lohses of the baseball world?
Things are a whole lot different than they were in 2005. That means you too, Terry Cashman.