I know, it's difficult to believe considering you've got enough snow in your yard at the moment to open your own ski resort, but this is the honest truth, thank goodness: Pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers on Feb. 12 — just 21 days from now.
Well, pitchers will report, anyway. In a leap of faith, we’re simply going to assume Theo Epstein will have secured a legitimate starting catcher by then. We’d hate to see the puzzled look on Daisuke Matsuzaka’s face as John Farrell tells him to get loose by throwing to a Spalding 15275 Pitching Target Return Throw Back Stop. (Catchy name, no?)
So while we endure our own ongoing wintry version of the Big Dig, here is an inning’s worth of Red Sox items to keep you warm. (What’s that? You say snow isn’t the only thing I’m shoveling? Cheap, cheap shot ...)
We await Varitek’s fate
At this writing, longtime and generally beloved Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek remains in self-inflicted limbo, having turned down arbitration only to discover this cold truth: He and his agent, the execrable but usually remarkably effective Scott Boras, made a serious miscalculation about Varitek’s perceived value, particularly when a first-round pick is attached as compensation. So much for matching Jorge Posada’s four-year, $52 million benchmark, eh, Scottie?
It seemed a resolution might have been imminent late last week when Varitek requested a one-on-one meeting with Red Sox owner John Henry at the catcher’s home in Atlanta, but both men have been purposefully vague regarding what was said and if any matters were settled, though the apparently well-sourced Heidi Watney indicated on NESN that Varitek’s primary desire is a two-year deal.
So the stalemate lingers. I suppose the loyal order of the ’Tek Appreciation Society will be skeptical of this statement, seeing how I’m prone to pointing out such things as statistics that suggest he’s done as a competent major league hitter (remember, he batted .225 in the second half in 2007) while dismissing the value of his alleged intangibles, but I truly do hope Varitek gulps down his pride and returns to the Red Sox as part of a catching tandem. Although I disagree with the theory that his knowledge would ease the transition to Boston for the new pitchers on the staff — John Smoltz spent much of his career throwing to Javy Lopez, which means he can thrive with just about any nitwit behind the plate — there is some value in his familiarity with the holdovers on the staff, and it may be worth more than he will cost. Plus, he will work cheap.
Health issues follow Ortiz, Beckett
In a sense, the Red Sox’ signature hitter and starting pitcher will enter the new season under similar circumstances, with similar things to prove. And whether either — or both — comes through will go a long way toward deciding the fate of the Sox this season.
Both David Ortiz and Josh Beckett suffered through frustrating seasons in 2008. Beckett was never quite right from his first pitch, suffering a back injury in camp, enduring a sore elbow in late summer, then sacrificing most of his velocity and command to an oblique injury in the postseason. After winning 20 games and finishing second in the Cy Young voting in ’07, he labored to a 12-10 record with a 4.03 ERA last season. Though his struggles were disconcerting to watch, with good health — and, let’s face it, a rededication to a conditioning regimen, preferably one that doesn’t consist of hanging out in a hunting blind with Mike Timlin and Larry the Cable Guy for 12 hours — the 29-year-old should have little trouble proving that last season’s maddening mediocrity was a fluke.
With Ortiz, there is greater reason for concern. He’s 33 years old, coming off a wrist injury that limited him to just 109 games, and struggled often enough when he was in the lineup that his slugging percentage plunged from .621 to .507. Of course we all hope Papi finds his superheroic form, and if his body cooperates … well, I know better than to write that man off. But it’s foolish to assume he’ll be a 1.000-OPS force again, and so there’s a reason the Red Sox deeply coveted Mark Teixeira and did their due diligence on Hanley Ramirez — they simply aren’t convinced that their lineup is as deep as it needs to be in the mighty AL East. Which brings us to …
The pivotal role of Jason Bay
Speaking entirely with my heart, count me with that Pierce fella on the back page — bring back Manny! Okay, I realize he’s being satirical, while I’m standing alone as the Last Enabling and Delusional Manny Ramirez Apologist in New England. Hey, we all have our little niche in the world. That’s mine. I’m cool with it.
But in my usual roundabout way, it brings me to the point: These Red Sox are going to require substantial offensive feats from Manny’s successor in left field, Jason Bay. Consider: Papi, Mike Lowell, and J.D. Drew are question marks physically, Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia need to prove that they are capable of MVP-caliber seasons again, Jed Lowrie and Jacoby Ellsbury are promising but unproven, and there is no catcher to speak of.
Bay, who averages 31 homers and 103 RBI over 162 games in his six-year career, is the surest thing in this lineup entering the season, and the Sox need him to be every bit as fantastic as he was after being freed from Pittsburgh purgatory at the trade deadline. Is he capable of such production over a full season? Let’s put it this way: Although it’s somewhat alarming that his three most similar age 29 comparisons are Geoff Jenkins, Ryan Klesko, and Bobby Higginson, Bay’s OPS with the Red Sox (.897) is only .006 higher than his career OPS (.891). The player we saw last season is the player Jason Bay has been his entire career.
Now, if only he could catch.
OT columnist Chad Finn is a sports reporter for Boston.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org