Because the ol’ crystal ball happens to be as clear as the Fort Myers sky at the moment, what say we fire off nine innings’ worth of fearless predictions for your 2009 Red Sox …
1. John Smoltz wins more than twice as many games as Brad Penny. I know, not exactly going out on a limb here, given that Penny showed up at camp looking as though he’d swallowed Larry Bowa whole and has already had his first spring start pushed back because of “weakness” in his right shoulder. That’s the same shoulder that bothered him last season when he put up a 6.27 ERA in the feeble-hitting National League West. Maybe he’ll surprise us, but right now he looks like a prime candidate to be the one among the Red Sox’ low-risk, high-reward pitching acquisitions who doesn’t pan out. Smoltz, meanwhile, has wowed everyone at Sox camp with his conditioning and professionalism, and when he says his arm feels as good as it has in a long time, you can’t help but be giddy about the possibilities, considering that he has — and let’s emphasize this — never been anything less than outstanding in his career. Smoltz will be 42 in May, but he’s one of those blessed freaks of nature, and we’re going to be very glad he’s on this team long before October comes around.
2. Jason Varitek does something almost unheard of for 37-year-old catchers. He improves statistically over his age 36 season. As you might be aware, I’m not exactly a member in good standing of the Varitek Army. I’m on record (all right, repeatedly) as believing that his intangibles have become exaggerated as his tangibles — such as hitting major league pitching adequately — have eroded. But if manager Terry Francona can resist the urge to start him more than 110 or so times — and sit him out against the most overpowering right-handers, who have little trouble exposing his slow bat from the left side — there’s no reason a rested Varitek can’t hit around .235 to .240, with double-digit home runs.
3. J.D. Drew plays fewer games than he did a season ago. The club and the player are both downplaying his decision to have an injection in his problematic lower back. But it’s worth remembering that Drew missed all but two regular-season games after Aug. 17 last season with back issues, finishing with 109 games played overall, and he isn’t known as someone who is comfortable taking the field at less than 100 percent. With a lineup that isn’t as deep as it was during the Papi/Manny heyday, the Red Sox are depending on Drew to be productive and reasonably durable. Right now, the former seems much more likely than the latter. Story of his career, really.
4. The Red Sox will trade for a big bat before the July 31 deadline. David Ortiz is never going to approach 54 home runs again, but he’ll rediscover his Big Papi mojo to some degree — let’s put his over/under on home runs at 33. Mike Lowell I’m not so sure about, and although he’s an integral part of this team in many ways, if he struggles to come all the way back from his hip injury, the Sox will have no choice but to add at least one significant reinforcement. With the economy being what it is, teams that struggle in the first few months are going to be sellers come July, and some enticing hitters might be available. Wouldn’t the Sox have to at least give it some thought if, say, the Tigers shop Miguel Cabrera?
5. Jon Lester will lead the Red Sox in victories ... but he won't win 20 games. If last season’s performance (16 wins, 3.21 ERA) wasn’t enough to convince you that the admirable left-hander has taken over as the de facto ace, then he’ll do so this season, when he officially takes his place among the premier pitchers in the game. But because Lester increased his workload so drastically last season, leaping from 63 innings in 2007 to 210‚ last year during the regular season alone, the Sox take every opportunity they can to buy him some rest. In the end, that prudence may cost him a shot at the milestone. Give him 19 wins and a serious push for the Cy Young Award.
6. Jacoby Ellsbury will be significantly more productive in the leadoff role. Because he can’t be much worse — as a rookie, he put up a .324 on-base percentage from the top spot in the order. For perspective, that’s only 11 points higher than Varitek’s overall OBP, and 31 points lower than Julio Lugo’s. Not acceptable. But after struggling to adjust to inside fastballs virtually all summer, Ellsbury found a groove late in the season, batting .340 in September and October, and that encouraging ending — not to mention his work ethic — bodes well for a strong sophomore season.
7. Jonathan Papelbon will have a lighter workload. The Sox have been appropriately cautious with their Nuke LaLoosh clone of a closer since he walked off the mound in a Sept. 1, 2006, game against the Blue Jays with a shoulder subluxation, and the results speak for themselves. He has earned 78 regular-season saves, has closed out a World Series, and hasn’t given up a postseason run since. But last season, he set a career high in appearances (67) and inning pitched (69‚), and was pretty much gassed by season’s end. With potentially elite setup men in Ramon Ramirez, Justin Masterson, and Hideki Okajima, as well as a former closer, Takashi Saito, whose career numbers practically mirror Papelbon’s, the Sox have enough relief reinforcements to give their closer a break even before he might need one.
8. Neither Julio Lugo nor Jed Lowrie will seize the shortstop job. At least to anyone’s satisfaction, that is. The position appears to be Lugo’s entering the season, but you have to believe that’s based less on merit than on Lowrie’s versatility (particularly his ability to play third if Lowell struggles to return to form) and the fact that the Sox would prefer to not be paying a utility man $9 million this season. Lugo was a lousy offensive player in ’07 and a train wreck defensively last year. The most we can reasonably expect of him this year is mildly annoying mediocrity. By the way, Lugo is making $5 million more this season than Oakland’s Orlando Cabrera. Ugh. As for Lowrie, his adjusted OPS of 90 as a rookie and adequate range aren’t all that encouraging in regard to long-term success at shortstop. I won’t be surprised if the Sox are poking around for an upgrade come July 31.
9. Dustin Pedroia won't fulfill his wish of playing all 162 games. But assuming he remains in good health — and let’s not for a second even consider the alternative — he’ll come closer to answering the bell for every single game on the schedule than even Francona probably realizes. Not only is the reigning American League Most Valuable Player perhaps the essential piece of the every-day lineup, but his Tanner Boyle brand of yapping and trash talking, not to mention the pleas to “put me in already, Tito” during his occasional days off, will remind Francona there are a lot less headaches in every sense when Pedey is in the lineup.
OT columnist Chad Finn is a sports reporter for Boston.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org