ORT MYERS, Fla. - No more room for excuses. The tumult of the ownership transition has passed. No more firings of the manager and general manager. No sticking a new manager with someone else's coaching staff. No more bloated contracts to bear ($18.75 million for Darren Oliver, Jose Offerman, and Tony Clark). No possibility of a strike creating a giant distraction.
After a full year in control, the new Red Sox owners have built the team their way. They resisted big-ticket acquisitions and opted to patch the team's rock-solid foundation of Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, Manny Ramirez, Derek Lowe, Johnny Damon, Jason Varitek, Tim Wakefield, and with middle-tier players who mesh with new general manager Theo Epstein's commitment to improving on-base percentage and forming a deeper bullpen.
The team's new course comes with risks, perhaps none greater than going without a bona fide closer and asking manager Grady Little to improvise with five established setup men: Ramiro Mendoza, Alan Embree, Mike Timlin, Bobby Howry, and Chad Fox. The club's fortunes may rise or fall on how Little uses the five and how well they respond to improvisation, since relievers, like most baseball players, are creatures of routine. They like to know how they will work and when.
By stopping short of opening the vault to land another frontline starter - Bartolo Colon, Javier Vazquez, Jose Contreras, and Kevin Millwood were available - the Sox also gambled they can compete for a championship while Casey Fossum finds his way as a second-year pitcher and John Burkett approaches the end of his career. They have only former Phillie Robert Person as reliable insurance.
In addition, the Sox sacrificed some defense by aiming to upgrade their offensive production at first and second base. Rey Sanchez was the franchise's best defensive second baseman in a generation and Clark was a more gifted defender than any of his potential successors at first. With both gone, the Sox also will need improvement at shortstop and third base, where the incumbents led the league in errors last year at their positions.
Look for a memorable Sox offense, though. The lineup could be the team's most dangerous in years, potentially more productive than the Yankee offense that scored a league-high 897 runs last year, 38 more than the Sox. Garciaparra and Ramirez start the season as potential MVP candidates. Shea Hillenbrand is playing with a vengeance. Damon and Nixon are poised for improvement after respectable performances last year. And Varitek's production is expected to improve.
Among the new arrivals, Todd Walker and Kevin Millar are ideally suited to exploit Fenway's Green Monster. Bill Mueller has shown every indication he could match his career on-base percentage of .370. David Ortiz should fill Brian Daubach's void, and maybe more. And Damian Jackson will provide the late-game speed the Sox lacked last season when they relied on the aging Rickey Henderson.
Best of all, if the offense sputters, the Sox can turn to Martinez, Wakefield, and Lowe. No more room for excuses.