Entering spring training in 2009, the most talked about position battle for the Red Sox was at shortstop, where Jed Lowrie and Julio Lugo faced off. The battle didn't even last the duration of spring training, as Lugo found himself on the operating table getting knee surgery.
Now all the focus is on the man who will take the ball as Boston's fifth starter.
The short list of names is now down to Brad Penny and Clay Buchholz, as Justin Masterson was moved permanently to the bullpen.
In Penny, you have a veteran seeking a return to his 2007 form after an injury-plagued 2008 season. As for Buchholz, he hasn't been quite the same since throwing a no-hitter against the Baltimore Orioles in Sept. of 2007, and was recently sent down to the minors.
However, there is still a chance that Buchholz will be called up to fulfill the spot in the rotation when the Sox will need a fifth starter on Apr. 12.
Penny is coming off an injury-plagued year where he managed to not reach at least 100 innings pitched for the first time in his nine-year career.
He also posted his worst ERA ever at 6.27; his second-highest ERA ever was achieved in his rookie year, with a 4.81 ERA. In the previous year, Penny compiled one of the best seasons of his career going 16-4 with a 3.03 ERA.
But the year before that, he managed to win 16 games, along with nine losses and a 4.33 ERA. In addition to Penny's move to the American League, it is tough to peg how he will perform in his first year in Boston.
In his first spring training appearance on Mar. 23, Penny went three full innings while only walking one and surrendering no hits. This appearance came without Penny feeling any discomfort or pain. It is a good start to his return with the Sox, but the team is still unsure if he will be physically ready to start the season.
That is where Clay Buchholz enters the mix. Although he hasn't come close to living up to the hype that he endured going into the 2008 season (ended 2008 with a 2-9 record and a 6.75 ERA,) Buchholz has seemingly found his way in spring training. He has a 0.46 ERA and hasn't allowed many base runners.
Buchholz' head is seemingly in a better place than last year as well. After being sent down to Triple-A in the middle of May, Buchholz worked on his delivery and getting his mind right. He did not have any success last season, as he lost seven games for the Red Sox when they brought him back up in July and August.
But right now, it seems as Buchholz has a totally different mindset going into this season.
"If I'm still pitching at Triple A, it's a phone call away. I'll be ready to go whenever they do call me. You take it for what it's worth... Right now, I could go and say, 'I can't do anything to make this team.' That's not right. Last year I had a 10.00 ERA and made the team."
The Red Sox still hope to have Penny healthy to go for Apr. 12, but Buchholz' performance on the field is making it hard for the Sox brass to slot Penny in right away.
If Penny is healthy, the job will be his, but it is unknown how long he will manage to keep that position if Clay Buchholz continues his current dominance, granted it is only spring training.
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