The Red Sox open Spring Training for the 2010 season this week. It will be a welcome moment for the millions of Red Sox fans just jonesing for baseball since the 2009 season ended so abruptly.
The boys from Boston will look like a very different team on Opening Day; five of the nine roster positions will have different players from the last Opening Day (Jacoby Ellsbury is now the starting left fielder).
This winter, the Sox picked up Jeremy Hermida, Marco Scuatro, John Lackey, Mike Cameron, Adrian Beltre and Bill Hall, in succession. That's quite a bit of change.
Nick Green, Alex Gonzalez, Jason Bay, and Rocco Baldelli are all gone, not to mention Javier Lopez, Takashi Saito, and Billy Wagner. Perhaps even Mike Lowell will join their ranks.
Defensively, at least, the Sox will be significantly improved. The pitchers will feel very confident with four Gold Glove-caliber players patrolling the infield, and the outfield should be outstanding as well. As always, JD Drew just has to stay healthy. The Red Sox would love to get at least 140 games out of him, but it's hard to expect.
On the whole the Sox got more athletic. Hermida should give them more offense than Baldelli. And Cameron, Beltre, and Scutaro should at least be a wash in replacing the offense of Bay, Lowell and Gonzalez/Green.
It will be really interesting to see how Lowell looks in spring training. Just imagine if he gets off to a hot start and David Ortiz looks anemic again. Lowell is a far more versatile player. If Papi isn't tearing the cover off the ball, he's just dead weight. In that scenario, Lowell would be a better DH / reserve third baseman.
The bat the team hoped to acquire this offseason may be Victor Martinez, who only played two months with the Sox last year. Taking Jason Varitek out of the every day lineup will pay dividends. Offensively at least, that will result in a significant upgrade at the position.
Speaking of offense, I have to believe that Scutaro will be an upgrade over Gonzalez,. We can only hope that last year wasn't a freak season and that Scutaro doesn't decline. The good news is that he excelled in the AL East. Defensively, he's said to be every bit as good as Gonzo.
The Sox finished 28th among the Major Leagues’ 30 teams in defensive efficiency in 2009. That simply had to be addressed, and the team did so.
I suspect that Beltre is a former PED user. His 2004 output was totally out of character from any period before, or since. But he doesn't have to perform like that again to be a success in Boston. He's still only 31, and if he can give the Sox 25 homers, they'll be thrilled. Playing half the season in Fenway, instead of Safeco Field, should do wonders for his offense.
I must say that I'm really eager to watch this Red Sox team. The Yankees, as always, will be tough to beat; injuries could decide the division. With such tight competition, it's critical to be healthy down the stretch, and in October.
But not re-signing Johnny Damon may be a decision the Yankees come to regret. They won't be as good without him this season. Curtis Granderson and Randy Winn won't make up for the losses of Hideki Matsui and Damon.
Now if only Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera will start acting their age.
The X-Factor for the Red Sox may turn out to be Jonathan Papelbon. The last time we saw him, he was uncharacteristically melting down at Fenway in Game 3 of the ALDS. To that point, Papelbon had been nearly perfect in postseason play: 17 appearances and 26 scoreless innings.
In 2007-08, Papelbon walked a total of 23 batters; in 2009, he walked 24. Obviously, something was amiss with his control.
Papelbon now realizes that he became far too reliant on his fastball last year, at the expense of his once-trusted splitter. The closer admits that he was overthrowing late last season, including the playoffs. He'll need to regain that pitch to re-establish his dominance.
Last year, Papelbon's ERA dropped to 1.85, from 2.35 in 2008. That matched the 1.85 ERA he posted in the Red Sox championship season of 2007. And he converted 38 of 41 save opportunities last season, better than the 41 of 46 in 2008.
The Sox closer will be just 29 this season, and in the prime of his career. He is eager to put last October's meltdown behind him.
One thing's for certain; he and the other Red Sox pitchers should be well-served by the defense behind them this year.
There are some concerns about the offense, but for what it's worth, Baseball Prospectus projects the Red Sox scoring in excess of 800 runs this season, and finishing atop the AL East.
Now the Sox just need to go out and a prove them right.