With a flurry of free agent signings and a blockbuster trade in the rear view and roughly two months before pitchers and catchers report, there is much to reflect on and look forward to:
The bullpen – Former White Sox closer Bobby Jenks is on board in addition to Jonathan Papelbon which gives the Sox two closers with much to prove. The best bullpen arm and closer in waiting – Daniel Bard – will see plenty of action as well. Could 2003’s closer-by-committee approach resurface?
Surprise contributor of 2010 Scott Atchison, and knuckle baller Tim Wakefield remain, with the latter able to mop up multiple innings and fill in as a spot starter. The club is searching for a lefty but could go without, or might opt to keep Felix Dubront with the big club. Also signed: former Oriole Matt Albers and New England native and former Ray, Dan Wheeler.
Personally, I'd love to see Wakefield inserted back into the rotation (maybe a Dice-K injury...again) for a long enough stretch where he's able to take the all-time Sox wins record from noted fraud Roger Clemens.
The catching situation – Team Captain Jason Varitek is back in a quasi-reserve role and the thumb-injury free (and hopefully free of the throwing yips) Jarrod Saltalamacchia is also in the fold. Catching duties appear set for a 60/40 split while ‘Tek will likely caddy for two pitchers (Josh Beckett and Dice-K?) while Salty eases in as catcher of the future. The Sox were in on the Russell Martin chase but came up short…thankfully.
The corner infielders – Kevin Youkilis moves across the diamond to third base with the arrival of phenom first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. The left side of the Sox infield won’t cover much ground with Youk and short stop Marco Scutaro in play (and backup Jed Lowrie isn’t much more fleet of foot), but they’ll be serviceable defensively. Adrian Beltre’s slick fielding and cannon arm will be missed but it’s not like they have a void to speak of.
Papi’s swan song – His story is a great one (except for his name popping up on a list of PED users). His emergence as a clutch power hitter, after being non-tendered by Minnesota for the 2003 season, was one of the key drivers behind Series titles in 2004 and 2007. He wants another big contract so odds are he’ll have another monster year. If he can put the early season slump behind him that’s dogged him the last two years, he should put himself in good position.
The team 200 miles to the south – Every Yankees loss personnel-wise was a gain for the Sox. From Cliff Lee’s snub to the public contract battle with Derek Jeter (whose numbers last year were eerily similar to Julio Lugo’s career average) to the pricey resigning of Mo Rivera (who flirted with Boston), to the potential retirement of Andy Pettite, all added up to some solid sports porn for Sox fans. They managed to sign Russell Martin in a very Oakland Athletics’esque move…so there’s that.
Heidi Watney – No real situation here, just a shout out. I met her the night of my bachelor party, about 30 minutes before blackout. There is a god after all.
The outfield – Former Ray and Sox killer-on-the-base paths Carl Crawford is in play in left field after signing on for seven years and a crapload of cash. JD Drew will keep right field warm for another year in anticipation of Ryan Kalish’s full time arrival in 2011. Jacoby Ellsbury is back in center field after last year’s miserable experiment with him in left and your father’s Mike Cameron in center. This never materialized as both went down and out with injuries.
Cameron and Darnell McDonald will likely serve as the backups and someone will see many innings in right as JD Drew typically misses considerable time and can't hit lefty pitching worth a lick. Rumors persist that teams are inquiring about Cameron and that The Mets are after Ellsbury. The Sox are crazy to unload either.
Coaching changes – Pitching coach John Farrell is now managing in Toronto. The Sox lost Bench Coach Brad Mills to Houston after the 2009 season. Losing one guy isn’t a big thing. Losing two in two years likely puts even more on Terry Francona’s plate. Or it might be a non-factor as bench coach DeMarlo Hale has been on the short list for managerial searches and new pitching coach Curt Young comes with high acclaim. This is also a very veteran team so the cat-herding is at a minimum.
Comebacks from injury – Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Ellsbury, Varitek: all missed significant stretches in 2010 and forced us to live with Daniel Nava, Bill Hall, Darnell McDonald and Kevin Cash for much more than a cup of coffee. I’m convinced Josh Beckett never fully recovered from his pre-interleague play back injury (although I have nothing to go on but he can't be as bad as he looked) which contributed to his poor season. You can’t guarantee health, but I’d bet my autographed Tony Mandarich jersey that they’re healthier this year than last year (you’re safe Tony). That factor alone makes this team a 90+ win squad. The question remains: is 95 wins enough to win the AL East?
The intangibles – Can this much talent keep it together and play as a team? One thing we’ve learned is that the most stacked rosters don’t always take it to the house (see the 2010 Yankees). Francona is great at managing egos and protecting his players so no one has quit on him during his Sox tenure (well, excluding Jay Payton).
If I had to predict a flare-up, it will be a possible Papelbon demotion and the ensuing fallout, culminating with Pap finishing 2011 elsewhere. The silver lining: no embarrassing spandex clad River Dance renditions in the infield after the Sox clinch.