While the Boston Red Sox starting nine has remained intact from its World Series run a year ago, the defending champs still have a number of questions that will need to be answered if the team expects to compete for a second straight title.
Can Dustin Pedroia avoid the "Sophomore Slump?"
Remember Bob Hamelin? Angel Berroa? Marty Cordova? Perhaps you remember Erik Hinske. All of these players fell victim to the dreaded "Sophomore Slump" following their award-winning rookie seasons. While most of 2007 was excellent for the scrappy second baseman, he'll need to continue to get on base at the top of the order and avoid slumps like he did last April for the Sox to remain competitive.
What happens to Coco Crisp?
Let's face it. Jacoby Ellsbury is the center fielder of choice for the Red Sox, and Coco Crisp is most likely not going to accept the backup role. With one year left on his deal, does Theo Epstein deal Crisp prior to the season to fill some holes that become visible while the team is in Fort Minors?
Perhaps the Sox will hold on to Crisp until the July 31 trading deadline to see if a National League contender is in need of a speedy outfielder. Crisp could stay with the Sox in case they actually trade Manny Ramirez when he inevitably demands a trade.
Is Julio Lugo really that bad?
Lugo is signed through the 2010 season, making roughly $9 million a year. Simply put, he's going to have to put up better numbers than .237 BA, .294 OBP, and .349 SLG if he wants to remain in a Boston uniform. Jed Lowrie is in Pawtucket and ready to take over if Lugo can't perform. Epstein put up with Lugo's poor showing a year ago, don't think he won't be quick to make a move if he sees fit.
Is Jon Lester really that good?
Since Jon Lester took the mound in Game 4 of the World Series, he's become somewhat of a Red Sox legend. The cancer survivor returned to the mound in 2007 to post a 4.57 ERA in 63 innings while winning just four of his 11 starts. Yet he was considered as one of the Red Sox top pitchers, and even was included in a potential deal for the best pitcher in MLB, Johan Santana.
Throughout his career, Lester has won 11 of 26 career starts. That's a number that's going to have to get better if Lester is to remain in the Sox' rotation.
Can Jason Varitek still hack it?
He's been called the "smartest catcher." He's caught as many no-hitters as any catcher in the history of the league. He's the Captain. And frankly, he's getting old (he turns 36 in April).
Varitek's days as an All Star are long gone. His 20 HR days are gone. At his age, most catchers are splitting time at DH or 1B, but with David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis in place, the Captain is stuck behind the plate. He already had major surgery on one knee (following 2006). Will he be able to make it through another season behind the plate?
Why is Doug Mirabelli still around?
Okay, so Mirabelli's still around because no one else in the world can catch a knuckleball. So maybe the question should be is Tim Wakefield good enough to warrant two roster spots?
Mirabelli has 85 hits in the past three seasons (89 if you count his month in San Diego). While 33 of those hits have gone for extra bases, that's not the same Mirabelli who was good enough as a backup to get traded for a starting 2B back in 2006. Mirabelli is going to need to produce at the plate, or Wakefield is going to need to morph into Cy Young for the Sox to justify bringing him back.
Was Mike Lowell worth it?
Mike Lowell won the World Series MVP in 2007. He then re-signed as a free agent with the Red Sox for three years, $37.5 million. Two other third basemen were on the market that Red Sox did not acquire: Alex Rodriguez and Miguel Cabrera.
Can JD Drew bounce back?
2007 was one of the worst years in David Jonathan Drew's career. Hopefully for the Red Sox, he just needed a year to adjust to Fenway Park and American League pitching. If Drew can get back to his career averages of .284/25/84, then he'll be a welcome addition behind Mike Lowell in the Sox' lineup.
All signs, based on the end of the '07 season, point to a productive year for Drew. If he's unable to return to form, then it might be a good idea for Epstein to hold on to Crisp.
And what's with Schilling's shoulder?
Curt Schilling's injured right shoulder will not be going under a surgeon's knife any time soon, if the Red Sox have anything to say about it. He's already taken a cortisone shot and begun rehab, which the Sox hope will allow him to return by July. More importantly than Schilling actually playing, however, is the potential media circus that this could become. There have been rumors of the Sox wanting to void his contract if he does not play this year. Schilling is no stranger to the media, and if this gets ugly, it could become a major distraction for the team.
Red Sox Nation is filled with confidence about the Sox chances going into 2008. Josh Beckett is still the ace, and Cinco-Ocho is still at the back of the bullpen. Big Papi's contagious smile is still in the dugout and Manny is still Manny.
The team is built to repeat as champions, but 162 games will have to be played first.