Thursday March 12th, 2009

1) All quiet on the Red Sox front. The home clubhouse at the Red Sox's City of Palms Park has been an unusually quiet place so far this spring, due largely to the World Baseball Classic. An MLB-high 15 members of the organization (both major and minor leaguers) played in the WBC for 11 different nations. The missing players include the presumptive two through five hitters in the batting order -- Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis and Jason Bay -- plus Daisuke Matsuzaka. "Some of our personality's not here right now, missing David and Petey and Youk and Jason," catcher Jason Varitek said.

Also gone, for good, is Manny Ramirez, who for the first time since 2001 is spending his spring training elsewhere. No one seems to think his absence has had much of an effect on the overall vibe. "Manny didn't say a whole lot in the clubhouse," pitcher Jon Lester said. "He was a pretty quiet guy, kept to himself. Obviously there were some things that were said to the paper, or done, or whatever, that got him in trouble. For the most part, he'd show up, do his work and go home."

2) Boston boasts enviable rotational depth. Tim Wakefield, who's 42 now and whose name has been written in ink into Boston's starting rotation for a 15th season, recalled the other day that in 2004 each of the club's five starters (Derek Lowe, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Bronson Arroyo and himself) managed to stay healthy for the entire season. In fact, only four starts went to other pitchers during that championship campaign -- three to Byung-Hyun Kim and one to Pedro Astacio. That's obviously an extremely rare result, and one which the Sox won't have to count on in '09, as they've got what has to be the deepest starting pitching corps in the majors. After the set-in-stone top four of Josh Beckett, Matsuzaka, Lester and Wakefield, they'll have the luxury of choosing from new additions Brad Penny and John Smoltz, as well as Justin Masterson and Clay Buchholz (and they won't even need a fifth starter until April 15th).

Smoltz, the 42-year-old eight-time All-Star, is well ahead of schedule in his return from shoulder surgery last June, and amazed teammates with his performance in early spring fitness testing. Sox insiders say he might start throwing off a mound on March 25, and could debut toward the end of May. Says pitching coach John Farrell, "Any time you can add a potential No. 1-type starter, it's going to have a tremendous effect on how we operate as a team, and on how teams combat us." Smoltz's contract -- one year, $5.5 million guaranteed -- could prove to be one of the best signings in an offseason full of bargains.

3) The Masterson Rules. The Sox are counting on a lot from Masterson, who was impressive as both a starter and reliever during his rookie campaign in '08 (6-5, 3.16 ERA) and simply stunning in his first postseason (1.86 ERA in nine relief appearances, most of which were extremely high-leverage). Manager Terry Francona hopes to continue to use him primarily in a relief role in '09, although he could just as well end up as a full-time starter, depending on the health of Penny and Smoltz. Masterson is working this spring on developing his changeup to complement his sinking fastball and slider; he and Francona feel that he'll need all three pitches if he starts and the league becomes familiar with him, whereas he'll probably be able to get by with primarily his best two pitches if he relieves. Either's fine with the laid-back Jamaica native, as he believably insisted during a recent press conference that he began with an impromptu mike check ("Check, check, check it one time.")

"It's just great to be out on that mound, especially in the beautiful weather we have down here," he said, smiling the whole time. "For me, the uncertainty doesn't really matter."

Shortstop: Julio Lugo vs. Jed Lowrie. Lugo's 2008 season ended when he badly strained his quad in July, but he was hitting just .268 at the time with an alarming 16 errors in exactly half a season's games. His injury allowed the Sox to get a look at Lowrie, a first-round pick in '05. Lowrie played well (46 RBIs in 81 games, to go with a perfect fielding percentage at short) but not quite well enough to lock down the starting job heading into the spring. Francona has spoken positively about Lugo's play so far, and believes that Lugo has successfully corrected some technical flaws that led to many of last year's errors and is looking like the player he was with Tampa Bay. The manager, though, is a long way from making a commitment to either. "We'll let it play out, and make some decisions when it's the right time to make decisions," he says.

Still, if Lugo can continue to recapture any of his pre-Boston magic, his speed and contract (the Sox still owe him at least 2 years and $18 million), combined with Lowrie's ability to play all over the infield as a backup, make Lugo the likely Opening Day starter.

Twenty-two-year-old Junichi Tazawa, whom Boston signed to a three-year, $3.3 million deal in December from Nippon Oil of the Japanese Industrial League, is poised to become the latest successful Japanese pitching import for the Sox. Tazawa is a control freak (he walked 15 batters in 113 innings last season), something Varitek has already taken note of in throwing sessions. "He hit pretty much 18 out of 20 spots with his fastball," Varitek said of the first time he caught him. "Pretty impressive."

Tazawa could begin the season in the minors, but should soon join the staff, which in '09 could feature four Japanese hurlers -- Tazawa, Matsuzaka, Hideki Okajima and Takashi Saito, the former Dodgers closer who is already hitting 93 mph with his fastball in his attempt to return from elbow problems.

Lugo on the stunning 3-2 WBC loss by his Dominican compatriots to the Netherlands on Saturday, March 7: "Everybody called me. Even David [Ortiz] called me ... He couldn't believe he lost. I didn't think [there's baseball in the Netherlands], but I guess there is. I think they took it too lightly, and they got hit." One expects Lugo's phone was ringing incessantly on Tuesday night, after the D.R. was eliminated by the Dutch team. ... Francona recognizes the challenge he faces finding a new catcher to contend with Wakefield's knuckler. With Kevin Cash departed, the top options are Josh Bard (who struggled mightily in his first attempt, in 2006) and George Kottaras, although Francona has three additional backstops (besides Varitek) in camp. "[Wakefield's] ruined guys' careers -- his ball is not a normal knuckleball," Francona said. "It affects our decision-making, and has in the past. It's something you always have to be aware of, because some guys just can't catch him." ... At one point in last Sunday's game against the Sox, the Rays' middle infield consisted of a Kennedy (second baseman Adam) and a Johnson (shortstop Evan). Chris Carter of the Red Sox did not get in the game, much to the disappointment of those who get pumped up by president-related minutiae.

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