FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Red Sox have made the playoffs in six of the last seven seasons. Boston's home sellout streak is at 550 games and expectations are typically high for the Hub's Olde Towne Team. With Grapefruit League games set to begin Wednesday, here are five talking points from the Red Sox spring headquarters at City of Palms Park:
• Run Prevention. This is a sore subject with some Boston fans and loads of skeptical media members. In the wake of a three-game sweep at the hands of the Angels in the AL Division Series, Boston GM Theo Epstein went to work on his team's defense. Mike Cameron, 37, was acquired to take over centerfield for Jacoby Ellsbury. Jason Bay was allowed to take his 36 homers and 119 RBIs to the Mets. Mike Lowell was traded to the Rangers (the trade was later voided) and replaced by Adrian Beltre. Marco Scutaro was brought on board to play short.
It's all about run prevention. Theo repeatedly cites how bad Boston's defense was in 2009. Certainly a left side of Lowell and Julio Lugo allowed a lot of grounders to slip through for base hits and the Sox have statistics which establish that Bay was a liability in left.
Most of us didn't really notice these flaws. Most of us think Ellsbury in center and Bay in left gives you more wins than Cameron in center and Ellsbury in left. Cynics believe that run prevention became the priority because the Sox didn't want to pay Bay and couldn't get any boppers in a thin free agent crop. Historically, the Sox have won games with a lot of home runs. Now they don't have a player on the roster who hit 30 in the bigs last year. They were too easily shut down last year and now look weaker at the plate.
• David Ortiz. Big Papi was invisible in April and May last year, but somehow finished with 28 homers and 99 RBIs. He's in the final year of a contract which pays him more than $12 million. The Sox are hoping he can return to his old slugging ways, but there are reasons to worry. Papi is listed at 34 years old, but believed to be older. His numbers are trending downward since 2006, he no longer has Manny Ramirez to protect him in the lineup, he can't turn on the hard stuff inside, and there's a possibility that his career stats were artificially inflated by PEDs. Ortiz' name last summer on the infamous list of players who tested positive for steroids in 2003. The Sox can't afford to stick with him for two powerless months again this season.
• Mike Lowell. This is an awkward situation. Lowell is in the final year of his contract and the Sox wanted out so badly they offered to pay Texas $9 million just to take him off their hands. Lowell had hip surgery after the 2008 season and his mobility is limited. The MVP of the Sox World Series win in 2007, Lowell hit .290 with 17 homers and 75 RBIs in 119 games in 2009. His trade to Texas was voided when he failed a physical due to a ligament problem in his right thumb. He's had surgery on the thumb and is taking swings in the cages at Fort Myers this week. The Sox may keep him around as a righty DH, but are more likely to trade or release him. Beltre, who hit only eight homers with 44 RBIs last year, is the new third baseman ... because it's all about run prevention.
• Josh Beckett. This is Beckett's fifth season with the Red Sox and it will probably be his last. Beckett turns 30 in May and the Sox have been reluctant to award long-term deals to players over 30. The exception was 31-year-old John Lackey, who got a five-year contract worth $82.5 million last winter. Bringing Lackey on board almost guarantees that Beckett is gone because the Sox are not likely to tie up more than $150 million for two pitchers. They're still stinging from their $100-plus investment in Daisuke Matsuzaka. Beckett was 17-6 last year, but has only had one dominant season in Boston (2007) and has a history of minor injury trouble.
• Jacoby Ellsbury. Getting ready for his third full season in the bigs, the flossy outfielder is coming off a season in which he hit .301 with 70 stolen bases. Ellsbury is only 26 years old and it's all in front of him, but in order to accommodate Cameron the Sox are moving Ellsbury to leftfield for the foreseeable future. It's a mistake. Ellsbury may not yet be as polished in center as Cameron, but he was better than average in center and his speed compensates for an occasional bad read or late jump on balls. The Sox want to see him improve his on-base percentage (.355 in 2009), but Ellsbury seems intent on hitting more homers (8 last year). Moving Ellsbury to a corner outfield position may pressure him to hit for power. I'm betting he's back in center --where he belongs -- by the end of the season.