Spring postcard: With a wealth of talent, Red Sox aim for 100 wins
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Three observations after spending a couple days in Red Sox camp:
There has been no shortage of optimism at City of Palms Park, with starter Josh Beckett leading the talk of how Boston is aiming for 100 wins, something the franchise has only done three times in its 110-year history and not since 1946. After his first spring start on Sunday evening, Beckett reiterated his goal of being on a team that reached the century win mark and said, "I think this is the first real legit chance we have to do that."
Other players, such as Mike Cameron, echoed the sentiment, and there's no question that this year's Red Sox team is loaded with talent, buoyed by the offseason additions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. Boston has already averaged 93.6 wins in the last nine seasons, so 100 is not out of the realm of possibility -- but they'll need Beckett to bounce back from the worst year of his career.
In 2010 Beckett was just 6-6 with 5.76 ERA and 1.54 WHIP -- the ERA and WHIP were career-worsts -- in 21 starts, though a back injury explains much of his struggles. He fell behind in spring training and never fully recovered. But Beckett has been particularly "determined" and "diligent" this spring, according to manager Terry Francona, who noted Beckett's attention to detail this year.
Asked if there was any way he doesn't have a good year if he's healthy, Beckett said, "No. If I'm healthy, the numbers will be there."
Karma, however, came calling the very next day. During batting practice before Monday's game, a baseball clocked Beckett on the head. It was a fluke accident, but a team official said he had mild concussion symptoms.
With the weapons at Francona's disposal, finding the right order in which to deploy them on a nightly basis is a good problem to have. But it'll require a delicate balance of several hitters accustomed to hitting in the top few spots and of five lefties who are regular starters.
On Monday, in Boston's first home exhibition game, Francona wrote the names of Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and Carl Crawford into the first three lineup spots. Asked about the likelihood of that being the top third of the regular lineup, Francona was noncommittal but admitted it was "an obvious possibility."
"When he's leading off and hitting well," Francona said of Ellsbury, "that's probably our best lineup."
If Ellsbury performs like he did in 2009 (.301 average, .355 on-base percentage and an AL-leading 70 steals and 10 triples) then he'd be a very good leadoff hitter. But even if he's a little below that pace -- with, say, his 2008 line of .280, a .336 OBP and an AL-best 50 steals -- then maybe there's a better option. With the sluggers in the heart of the order, there'll be less need for a leadoff hitter to create on his own. Getting on base will be paramount.
Pedroia, for one, might be a superior option in the leadoff spot. In his four (mostly) full seasons in the majors he has hit .309 with a .374 OBP, twice leading the AL in runs scored with 118 in 2008 and 115 in '09. He's also far more patient at the plate than Ellsbury. Pedroia has seen 3.90 pitches per plate appearance for his career, peaking at 4.33 in 2010; Ellsbury has averaged 3.69 for his career and saw 3.75 last year. That may seem like a small difference, but among major league players with at least 75 plate appearances, Pedroia ranked No. 11 and Ellsbury No. 292.
If the top three hitters bat as they did Monday, then presumably Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz fill in the next third of the lineup -- and fifth and sixth might be too low for guys of Youkilis' and Ortiz's caliber. Then again, though Pedroia has twice stolen 20 bases, having him on base in front of Crawford could slow the speedster who has averaged 50 steals per year.
But maybe that's not a major concern since Crawford is less likely to run rampant as he did in Tampa Bay, given the bats behind him. He also might not be in position to steal as many bases given his development as a power hitter: Crawford had career highs last year in average (.307), home runs (19), RBIs (90) and slugging percentage (.495), doing much of that damage in the season's final two months when he hit third, batting .323 with 19 extra-base hits (including seven homers), 32 RBIs and a .526 slugging percentage in 49 games.
As for the abundance of lefties, Francona can make some easy subs against lefty starters. He will no doubt play Cameron for either Ellsbury or J.D. Drew and could play switch-hitting Jed Lowrie somewhere in the infield, moving the displaced player to designated hitter in place of Ortiz.
Injuries aside -- and there were many, including two rib injuries (Cameron and Ellsbury), two broken feet (Pedroia and Jason Varitek), a broken thumb (Victor Martinez), a torn thumb ligament (Youkilis) and a balky back (Josh Beckett) -- Boston's biggest weakness last year was its bullpen. Eighth-inning reliever Daniel Bard was terrific (1.93 ERA in 74 2/3 innings), but he was the lone bright spot. Closer Jonathan Papelbon and lefty Hideki Okajima regressed; setup men Ramon Ramirez and Manny Delcarmen were sufficiently poor that they were dumped in waiver trades; and as a team the Sox blew 22 saves and had a save percentage of 66.7, both of which were second-worst in the AL behind only Baltimore.
General manager Theo Epstein reacted in the offseason by adding former White Sox closer Bobby Jenks and Rays reliever Dan Wheeler for the back of the 'pen, and the Red Sox have invited lefties Andrew Miller and Rich Hill to compete with Okajima and prospect Felix Doubront for roster spots. Jenks, like most of Boston's relievers, is looking to rebound from a disappointing 2010, though his strikeout rate (10.4 K/9) remained high and he seemed to suffer from bad luck (.345 batting average on balls in play, 50 points higher than his career average).
There will be no shortage of options in camp, and other than Papelbon being anointed the closer yet again -- in his final year under team control -- there have been no other conversations about how Francona intends to deploy his relievers.
"And I don't expect one," Wheeler said. "As the season goes on, people will fall into roles."
Wheeler hails most recently from the Rays' great bullpen, which also boasted Joaquin Benoit and Grant Balfour as setup men in front of closer Rafael Soriano. It's not unlike the Astros bullpens he was a part of in the middle of last decade in which he and Chad Qualls set up Brad Lidge.
"When you're around guys like that, it makes you better," Wheeler said. "That each one of us does our little job to help the team win is important, and we feed off each other."
The 2011 Red Sox media guides were distributed just in time for Monday's home opener and they feature newcomers Crawford and Gonzalez front and center on the cover, with Youkilis, Pedroia, Jon Lester and Ortiz relegated to the background.
Though the latter four -- along with Beckett, Papelbon, Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek -- comprise the team's old guard, the additions of Crawford and Gonzalez are, of course, the reason why the Sox are just about everyone's preseason pick for the AL pennant.
Gonzalez, still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, still hasn't faced live pitching yet but has been taking swings off a tee and on soft toss. Crawford, on the other hand, made his Red Sox spring debut on Monday, going 0-for-3 at the plate but making a nice running catch on a fly ball.
Crawford's seven-year, $142 million contract is the richest in annual value in club history ... until Gonzalez inks his extension sometime after Opening Day. His deal is expected to be seven years for about $154 million.
Compared to most teams' spring problems, these are nitpicky, but they are not without merit:
• Are Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Varitek sufficient depth at catcher?
• Can Ortiz, entering a second straight contract year, not repeat his terrible April performance of the past two years?
• Will Cameron, who's looked sharp in the first few days of the spring, be the contributor he was signed to be?
• Will Papelbon, who's made it known he wants to set a new standard of pay for closers, shake off 2010?
• Will one of the lefty pitchers under contract prove to be a reliable reliever?
• Francona's initial response to a question about the Ellsbury-Pedroia-Crawford lineup concoction was a joke. He told reporters that he stacked the lineup in response to losing the night before to the Twins and falling behind in the Mayor's Cup, the prize given to the winner of the spring series between the two spring denizens of Fort Myers, the Red Sox and the Twins. The Cup has gained increasing (tongue-in-cheek) hype the last few years.
"We're just trying to win the Mayor's Cup," he said. "Panic is setting in. We're front-loading the lineup for obvious reasons."
Boston won the second game to tie the series.
• No one was happier to welcome Crawford to the Red Sox than Varitek. Crawford not only used to torment him with his baserunning -- he once stole six bases in a game when Varitek was the catcher -- but he also accidentally injured Varitek twice; once in a collision at the plate, which hurt Varitek's neck; and another time with a foul ball that broke a bone in Varitek's foot.
"I'm just glad he's on our side now," Varitek said.
• Francona revealed Sunday that the young son of the departed catcher Martinez -- Victor Jose, a six-year-old who frequently and adorably followed his father around the Red Sox clubhouse with matching home and away uniforms -- called the manager and left a voice mail, saying, "I miss you." Martinez signed with the Tigers as a free agent.
• This isn't the first time Francona has managed Crawford. Francona led Team USA to Taiwan for the World Cup tournament in late 2001. They lost the championship game to Cuba and settled for silver. A team photo can be found on