Thursday, February 12, 2009

Red Sox Starting Five

As I wrote in today's Courant, these are the five issues the team must address as spring training begins. The first, the health of David Ortiz and Mike Lowell, is paramount, and manager Terry Francona addressed the status of the two in Fort Myers Wednesday. Here's the complete list of five questions as camp opens:

1. The Red Sox must be sure Mike Lowell (hip) and David Ortiz (wrist) are prepared for a long season, even if it means holding them back a bit in March. Even with MVP winner Dustin Pedroia, MVP candidate Kevin Youkilis and a full season of Jason Bay, there is little margin for error in this offense.

2. With two years and $18 million left on his contract, Julio Lugo enters camp as the de facto starter at shortstop. Still, after an underwhelming first four months of 2008, before a quad injury ended his season, Lugo's hold on the job is as shaky as his throws to first base. Rookie Jed Lowrie has been groomed for the job. Don't expect Lugo to take a demotion quietly.

3. Fingers across New England are crossed — or eyes covered — at the prospect of another season with Jason Varitek behind the plate. With Varitek turning 37 in April, there is deep concern that his anemic 2008 (.220, 13 homers, 43 RBI) was no accident. Even if Varitek is Captain Comeback, the Red Sox must address their needs for 2010 before 2009 is over.

4. The starters appear set, with John Smoltz (recovering from shoulder surgery) waiting in the wings for a second-half boost. Jonathan Papelbon has his contract and his fastball, and that bodes well for the ninth inning. The issue, as always, is how to bridge the gap. Manny Delcarmen is inconsistent and Hideki Okajima is a one-pitch pony. Will newcomer Ramon Ramirez, acquired in the Coco Crisp trade, be the setup X-factor? Or will rookie Justin Masterson make all the questions moot by picking up where he left off in October?

5. The forgotten man in Red Sox camp is righthander Clay Buchholz, who flamed out after two months last season and needed time in the Arizona Fall League to find his mojo again. Buchholz is mentioned more as a trade piece than a piece of the 2009 rotation, but he still has the stuff to make a major impact. This figures to be his make-or-break spring as a Red Sox.

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