Friday, February 24, 2006

Frequently asked questions

Playing Nine Innings while offering our semi-educated answers to questions facing the Sox this spring . .

.1. The Yankees, with their "Murderer's Row 2K6" offense, are the consensus favorite in the AL East. The remodeled Blue Jays, with A.J. Burnett, B.J. Ryan and Troy Glaus, are the trendy pick. So where does that leave the Red Sox? Overlooked and underrated, that's where. In all the tumult surrounding Theo's departure and subsequent return and Johnny Damon's traitorous defection to New York, a lot of people who get paid to notice such things haven't realized that the Red Sox made significant improvements in crucial areas. Josh Beckett becomes the young No. 1-caliber starter they so desperately lacked against the White Sox in the ALDS. Julian Tavarez, David Riske, Rudy Seanez, and a rotation refugee - either Bronson Arroyo or Jonathan Papelbon - will significantly strengthen the bullpen. J.T. Snow, Alex Gonzalez, and Mike Lowell tighten up the leaky infield defense. (We don't have to watch Edgar Renteria hobble around the infield like Fred Sanford anymore, thank goodness.) And with the arrival of Beckett and 26-year-old Coco Crisp, not to mention promising prospects such as Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia, Craig Hansen, and Jon Lester, they've quickly accumulated a core of young talent to carry them into the next decade. Finally, while it is often suggested that the Sox offense won't be the 900-run behemoth it has been in recent seasons, I think there's actually room for improvement. By the end of last season, the offense consisted of Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, and seven guys who looked ready for a nap. If Manny and Papi do their thing, and Crisp, Jason Varitek, and a healthy Trot Nixon do theirs, this could be a phenomenal offensive ballclub again. Bottom line: Go ahead. Pick the Yankees or the Blue Jays. But beware. As it stands now, during these sunny days of spring training, the Sox sure look built to match up with both of them come September.

2. But is Beckett, whose career high in wins is just 15, truly capable of being the staff ace? Undoubtedly. In fact, I'm not sure casual Sox fans know what a precious gem they've got here. Josh Beckett is a 25-year old pitcher with - and this is not hyperbole - as much ability and confidence as any young pitcher in the game. I'm sure you recall his complete-game, World Series-clinching shutout on three days' rest at Yankee Stadium in Game 6 in 2003. It's a signature, career-defining performance, something that many great pitchers have waited in vain for their entire careers. (Hello there, Roger.) But what you may not realize is that he is yet to achieve that level of dominance during a full season due only to strange circumstances (recurring blisters on his pitching hand) and the brashness of youth (he describes himself as a reformed hothead). Beckett, who is mere months older than Jonathan Papelbon, is fully capable of dominating an entire league just as he dominated the hopeless Yankees that night in the Bronx. Oh, of course there are injury concerns - an MRI revealed his shoulder to look like something akin to ground beef, though that supposedly can be said of most any pitcher - but even that is a blessing, for his pesky blisters and the Marlins' caution helped him escape the abuse that befalls so many gifted young pitchers. (Hello there, Steve Avery). The reality is this: Beckett is the right player at the right time for the Red Sox. He will win a Cy Young award with the Red Sox, he might win more than one, and he damn well might win one this year.

3. So what's up with Manny? Let me get back to you on March 1, because this story is yet to reveal its final chapter. I think I've made my feelings clear regarding Manny - I love watching the guy hit, and while the antics that most 13-year olds wouldn't try to pull do get tiresome, it will be a sad day in the TATB household when he's no longer a member of the Red Sox. And, yes, I'm suspicious that the Sox might be trying to trade him for 75 cents on the dollar as you read this. I also wonder what the repercussions are if he's a no-show on his Theo-approved reporting date, something that I fear is still a distinct possibility considering all the rumors and innuendo regarding why he had to get out of Boston. How I hope his buddy Enrique Wilson is right, that Manny still wants to play for the Sox and will show up to camp a week from now with that big goofy grin on his face, acting like nothing ever happened. But until I see him out there on the Ft. Myers field in his red jersey, hitting moonshots, bear-hugging Papi, and claiming Boston is where he wants to be, excuse me while I keep my fingers crossed. C'mon, Manny. Dammit, show up this time.

4. After Manny's state of mind, what's the biggest concern? The usual suspects and ailments: Schilling's ankle, Foulke's physical and mental health, Mike Lowell's bat. Should that seem like a lot of "ifs" on top of the Manny/Beckett concerns, try looking at them this way: In each instance, the best-case scenario has a reasonable chance of occurring. In 2004, Schilling won 21 games, Foulke had an ERA below 3.00 for the sixth straight season, Lowell slugged 27 homers, and they'd all been consistent, high-level performers in previous seasons. Even a pessimist has to figure that one or two of them - if not all three - will prove that their collectively miserable 2005 season was an aberration. And if just two of the three return to something resembling their previous form, it's all but assured that the Red Sox will make a fourth consecutive postseason appearance.

5. Larry Lucchino refused to take the bait when asked for a reaction to George Steinbrenner's proclamation that the Yankees would win the World Series this year. How should Lucchino have replied? "If I spent close to $1,000,000,000.00 on salary the last five years and didn't have anything to show for it - well, except for the biggest choke in sports history - I'd probably be babbling and delusional too. Next question."

6. Is Coco Crisp up to the task of replacing Johnny Damon? To continue our theme of relentless optimism . . . yes, in every single way. Crisp has the name and the game to replace Damon not only on the field, but in fans' hearts. He's articulate and engaging - his Sports Final interview with Ch. 4's Dan Roche was one of the most insightful I've seen in some time - and his on-field style is remarkably similar to his predecessor's: he plays with tireless hustle and absolutely no fear, features fleet feet and surprising pop, and like Damon when he arrived in Boston, is coming to town just in time for his prime. He may not sell as many pink t-shirts or fake beards as Damon, but Crisp will be every bit his equal between the lines. I can't wait for Fenway to fall for him.

7. What will happen with David Wells? Terry Francona will continue to quarantine him and his potentially poisonous attitude from his impressionable kid pitchers. Theo will continue to try to trade him for something resembling equal value. In the next 10 days or so, the Sox will settle for a marginal prospect or two, Wells will head to a team on the West Coast, and ever so appreciative that the Sox granted his wish, he'll rip Boston with his usual grace and class. In an ideal world, I'd love to see Wells remain here - a lefty who can win 15 games is a precious commodity, even one of Wells's age (43) and shape (round). But if he doesn't want to be here, you don't want him to be here, if you know what that means.

8. And finally, something I promised to touch on but never got around to. Roger Clemens's potential homecoming: Fairy tale-come-true, or unrealistic fiction/fantasy? The latter, thank heavens. As the hype built - Rogah's comin' back to the Sawx! - I refused to buy it, believing that the alleged possibility of the Rocket's return was little more than a Red Sox marketing ploy, a made-for-talk radio/wishful thinking scenario cooked up by the Sox public relations savants. I'm glad to say it looks like my instincts were correct. Listen, no doubt it would be a hell of a compelling story if Clemens returned to Boston, where he spent the first 13 years of perhaps the finest career any righthanded pitcher has ever had. But sentiment aside - and frankly, I don't have much sentiment for that soulless mercenary at this point - it's neither a realistic idea nor a particularly well-considered one. Clemens has a sweet situation in Houston - his son is in the organization, he gets to hang out with his pal Andy Pettitte, and he comes and goes as he pleases, with no requirement that he show up at the ballpark on days other than when he is pitching. All these years after he griped about having to carry his own bags, he still demands star treatment, and considering how frustrated Sox management has been with the diva-ish behavior of Pedro and Manny in recent years, that's something Theo and Co. must be reluctant to permit. It would be hypocritical and counterproductive to let Clemens have his own set of rules, and conversely, he's certainly not going to abandon a situation where he does as he pleases just to right an old wrong in Boston. That's not his style. And while he seems intent on proving otherwise, Clemens simply has to get old one of these years. Remember, he had recurring leg problems at the end of last season, injuries similar to the ones that abruptly ended Nolan Ryan's career after he cruised into his mid-40s. It's going to be very expensive to some team when Father Time finally does catch up to his fastball. I'd just as soon that team not be the Red Sox. Besides, wouldn't it be just like him to come back here, 10 years after Dan Duquette premature declared his career to be on the decline, and then finally stumble into the twilight of his career?

9. As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:

I'm not sure what's harder to comprehend: That Sosa, who not so long ago stood alongside Jordan and Payton in the pantheon of Chicago sports heroes, fell from grace so rapidly that the apparent end of his career barely registered more than a line in the Sports Log. Or that he actually went out in public with such a ridiculous haircut.