Sunday, April 01, 2007

2007 Red Sox preview capsule

Foul tips and other observations: Sure, there are questions that only the long summer and the grind of the schedule can answer, but on this, the most optimistic day of the sports year, we'll gladly say it with unbridled confidence: We like this team. A lot . . . The plusses? Start with the starters. Curt Schilling might look like he spent the offseason hanging out at White Castle with David Wells, but he spent the spring pumping fastballs on the black with impeccable command, and he's added a changeup that at the least will be useful. Right now, it seems the only thing that can stop him from winning 15 is carpal tunnel . . . Josh Beckett has as much raw ability as any pitcher in the AL who doesn't answer to "Yo, Johan," he's admittedly more focused and comfortable heading into year two of the Red Sox Experience, and if that filthy 83 mph changeup he's been showcasing this spring is any indication, he's finally got it through his skull that you can't survive in the AL East on fastballs alone. He's going to make John Farrell look very good . . . As for the Dice-K phenomenon, well, hell, what hasn't already been said, written and debated in the last six weeks? This is going to be a blast. The suggestion that he's Mike Mussina with a better fastball seems a reasonable one, though that tailing, screwball-like changeup is uniquely his own. I imagine he'll take his lumps now and then, particularly if he stays in the habit of leaving the ball up too often, but it's apparent that he has the stuff on the mound and off (his sunny personality has been a revelation) to live up to every last word of hype . . . While starting pitching should be the Sox's main advantage over the Yankees, it is far from their only strength . . . Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz remain the most dangerous 1-2 power punch of their generation, provided Manny doesn't suddenly quit midsummer to become a Canadian Mountie or follow some other such whim . . . Papi will try to increase his home run output for the seventh straight season (he'll do it), while Manny is just 30 homers shy of 500 (he'll get 'em) . . . Perhaps Papi will even wallops his way to the MVP award he's long deserved . . . Now that I'm past the sticker shock, I can admit I'm glad that J.D. Drew is a Red Sox. He might be the most complete player on the roster, and (crossing fingers) if he can stay healthy, he'll be the No. 5 hitter they were so desperate for a season ago . . . The bullpen should fall into place now that Jonathan Papelbon earned the season's first big save by returning to the closer role. I was intrigued by the idea as Papelbon as a starter, if only because I'd rather get 180 innings from my best pitcher instead of 80, but most other teams would sacrifice their mascot to have such a dilemma . . . The best guess here is that Brendan Donnelly will emerge as the most reliable setup guy. He certainly has the proper temperament for a late-inning, high-pressure role. The dude is intense . . . I'm not writing off Mike Timlin, either, in part because I'm pretty sure he could kill me and gut me with his bare hands. The fact that the Sox showed absolutely no hesitation in re-signing him after his September meltdown tells you they believe whatever went wrong was correctable . . . J.C Romero looked rejuventated this spring, though the fact that the Sox are carrying three lefties tells you they're not sure they have one they can trust . . . Which brings us to our concerns . . . No. 1 on our list is No. 33 in your program . . . At age 35, can Jason Varitek bounce back from an injury-plagued and ineffective (.238) season? History says no, with little room for argument . . . Even if he struggles at the plate - and his bat looked slug-slow this spring - he's something of an asset because of his defense, knowledge of the pitchers, and the fact that the decomposing Doug Mirabelli is the alternative . . . We also must wonder if Mike Lowell's feeble second half is a sign of an offensive decline . . . If Dustin Pedroia can prove the doubters wrong at one more level . . . If Julio Lugo will show us why the Sox front office long coveted a player whose production doesn't really justify the admiration . . . If Coco Crisp, hitting his prime at 27, will be the dynamic player he was in his final two years in Cleveland, and not the erratic, easy out he too often was in his disappointing Boston debut . . . But hey, every team in baseball has questions (see: Carl Pavano, Opening Day starter), and the Red Sox have fewer than most. Besides, it's bad form to fret and complain today. Winter is gone, the Red Sox are back, and anything seems possible.

Breakthrough player: Beckett. The trade will look a lot better after this season than it did after the last one.

Honorable mention: Dice-K. Is it really a breakthrough if we expect it? . . . Devern Hansack: Strike-throwing machine will be a factor in the bullpen before season is through . . . Pedroia: Loretta was the media's buddy, but let's admit it: he was a singles hitter with no range. The bar isn't set that high . . . Kason Gabbard: If Jon Lester doesn't eventually seize Julian Tavarez's spot in the rotation, this Francona favorite just might.

Breakdown player: Varitek. I do hope I'm wrong about this . . . but I don't think I am.

Dishonorable mention: Lowell: There's a reason the Sox shopped him around in the offseason. It's called selling high . . . Drew: His history suggests we must be concerned, but hopefully, he'll pull a Molitor and be healthier in his 30s than he was in his 20s.

Completely random Bill James stat: Wily Mo Pena had the longest average home run in the American League last season at 411 feet.

Bonus stat: Schilling tied Chicago's Jon Garland for the league lead in doubles allowed (51).

Bonus bonus stat: Kevin Youkilis led the league in pitches per plate appearance (4.43) and was second in pitches seen at 3,009. Cleveland's Grady Sizemore saw 3,019.

And what the hell, one more: Beckett led the league in pitches at 95 MPH or faster (1.072), which tells you all you need to know.

. . . and finally, a prediction: 95 wins, 67 losses, 2d in AL East, AL wild card winner, and several nights of October intrigue.

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