We turned the clocks back last night, but the Red Sox are trying to move forward. They’ve made a clear decision not to sit on past laurels, breaking up key members of the 2004 World Championship team in an effort to stay young and competitive.
Many of the key off-season moves have been made with an eye on the long-term future. Look at the outfield, where Coco Crisp (26 years old) and Wily Mo Pena (24) are ready to enter their prime. The pitching staff will get younger in the near future, with Jonathan Papelbon leading the way in a parade of young arms marching up through the system. Jon Lester, Manny Delcarmen, Craig Hansen and others won’t be far behind.
That said, what about 2006? Without further ado, let’s open up the hood and take a look at what will make this year’s team run. If this team cranks on all cylinders, it should be an A.L. contender. That’s a big if.
Will the 2006 team be better than the 2005 team that won 95 games but lost three quick ALDS games to Chicago? Let’s take a look:
Starting rotation. The Red Sox will field a rotation of Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield, Josh Beckett, Matt Clement and David Wells. This should be an improvement over the 2005 club. Wakefield, Clement and Wells should be as good as last season, when they combined for 44 wins. Beckett should win more games than Bronson Arroyo (14) won last season. The biggest area for improvement should be Curt Schilling.
Even if he’s not at his best he should be far better than the man who went 8-8 as a starter and reliever last season. If he can win 15 games, you’re talking about a starting rotation that should win 75 games for Boston.
The biggest question mark is health. Wells is 42, while Wakefield and Schilling are closing in on 40. If any one of these pitchers goes down, Jonathan Papelbon is ready to move back into the rotation. If two of them spend time on the D.L., it could be a tough season.
Bullpen. In 2005, the Red Sox bullpen had the highest ERA in the American League. The front office tried to remedy that by adding Julian Tavarez, Rudy Seanez and David Riske. Of the three, Tavarez has had the longest track record of success. If he can keep his temper in check, he’ll be a big asset and will help ease Mike Timlin’s workload. Jonathan Papelbon will start the season in the bullpen and will be called on to get key outs in the middle to late innings.
Having said all that, the most important arm in the pen belongs to Keith Foulke. He has looked good in spring training. If he can be relied upon to close out games starting Monday, this will be a very good group of relievers.
The biggest worry here is the lack of a lefthanded reliever. Lenny DiNardo continues to impress and will start the season with the team, but will probably have to be sent down once Wells comes off the D.L. Mike Myers is in New York and will be called on to face David Ortiz in key late-game situations for the Yankees. The Red Sox don’t have anyone like that in their bullpen right now.
Infield. The defense will be better. Much better. Mike Lowell is a Gold Glove third basemen, perhaps the best in the game at that position. Alex Gonzalez will pull you out of your seat once a night with his range and arm. Mark Loretta is a solid second baseman, and will make up for the offensive struggles of the left-side infielders.
Kevin Youkilis will finally get a chance to prove he’s an everyday player. J.T. Snow will fill the John Olerud role as a late-game defensive addition and will be a good lefthanded bat off the bench.
Will the infield provide enough offense? We’ll see. Lowell struggled mightily last season, and got off to a rough start this pre-season. His average has increased over March. If he can hit like he did before 2005, the Sox will have a solid lineup. If not, Youkilis may find himself back at third before too long.
Outfield. Manny’s back in left. He’s worked on his defense and will provide the offense you’d expect from one of the top hitters in the game. With David Ortiz ahead of him, he’ll still be part of the game’s best one-two punch. Don’t worry about the off-season trade request; he’s here, and he’ll play hard.
Coco Crisp had an outstanding spring.
His prime baseball years are ahead of him. He’ll provide speed at the top of the order (as did Johnny Damon) and with a true contact hitter like Loretta behind him, the Sox should play hit-and-run a little more often this year. He doesn’t have a great arm, but we’ve gotten used to that at Fenway.
Trot Nixon is in the final year of his contract and will again primarily face right-handed pitchers.
Newcomer Pena will platoon and face lefties. The Sox think Pena’s home run potential will provide an added benefit: opposing teams will be less likely to bring in a lefty against Nixon (with Pena standing by to pinch hit) allowing Trot to face more righties and get more at bats.
Overall, there are still plenty of question marks surrounding this team.
That said, the team clearly improved its pitching (especially in the bullpen) and defense. With Ortiz and Ramirez at the heart of the order, the Sox will score enough runs this year.
They should be better than 2005, and that should be enough to get them into the postseason. As we’ve learned, anything can happen from there.
Lewiston native Tom Caron covers the Red Sox for NESN.