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News » Boston Red Sox Inside Pitch 2009-04-02

Boston Red Sox Inside Pitch 2009-04-02

Boston Red Sox Inside Pitch 2009-04-02
The Red Sox had a number of health questions entering spring training, but they prepare for the 2009 season with a deep and relatively healthy team capable of winning 90-plus games again.

Mike Lowell and David Ortiz -- viewed as the largest of the health question marks entering the spring -- have managed to piece together healthy-but-unspectacular springs, and Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis exited the World Baseball Classic early with minor aches and pains.

The lineup clearly isn't as explosive without Manny Ramirez as its linchpin, but the aforementioned quartet along with Jason Bay, J.D. Drew, Jacoby Ellsbury and Jed Lowrie will make it a deep batting order capable of grinding out quality at-bats.

If Jason Varitek can enjoy a bounce-back offensive season, the offense could again be dangerous. Pedroia is the reigning Most Valuable Player in the AL and combines with Youkilis for a solid young leadership core in Boston.

Defensively, the Red Sox are capable of throwing four Gold Glovers (Pedroia, Youkilis, Lowell, Varitek) out on the field nearly every night and rank among the surest infields in the majors after finishing among the best in fielding percentage over the last three seasons.

Rocco Baldelli, George Kottaras, Julio Lugo and Mark Kotsay will ultimately fit in as Boston's bench corps, but don't be shocked if injuries allow players like Nick Green, Chris Carter or Brad Wilkerson to crack Boston's Opening Day roster.

The team's real pillar of strength will be the pitching staff, however. The Red Sox will be able to run seven pitchers deep in the starting rotation once John Smoltz returns in June, and Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka rival any top three in the majors.

Tim Wakefield and Brad Penny -- if his arm is sufficiently stretched out -- will likely start the season in the rotation's back end, but once-and-future prospect Clay Buchholz was impressive all spring and Smoltz will be a big-game ace-in-the-hole when he returns at midseason.

But the biggest strength of the pitching staff could be the bullpen. Jonathan Papelbon has put up some historic numbers through his first three seasons as Boston's closer and is arguably the best in the business.

Papelbon did show signs of wear during last season's playoff run, though, and the Red Sox fortified the back end of the bullpen with the signing of Takashi Saito, who has looked healthy during the spring.

The young arms of Justin Masterson, Ramon Ramirez and Manny Delcarmen, along with veteran bullpen performers Javier Lopez and Hideki Okajima, give Red Sox manager Terry Francona plenty of matchup options in the middle innings ahead of Saito and Papelbon.

Clearly, the Red Sox are built more for pitching and defense to support an opportunistic offense this season, but the pieces are in place for Boston to compete with the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays in the American League East, baseball's toughest division.

Don't rule out the Red Sox upgrading with a major player at the trade deadline if any big names become available in June or July.

The playoffs and World Series aspirations remain intact for a team that doesn't want to settle for anything less.

THE RED SOX WILL CONTEND IF ...: Mike Lowell and David Ortiz enjoy rebound seasons after dealing with injuries in 2008, and Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis continue their ascension to superstar status. The pitching excellence is a given, but if catcher Jason Varitek can rebound from a season in which he droped to a .220 batting average with subpar power and production totals, then the Red Sox offense could again be special.

PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: RHP Josh Beckett never really felt like himself last season after hauling a heavy innings load in 2007, and he battled back, elbow and oblique issues throughout last summer. A 12-10 record with a 4.03 ERA and 172 strikeouts in 175 1/3 innings would be a career year for some, but the 28-year-old can be better as he enters the prime of his career. He appears to be healthy.

ON THE DECLINE: C Jason Varitek batted .220 last season while dealing with bouts of illness and going through a divorce during the season. Varitek had trouble making contact -- as attested by his 122 strikeouts last season -- and batted a measly .201 in 328 at-bats against right-handed pitching. Varitek might be able to better his numbers from last season, but there's a limit to how much improvement a 37-year-old backstop will show.

Author:Fox Sports
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Added: April 2, 2009

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