When Terry Francona is introduced before tonight’s season-opening game, he will emerge from the dugout and look across the diamond to his team’s nemesis, the New York Yankees.
But, like in 2008, the pinstriped-players are not the only threat to Red Sox fortunes this year.
Beware the Rays.
In 2008, no one suspected Tampa Bay would be a contender. The Rays’ 18 wins in spring training meant nothing. But then Tampa Bay’s young talent finally matured, and the Rays won the American League East and bested Boston in seven games for the pennant.
After sliding back to an 84-78 record in 2009, Tampa Bay appears back in form. Not only did the Rays win 20 games this spring, but they have a roster full of talent.
“Unfortunately, these guys are really good,” Francona said. “I know it’s spring training and it doesn’t matter whether they beat us or not. But they’re really good. They’re athletic, they’re deep, they are a lot of things.”
Francona spoke last week while his team prepared to face the Rays in Port Charlotte, Fla. He made it clear that he was not just issuing the traditional praise of an opponent.
“I probably wouldn’t say it, but I wish I (could sit) here and say they (stink). But they’re pretty good,” Francona said. “And they played us tough to begin with.”
The Rays added a closer (Rafael Soriano) and a catcher (former Sea Dog Kelly Shoppach) to a deep roster. The rotation features James Shields, Matt Garza, Jeff Niemann, David Price and Wade Davis, with Andy Sonnanstine available to step in if needed.
The lineup looks similar to 2008, with Jason Bartlett, Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton.
THE YANKEES cannot be overlooked. In 2008, the Red Sox were fortunate that New York had a rare off year (89-73), and Boston snuck in as the wild-card team.
Fresh off a half-billion dollar spending spree, the Yankees galloped to 103 wins and a World Series title in 2009. And they could be better this year, depending upon their aging stars.
Derek Jeter (then 35), Jorge Posada (37), Andy Pettitte (37) and Mariano Rivera (39) had stellar years in 2009. Can they keep that up?
The Yankees’ rotation features C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Pettitte and Javier Vazquez. Phil Hughes fills out the rotation and Joba Chamberlain returns to the bullpen.
The biggest change to the lineup is Curtis Granderson replacing Johnny Damon in the outfield. Hideki Matsui is also gone. Still, there are the usual suspects — Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Jeter, Robinson Cano and Posada.
It could be that the three best teams in the American League are in East, but at least one will not make the playoffs.
PAWTUCKET’S TRIPLE-A roster has a mix of former Sea Dogs and minor league free agents.
The former Sea Dogs include catchers Mark Wagner and Dusty Brown, first baseman Aaron Bates, third baseman Jorge Jimenez, utility infielder Ryan Khoury, and outfielders Josh Reddick, Bubba Bell and Daniel Nava.
Among the former Dogs on the pitching staff are starters Michael Bowden, Adam Mills and Kris Johnson, and relievers Joe Nelson and Dustin Richardson.
T.J. Large will likely be put on the inactive list until Alan Embree’s status is settled (he has an opt-out clause in mid-April).
And, of course, Junichi Tazawa is scheduled for Tommy John surgery this week and is out for the year.
WHEN CASEY KELLY pitches for the Sea Dogs, it will be a good idea to arrive early. He will be on a strict pitch count and will likely not work more than three innings early in the season.
Kelly, 20, has only pitched half a season in the pros, and he didn’t have a huge pitching workload at Sarasota High.
The Red Sox are not about to rush Kelly and risk their $3 million investment.
IT’S GOOD to see Nava get a chance in Triple-A after only 32 games in Portland. Nava is 27 and not considered a prospect, but he has a career .354 average in the minors.
WHILE PORTLAND is stacked with prospects, a few of them are likely to be moving on to Triple-A at some point.
Reinforcements will come from advanced Class A Salem, and there are prospects there, too. Catcher Tim Federowicz and first baseman Anthony Rizzo should find their way to Hadlock Field.
Salem’s starting rotation is well-armed, led by Stolmy Pimentel, second-round draft pick Alex Wilson and Seth Garrison.
Blake Maxwell and Kyle Fernandes could be additions to the bullpen. Both figured to begin this season in Portland but got squeezed out. Maxwell can pitch multiple innings, and it’s likely the Red Sox want to use his durability to help the young Salem staff.
JON STILL is back on the Portland roster. He will be arriving soon with his glove, bat and bow and arrows.
Still, 25, from Madison, Miss., is an avid hunter, as he proved during spring training. In Florida, there is no closed season on wild hogs, nor a license needed.
During some free time last month, Still and a buddy traveled to an orange grove, prepared to stalk and hunt hogs.
Still arrived back at the Red Sox player development facility with a hog. The kitchen staff cooked it, and Boston’s minor leaguers enjoyed fresh barbecue that day.
DON’T FORGET that the Sea Dogs’ Welcome Home Dinner is at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Expo. Tickets are $20 and $10 (under 14). See www.seadogs.com for more information.
Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or at: