BOSTON — The equipment truck has left Fenway Park. Spring might not be in the air just yet, but the end of this long, cold winter is in sight.
Celebrating the departure, a truck full of gloves, bats and weightlifting equipment is a uniquely New England concept. It’s easy to ridicule the idea of getting excited over the hauling of gear, yet it is as much an annual milestone as Groundhog Day.
Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow again this year, meaning winter will be with us for a while. With polar vortexes bringing sub-zero wind chills throughout the season and more snow to shovel and plow, we’re not about to argue with the groundhog’s prediction.
The significance of a truck heading south is the reminder that the end is in sight. By this time next week we’ll be watching Red Sox pitchers and catchers working under the sun and palm trees of Fort Myers. It might be freezing here in the north, but the boys of summer serve as a reminder that we’ve almost made it through the cruelest months of the year.
There is optimism following the truck to the Gulf Coast this year. After the uncertainty of last spring we have a pretty good idea what this team is going to be in 2014. That’s no guarantee that the Red Sox will repeat as champs in October. There’s a reason why no team has done it since the 2000 Yankees. It’s hard to repeat. Players lost a full month of their offseason and starting pitchers added some 30-40 innings to their 2013 workloads.
The Sox surprised us in 2013 with a team built on depth. Players like Jonny Gomes, Mike Carp and Ryan Dempster might have been frontline players on other teams, but were forced to take lesser roles at times with Boston. They did so without complaint and were rewarded with a championship.
It is another deep team that will assemble in the weeks ahead. There are six proven starters fighting for position in the rotation, and a wave of top young prospects pushing them from behind. Additions to the bullpen staff leave few openings for relievers.
There is young talent ready to blossom under the Florida sun, but Jackie Bradley Jr. will now have to battle with the unknown return of former All-Star Grady Sizemore in center field. Xander Bogaerts is one of the game’s Top 5 prospects, but Stephen Drew is still a free agent and could return to Boston to make the left side of the infield even deeper. If Drew returns it will be tough for Will Middlebrooks to play every day at third base.
Will this roster handle the battle for playing time as well and as graciously as last season’s team? We’ll find out in the months ahead. We’ll also find out if the loss of Jacoby Ellsbury at the top of the order is a fatal blow to this offense.
The Sox got older behind the plate with the addition of A.J. Pierzynski. He’ll platoon with David Ross as Jarrod Saltalamacchia straps on the gear in Miami.
Hope springs eternal at spring training. A year ago we had no clue what the Sox would look like on the field after a dismal 2012. Now the expectations are higher. The AL East is once again the deepest division. We’ll see if the Sox have the depth to overcome that competition.
For now, just enjoy the fact that it’s almost time for baseball. The arrival of a truck means we’re one step closer to the arrival of summer. Nothing bad about that.
Tom Caron is the studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on the New England Sports Network. His column appears in the Press Herald on Tuesdays.