April 4, 2010

On Baseball: Red Sox must deal with stacked division

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.

Terry Francona, Clay Buchholz
click image to enlarge

Terry Francona has guided the Red Sox to the playoffs five times in six seasons, but the competition for a postseason berth figures to be more difficult than ever this year.

The Associated Press

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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