February 13, 2011

On Baseball: Optimistic Sox have concerns

By Kevin Thomas kthomas@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Anticipation? You want to talk about anticipation.

Jonathan Papelbon
click image to enlarge

Jonathan Paplebon might be the most-watched member of the Red Sox pitching staff because his numbers have been steadily declining.

The Associated Press

Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and a newly armed bullpen have Boston Red Sox fans looking forward to spring training with even more rabidity than usual.

On paper, Boston looks like a dynamo.

But -- and maybe you've heard this a time or two -- championships are not won on paper.

There are still questions and concerns about these Red Sox.

As spring training begins today with pitchers and catchers reporting -- although their official workouts don't begin until Tuesday -- here are 10 issues or players to monitor in Fort Myers, Fla. 

1. JOSH BECKETT. So what can the Red Sox expect from Beckett -- productions like 2007 and 2009 (combined 37 wins and a 3.57 ERA) or 2008 and 2010 (18 wins, 4.77)?

A lot of Beckett's production depends on his health. He always appears to be a tweaked back muscle away from a missed start or the disabled list.

If Beckett, 30, is strong and Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz come close to repeating their performances of last year, then Boston has three aces and will be frontrunners from the start.

An uneventful spring training will be a good one for Beckett. 

2. JONATHAN PAPELBON. While he accumulated 37 saves last year, his numbers have worsened every year, low-lighted by a 3.90 ERA last season and eight blown saves (equaling the amount of the previous two seasons combined).

Also, Papelbon's WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) has risen every year, from 0.77 in 2007, to 0.95 to 1.15 to 1.27.

Boston has acquired Bobby Jenks who, with Daniel Bard, are strong-armed setup men who might be called upon to be the closer if Papelbon blows up.

It has happened before. In 2006, Keith Foulke entered the season as the closer but was quickly replaced by a setup man -- a guy named Papelbon.

In spring training, look for Papelbon, 30, to talk with confidence. But he always has, even as his performance has declined. 

3. CATCHERS. The new Red Sox starting catcher played 93 games his rookie season in 2007, batting .266. He has not approached those numbers since. Yet, Boston is handing Jarrod Saltalamacchia the big mitt and telling him to handle the staff. Saltalamacchia, 25, has had problems with injuries and inconsistency. His backup, Jason Varitek, will be 39 in April.

In Fort Myers, look for the Red Sox to emphasize Saltalamacchia's defense. 

4. INJURIES. This is always a concern, but some key people are coming back from injuries, highlighted by Dustin Pedroia, who is trying to recover from a broken left foot.

Pedroia, 27, has said it is the same type of injury suffered by basketball players Grant Hill and Yao Ming -- and their injuries became lingering. That's enough to make Red Sox followers cringe. Watch Boston be very careful with Pedroia's progress in spring training. 

5. J.D. DREW. The so-called expanded strike zone affected Drew, who walked 22 fewer times last year (60). His on-base percentage dropped 51 points (to .341). And his batting average dropped 21 points to .255.

Maybe the strike zone is a problem for Drew, 35, but it appears that his career is headed for a downturn. Making matters worse is that Drew has said that his left hamstring is still bothersome from last year.

Add to the fact that Drew batted .208 against left-handed pitchers, and he may be platooned. In Fort Myers, Drew may take a while to get going and it likely won't be against lefties. 

6. BULLPEN. This is an area of improvement, with roles filled for now by Papelbon, Jenks, Bard, Dan Wheeler and Tim Wakefield.

(Continued on page 2)

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