BOSTON RED SOX
Sure, they will have some issues, but they also have answers -- so will they be title contenders again? Unquestionably
In Boston, Opening Day is just not what it used to be. The Red Sox simply are not so desperate anymore. How they finish is far more important than how they begin.
We know enough now to understand there is no real connection between the two.
So as the Red Sox go through a final preseason workout today in anticipation of tomorrow's season opener against the Tampa Bay Rays at Fenway Park, there are no real secrets, no mysteries, no greater forces at work. Quite simply, they are good enough to win it all again. For the Red Sox to play themselves out of contention by Aug. 1 would be far more newsworthy than for them to be in the hunt, and if that means the regular season has lost some value to us as spectators, so be it.
We trust them now.
Perhaps more than ever before.
Over the last seven years, the Red Sox have averaged 94 wins. They have been to the playoffs five times and played in four American League Championship Series. They have won two world titles. During that span, they have won nearly as many postseason games (34) as the New York Yankees (20) and Los Angeles Angels (16) combined, and they have gone a sterling 16-8 against those two clubs in postseason play.
In the bigger picture that extends beyond any single year, the Red Sox now have stature, tenure, pedigree.
"If you look at it, I think our last five years have been better than anybody else's in baseball," general manager Theo Epstein said shortly after the club won the 2007 World Series. "At the same time, I'm not sure we'd trade our next five for anyone else's, either."
One season into that second five-year block, Epstein looks right. Despite injuries to Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell, in particular, the Sox came within a whisker of upending the Rays in last season's ALCS. Virtually the entire team returns intact and is secured beyond the 2009 campaign.
If the Sox lose their one major free agent - left fielder Jason Bay - they could just as easily sign free-agents-to-be Matt Holliday or Magglio Ordonez, the latter of whom Epstein nearly acquired in a deal for Nomar Garciaparra five years ago.
If necessary, Epstein has the prospects to make a trade.
Whatever the problem, the Red Sox seem to have an answer for it.
In Boston now, as silly as it sounds, only bad things can happen before the middle of August. Nobody makes excuses anymore. Dustin Pedroia, Jonathan Papelbon, and Jon Lester are winners, cultivated in an organization that spends no time dwelling on the past and all of its energy on the immediate task at hand.
Do we know if Lowell's surgically repaired right hip can withstand the rigors of another season? No. Do we know if David Ortiz, who hit .252 before his wrist injury last year, will return to form, pre-2008? No. Do we know if Takashi Saito can stay healthy, or if John Smoltz can still pitch, or if Jason Varitek can hit from the left side? No, no, no. At least not yet.
But what we do know is that the Red Sox have depth, that they can cope, and that their leadership will not panic under the most trying circumstances.
If they lose, it will not be because they beat themselves or were unprepared or lacked the heart.
It will be, as it was last year, because someone else was better.
In many ways, this season presents the Sox with a challenge they have not yet seen. For the first time in Epstein's tenure as general manager, the division has a third heavyweight; in 2008, someone other than the Yankees finished first ahead of the Red Sox.
The one thing the Sox, Yankees, and Rays all have in common is starting pitching, which should make for some tense and tight head-to-head affairs. Lineups, bullpens, and defenses will be tested, and weaknesses almost certainly will be exposed.
If this division proves as tightly contested as many project, the difference between success and failure could be as slim as one game. As New York Post baseball columnist Joel Sherman was the first to point out, there are potentially decisive variables that even the Sox, Rays, and Yankees cannot control. Last season, Toronto ace Roy Halladay went 5-1 in six starts against the Yankees, 3-2 in five starts against the Red Sox, 2-3 in five starts against the Rays. Toronto's pitching shortage has made the Jays an afterthought - for Toronto, this may be a good thing - but the Jays are still among the best teams in baseball any time Halladay is on the mound.
What if the balance shifts this year? What if Halladay faces the Sox six times, the Yankees and Rays only twice? Is that four-game difference enough to swing the outcome? Could it be that close?
As such, at the first sign of trouble, we feared the worst and failure became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Today, we don't wonder whether this could be The Year anymore as much as we wonder what problems the Red Sox might encounter and how they might try to fix them. Already, the Red Sox believe they can address any pitching problems from within. If there is a major hole in the lineup, one club official recently suggested, they will likely have to fill it by trade.
Along the way, presumably, the Red Sox will pitch and play defense, and they will win their share of games.
We just don't know if they will win enough.
And we won't for quite some time.