A crack team, but with holes

Sox must watch for weaknesses

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By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / February 15, 2011

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — The Red Sox will conduct their first official workout of spring training today as 30 pitchers and seven catchers take to the field at the player development complex.

Manager Terry Francona will hold a brief meeting beforehand. Surprisingly, it won’t be to tell everybody where to catch the Duck Boats for the victory parade after winning the World Series.

Trading for Adrian Gonzalez before signing Carl Crawford and Bobby Jenks swiftly turned the third-place Red Sox into favorites this season. The Red Sox arrive at spring training with every spot in their rotation locked down and All-Star caliber players throughout the lineup.

“Expectations are a little crazy,’’ second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. “More than usual, and that’s saying something.’’

But there are some valid concerns as camp opens. Here are five areas to keep an eye on in the weeks leading up to Opening Day on April 1 at Texas:

Health: The Red Sox have four players (Mike Cameron, Pedroia, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Kevin Youkilis) who had season-ending surgery last year and another in Gonzalez who underwent major shoulder surgery following the season.

Jacoby Ellsbury played in only 18 games last year because of fractured ribs that were slow to heal.

Josh Beckett and Jason Varitek spent significant time on the disabled list and Marco Scutaro was sent home with a program to strengthen the chronic weakness in his right shoulder.

Before camp even started, J.D. Drew reported lingering pain in his left hamstring and has been checked out by doctors.

Add it up and 10 significant players had health issues that will be monitored in camp and probably throughout the season. It’s unrealistic to believe all 10 will cruise through the next six months.

Catching: The Red Sox have entrusted the starting duties to Saltalamacchia, a .248 career hitter who played 12 games in the majors last season and occasionally had trouble throwing the ball back to the pitcher. His backup will be Varitek, who turns 39 in April and has hit .217 with a .310 on-base percentage the last three seasons.

On paper, this is a recipe for disaster. But in theory it could work quite well.

Saltalamacchia, a former first-round pick, has unfulfilled potential and is only 25, an age when many catchers start to blossom. He also spent much of the winter working with catching instructor Gary Tuck and appears to realize the opportunity he has been handed.

“This is what I have wanted for a long time,’’ he said. “I have to run with it.’’

Both catchers are switch-hitters, but Saltalamacchia has been better against righthanders in his career and Varitek better against lefthanders. That should enable Francona to put them in position to better succeed offensively.

“I think we’re pretty comfortable with [the catching], maybe more than people realize,’’ Francona said.

The rotation: In All-Stars Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, the Red Sox have two cornerstone starters. John Lackey, who won 14 games and threw 215 innings in 2010, was better than many fans perceived his first season in Boston was. At worst, he is a serviceable No. 3 starter.

But Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka are significant question marks. Beckett is coming off the worst season in his career, having gone 6-6 with a 5.78 ERA. He has to prove that was an anomaly brought on by injury and not the start of a career downturn.

Matsuzaka is 13-12 with a 5.15 ERA the last two seasons. The Red Sox invested $102 million in Matsuzaka before the 2007 season, proclaiming him one of the best pitchers on the planet. Until further notice, he’s the fifth-best pitcher in the rotation and untrustworthy.

Lefthanded relief: If you are lefthanded, can throw a baseball 60 feet, 6 inches, and have a pulse, shame on you if the Red Sox did not offer you a contract this winter.

The Sox will have six lefthanded relievers in camp competing for a position in the bullpen. Their hope is that the formerly reliable Hideki Okajima will regain his form in the midst of a steady decline that included a 1.71 WHIP in 2010. If not, they could entrust the job to 23-year-old Felix Doubront. One intriguing possibility is Rich Hill, a former starter who brings one of the game’s best curveballs to a new role.

The closer: Jonathan Papelbon will be a free agent following the season, the last step toward his longstanding goal of becoming one of the highest-paid relievers in the game.

Will that motivate him to a great season or create pressure that weighs him down? Francona believes the former.

Just in case, the Red Sox have two replacements lined up. Jenks, the former White Sox closer, can do the job and Daniel Bard would like to.

Papelbon had a career-worst 3.90 ERA last season, allowing more home runs (7), walks (28), and wild pitches (4) than ever before. If he bounces back, the Red Sox could have a devastating bullpen. If not, there will be cries for change that Francona and general manager Theo Epstein will have to manage.

Peter Abraham can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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