It's good to be back in Boston after spending two weeks at Red Sox spring training. When I left Kendrick Perkins was still a Celtic. Tomas Kaberle was not yet sporting the Spoked-B, and Logan Mankins dissatisfaction with the Patriots over his contract situation had not reached the level of a "travesty."
It was an eventful two weeks on the Boston sports scene during a largely uneventful Red Sox camp -- a.k.a/ tranquillity baseball, or NyQuil baseball. The Sox are steering clear of controversy or intrigue -- although apparently not errant fungo balls in the case of Josh Beckett -- and simply going about their business as they prepare for the April 1 opener in Texas and the march to 100 wins.
Here are five thoughts, observations and opinions from a low-maintenance Sox spring:
1. No Joshing around -- If it weren't for bad luck then Beckett would have no luck at all. Less than 24 hours after speaking about the importance of just staying healthy during spring training he was knocked in the noggin shagging fly balls and suffered a mild concussion. Beckett had already tired of the questions about him carrying extra motivation this spring coming off an abysmal 2010 season that was undermined by a bad back.
Too bad because he is the single biggest question mark on this team and the concussion just amplifies the scrutiny.
The once and perhaps future ace has been the most vocal of the players about the potential for the Red Sox to win 100 games. That's not going to happen if he can't avoid injury and regain his form. It's not a coincidence that the last two times the Red Sox didn't make the playoffs (2006 and 2010) were marked by disappointing Beckett seasons, where his earned run average hemorrhaged above 5.00. Spring training starts are completely meaningless, but you want to see some results from Beckett.
If the occasionally cantankerous Texan is able to give the Sox something resembling his 2009 season (17-6, 3.86 earned run average) then they have a rotation with the depth to reach 100 wins. If he is hampered by his health and/or simply hit-able then the gap between the Sox' rotation and the Yankees' one closes considerably.
2. No more ribbing -- The ridicule that Jacoby Ellsbury took for his slow recovery from fractured ribs was a little over the top. But Ellsbury might get the last laugh. He reported to camp in terrific shape, is back where he belongs in center field, and looks ready to pick up where he essentially left off in 2009.
Ellsbury put a lot of sweat equity in this offseason. "I'm excited for 2011. A lot of hard work went into being ready for Day One of spring training. I feel ahead of schedule."
Perhaps of equal importance, he was amiably chatting it up with teammates, including Kevin Youkilis. Unfortunately, 2010 has left its emotional wound. All the derisive talk has turned one of the team's more accommodating and unassuming players into a Patriot-esque automaton. Ask Ellsbury whether it bothered him that people questioned his desire to play in 2010 and you think he's talking about using his Kindle: "Turn the page."
3. Count on Cameron -- Hopefully, the chatter about Mike Cameron being available isn't true because Cameron could be an important piece of this team -- and not just for clubhouse chemistry. Cameron looks great after offseason surgery for an abdominal muscle tear/groin tear that limited him to 48 games last season. He showed no problems twisting and turning to track down a fly ball on Sunday against the Twins.
The Red Sox starting outfield is all lefthanded and with David Ortiz's well-documented issues hitting lefties there is a place for Cameron, who had four straight 20-homer seasons before signing with the Sox, on the bench. If he wants it.
The 38-year-old outfielder, who averaged 140 games per season from 2006 to 2009, seemed amenable to the new role, has a reputation as a tremendous teammate and a relationship with manager Terry Francona that goes back to his formative days in pro baseball. That lessens the possibility of him going Jay Payton on the Red Sox and blowing up over playing time.
4. Miller Right -- Before it is all said and done we will see Andrew Miller take the mound at Fenway this season. Miller had an auspicious spring training debut yesterday, but the Sox had been buzzing about the 6-foot-7-inch lefthander before that.
"There is some pretty special stuff coming out of that arm," said Francona, earlier in camp. You don't often hear such praise for a non-prospect, non-roster invitee. The Sox are clearly smitten with the 25-year-old Miller, who flamed out in Florida, and his vast potential. They feel that by not trying to change his unorthodox delivery they can tap into his tremendous ability.
It will be interesting to see how the Sox proceed with Miller, who is on a minor-league contract and is out of options.
The team has an obvious need for a situational lefty reliever, a role that Miller could excel in. However, his upside is so great that it might make more sense to send him to Pawtucket and stretch him out as a starter. What is striking about Miller, a former Tigers top prospect and the No. 6 pick in the 2006 draft, is how rail thin he is. Physically, it's unclear if he can take the ball as a starter 30 times a year consistently with such a frail frame. Putting him in relief for now could be a win-win.
5. Papelbon closing... -- His mouth. The big lug has been awfully quiet this spring. He did speak with the media upon arrival, but has pretty much kept to himself after that. The words that resonated the loudest from Papelbon were on his Under Armour T-shirt, which read "Doubt Me" in big letters. It's obvious a lot of people do after a disappointing 2010 season in which he logged a career-high 3.90 ERA and eight blown saves in 45 tries.
Count me among those who still believe Papelbon will bounce back in a big way, especially with a potential payday awaiting him at the end or the rainbow. He seems less playful and more focused.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.