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Pained expressions

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  March 3, 2009 11:40 AM

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Opening Day is still more than a month away, so there's no need to panic. At the same time, can be it a good sign when the Red Sox' No. 5 starter and starting right fielder are already encountering physical issues?

We hear it every spring: The primary goal is health, health, health. The baseball season is impossibly long and designed to break you down, individually and collectively. Someone like Dustin Pedroia might want to play in all 162 games, but it really is not that practical to even try. There is no point in wearing yourself out before October.

With regard to right fielder J.D. Drew and starter Brad Penny, the news from Florida this morning is not particularly encouraging. Drew, as it turns out, returned to Boston yesterday for what manager Terry Francona described as a "precautionary" injection in his troublesome lower back. And Penny has been scratched from a scheduled start Thursday with shoulder weakness.

Just like that, the mind starts to race and we cannot help but wonder what the long-term impact will be.

We need to do some distinguishing between Penny and Drew. At this stage of spring training, there is a very big difference between being bumped from a start and requiring an injection. The latter seems far, far more worrisome, particularly entering a season in which the offense is one of the club's greater concerns.

Remember: We really don't know what the Red Sox are going to get from Mike Lowell and David Ortiz at this stage -- especially Lowell -- which means that any issue with Drew could be critical. This is especially true when you consider the backup outfield situation, which suddenly doesn't look so appetizing.

Yes, we all admire Rocco Baldelli, and not entirely for the fact that he is, relatively speaking, a local boy. He is also an extremely pleasant and polite young man. The problem with Baldelli is that he is a backup outfielder in the most literal sense, which is to say that he can only play part-time. If any of the starting outfielders were to suffer an injury -- like a back ailment, say -- Baldelli is not a candidate to play every day because of his well-documented physical issues.

That's part of the reason the Red Sox re-signed Mark Kotsay, who can play every day if necessary and also offers some measure of infield security if Lowell needs to be handled delicately. (Kevin Youkilis could move to third and Kotsay could play first.) The problem is that Kotsay is currently out until approximately May 1 following back surgery, leaving Brad Wilkerson as the next choice.

See the ripple effect here? If Drew's back proves problematic ... and given Baldelli's issues ... and with Kotsay already out ... the lineup gets pretty thin pretty fast, at least for the early part of the season. And even if Kotsay were to come back and play at a level that made him a solid starter for the bulk of his career, the Red Sox would have a hard time replacing Drew in the middle of the lineup.

As for Penny, he is the No. 5 starter. By definition, that would be a relatively marginal loss. Part of the reason Penny received only a one-year deal for relatively short money ($5 million) is because he was coming off a dreadful 2008 season, during which he missed ample time with a shoulder problem. But then, that's precisely why the Red Sox pursued him in the first place, opting for a low-risk, high-reward signing that would not handcuff them for the long term.

Unfortunately, with those kinds of deals, the short-term risk is also high.

As we all know, pitching depth is one of the true strengths of this Red Sox club, and not just among the projected 1 through 12 of the Opening Day roster. With Clay Buchholz, Michael Bowden, Daniel Bard, and Wes Littleton, among others, the Sox staff may run 15 or 16 deep. There will be cause for concern only if the Sox begin to lose significant contributors.

Again, let's say Penny has to miss significant time. Before anyone suggests that the Sox accelerate the process with John Smoltz, that would be the wrong answer. (Again, it's about October.) The best candidate to replace Penny in the rotation might be righthander Justin Masterson, but that move immediately would make the bullpen weaker and increase the potential workload on Takashi Saito. At that moment, the 39-year-old Saito would become more susceptible to injury given the concerns over his elbow and forearm.

But then, that's what the baseball season does to you.

It eats at every one of the 30 major league teams, piece by piece.

Of course, there is every chance here that Drew and Penny will be fine in the long run, though only the Red Sox know the true severity of the problems. Maybe there is really nothing at all to worry about. But considering the way these Sox are built at the moment, there seems the likelihood that the club will need to win lower-scoring games than in years past, which means they cannot afford to lose too much pitching or any offensive centerpieces.

And as much as that is true for any potential contender, it is particularly worrisome when the problems come in the early days of March.

After all, the grind hasn't even begun.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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