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Frozen food for thought

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff January 22, 2009 05:59 AM

I know, it's difficult to believe considering you've got enough snow in your yard at the moment to open your own ski resort, but this is the honest truth, thank goodness: Pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers on Feb. 12 — just 21 days from now.

Well, pitchers will report, anyway. In a leap of faith, we’re simply going to assume Theo Epstein will have secured a legitimate starting catcher by then. We’d hate to see the puzzled look on Daisuke Matsuzaka’s face as John Farrell tells him to get loose by throwing to a Spalding 15275 Pitching Target Return Throw Back Stop. (Catchy name, no?)

So while we endure our own ongoing wintry version of the Big Dig, here is an inning’s worth of Red Sox items to keep you warm. (What’s that? You say snow isn’t the only thing I’m shoveling? Cheap, cheap shot ...)

We await Varitek’s fate
At this writing, longtime and generally beloved Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek remains in self-inflicted limbo, having turned down arbitration only to discover this cold truth: He and his agent, the execrable but usually remarkably effective Scott Boras, made a serious miscalculation about Varitek’s perceived value, particularly when a first-round pick is attached as compensation. So much for matching Jorge Posada’s four-year, $52 million benchmark, eh, Scottie?

It seemed a resolution might have been imminent late last week when Varitek requested a one-on-one meeting with Red Sox owner John Henry at the catcher’s home in Atlanta, but both men have been purposefully vague regarding what was said and if any matters were settled, though the apparently well-sourced Heidi Watney indicated on NESN that Varitek’s primary desire is a two-year deal.

So the stalemate lingers. I suppose the loyal order of the ’Tek Appreciation Society will be skeptical of this statement, seeing how I’m prone to pointing out such things as statistics that suggest he’s done as a competent major league hitter (remember, he batted .225 in the second half in 2007) while dismissing the value of his alleged intangibles, but I truly do hope Varitek gulps down his pride and returns to the Red Sox as part of a catching tandem. Although I disagree with the theory that his knowledge would ease the transition to Boston for the new pitchers on the staff — John Smoltz spent much of his career throwing to Javy Lopez, which means he can thrive with just about any nitwit behind the plate — there is some value in his familiarity with the holdovers on the staff, and it may be worth more than he will cost. Plus, he will work cheap.

Health issues follow Ortiz, Beckett
In a sense, the Red Sox’ signature hitter and starting pitcher will enter the new season under similar circumstances, with similar things to prove. And whether either — or both — comes through will go a long way toward deciding the fate of the Sox this season.

Both David Ortiz and Josh Beckett suffered through frustrating seasons in 2008. Beckett was never quite right from his first pitch, suffering a back injury in camp, enduring a sore elbow in late summer, then sacrificing most of his velocity and command to an oblique injury in the postseason. After winning 20 games and finishing second in the Cy Young voting in ’07, he labored to a 12-10 record with a 4.03 ERA last season. Though his struggles were disconcerting to watch, with good health — and, let’s face it, a rededication to a conditioning regimen, preferably one that doesn’t consist of hanging out in a hunting blind with Mike Timlin and Larry the Cable Guy for 12 hours — the 29-year-old should have little trouble proving that last season’s maddening mediocrity was a fluke.

With Ortiz, there is greater reason for concern. He’s 33 years old, coming off a wrist injury that limited him to just 109 games, and struggled often enough when he was in the lineup that his slugging percentage plunged from .621 to .507. Of course we all hope Papi finds his superheroic form, and if his body cooperates … well, I know better than to write that man off. But it’s foolish to assume he’ll be a 1.000-OPS force again, and so there’s a reason the Red Sox deeply coveted Mark Teixeira and did their due diligence on Hanley Ramirez — they simply aren’t convinced that their lineup is as deep as it needs to be in the mighty AL East. Which brings us to …

The pivotal role of Jason Bay
Speaking entirely with my heart, count me with that Pierce fella on the back page — bring back Manny! Okay, I realize he’s being satirical, while I’m standing alone as the Last Enabling and Delusional Manny Ramirez Apologist in New England. Hey, we all have our little niche in the world. That’s mine. I’m cool with it.

But in my usual roundabout way, it brings me to the point: These Red Sox are going to require substantial offensive feats from Manny’s successor in left field, Jason Bay. Consider: Papi, Mike Lowell, and J.D. Drew are question marks physically, Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia need to prove that they are capable of MVP-caliber seasons again, Jed Lowrie and Jacoby Ellsbury are promising but unproven, and there is no catcher to speak of.

Bay, who averages 31 homers and 103 RBI over 162 games in his six-year career, is the surest thing in this lineup entering the season, and the Sox need him to be every bit as fantastic as he was after being freed from Pittsburgh purgatory at the trade deadline. Is he capable of such production over a full season? Let’s put it this way: Although it’s somewhat alarming that his three most similar age 29 comparisons are Geoff Jenkins, Ryan Klesko, and Bobby Higginson, Bay’s OPS with the Red Sox (.897) is only .006 higher than his career OPS (.891). The player we saw last season is the player Jason Bay has been his entire career.

Now, if only he could catch.

OT columnist Chad Finn is a sports reporter for Boston.com and can be reached at finn@globe.com

21 comments so far...
  1. Why, after winning the ROY and MVP in his first two seasons in the majors, does Dustin Pedroia still need to "prove himself" and is not considered a "sure thing" in the lineup? What else does the poor guy need to do?

    Posted by Respect for Dustin Please January 22, 09 11:17 AM
  1. "a rededication to a conditioning regimen, preferably one that doesn’t consist of hanging out in a hunting blind with Mike Timlin and Larry the Cable Guy for 12 hours"

    LMAO. Great column as always.

    Posted by jbozak January 22, 09 11:29 AM
  1. . . . and Kevin Youlilis ain't chopped liver either. One of the charms of the winter stove-stoking season is that one can look at MANY lineups and pitching staffs and, with reason, see the glass totally full or totally empty. This column is one of the glass-is-empty variety--and CF could of course have gone ahead and compiled a similarly grim description of the pitching staff worst-case-scenario. The Sox have plenty of question marks that the season will answer; that's why they play the games. The Sox have lots of guys--both among the returning vets and the new additions-- who suffered injuries last year; several young players have plenty to prove. I love this ball team and I like our chances, nevertheless. It's fun to think of the flip side: most of the wounded have glorious comeback seasons, the kids come into their own, and we battle tenaciously to postseason glory. Why not? Sounds good to me :-)

    Posted by Elaine Apthorp January 22, 09 11:34 AM
  1. I didn't say he had to "prove himself," so please don't put it in quotes as if I did. What I said was this: "Pedroia and Youkilis need to prove they are capable of MVP-caliber seasons again." BIG difference. And they do -- they Sox cannot afford any falloff from either player, and anyone who thinks at least a slight dip is out of the realm of possibility needs to take off their carmine-colored glasses.

    Posted by cf January 22, 09 11:40 AM
  1. Why is no one willing to point out Heidi Watney's huge conflict of interest in reporting on Varitek, other than your allusion to the "apparently well-sourced Heidi Watney". If we should have openness in government, why not the same in journalism?

    Posted by Bill January 22, 09 11:40 AM
  1. I agree with Dustin. Pedroia's numbers for his first two years are probably typical for him. Youkilis has improved year after year so I don't know what it is that he has to prove either. But I certainly would like to see some movement on the catcher boondoggle. I've been saying for three years now that they have to start grooming Tek's replacement. Why has this gone this far?

    Posted by rick January 22, 09 12:00 PM
  1. Chad:

    The key to the Sox line up this year is Pink Hat Pin Up Boy Ellsbury. If he is getting on base and creating problems he can score 120 plus runs a year. He will make it so Pedroia gets fastballs to hit which in turn opens the doors to the 3-5 hitters. Ortiz can still draw walks, Youk is a .400 OBP guy and Lowell is your Fenway hitter if I ever saw one. If Ellsbury cannot find a way on base then Pedroia gets crap to hit and the line up is screwed.

    Posted by rob January 22, 09 12:01 PM
  1. I don't think its a need to "prove himself" as much as it is onlookers holding their breath to see if he does do it again. I am a DP devotee, and am comforted every time I see him running out onto the field. If Tito never makes another "great managerial move" in his Red Sox career, his sticking with DP when much of RSN was calling for his replacement with Alex Cora will cause me to revere Tito for as long as he's with the Sox.

    However, DP and Youk assumed a whole lotta load last year. Expecting them to do it year-in-and-year out is a lot to ask. Every one of us has some amount of mediocrity -- and we never know when it will emerge. Even with their mammoth contributions last year, the Sox still came up a tad short. If they performances fall off in the least, then someone else will have to step it up. Now that can be Papi or Mikey or Josh returning to prior form as they recover from serious injuries. But I don't think questioning whether the Sox possess enough the parts and pieces necessary to prevail, particularly in the tough AL East, is a knock on either DP or Youk. Without them, the Sox might well have been looking up at the Orioles and Blue Jays!

    I love watching the excitement in the face of my 85 year old mother when DP runs onto the field or steps up to the plate, stretching his face and adjusting his batting gloves in a way reminiscent of Nomar.

    Posted by David Benjamin January 22, 09 12:03 PM
  1. It's nice to see Jason Bay getting some recognition. His numbers suggest that he's a solid #3 hitter and would be a capable cleanup hitter for many teams. Francona underutilizes him and bats him an insulting 6th or 7th. Until Papi proves he's his old self, Bay should hit 4th, with Youk 3rd and Papi 5th. Then Lowell and Drew. The lineup is amazing. Who else has 5 guys who can hit 25-35 HR? Remember, in this clean era, the 40 HR guy is rare and the 50 HR guy is very rare. I don't see the hole in the lineup, other than catcher. I'm not ready to write off Ortiz yet, but I am definitely ready to move him down in the order if he doesn't produce. Francona should have done that last year, when more productice guys were hitting in all three spots behind him.

    Posted by SteveL January 22, 09 12:35 PM
  1. Chad, how many times did the fact checkers double back on the phrase, "...apparently well-sourced Heidi Watney"?????

    Posted by Milligan January 22, 09 12:42 PM
  1. "The apparently well-sourced Heidi Watney..." ROFL...Great sportswriting there. Elegant. Subtle. Vicious.

    Posted by Mark January 22, 09 02:39 PM
  1. Bay strikes out way too much for this lineup if his OPS isn't over 1.000 which I'm not saying that it should be.

    The lineup is weak.

    This not a division winning team as currently put together, even with the new pitchers.

    Posted by Boston Dan January 22, 09 03:12 PM
  1. Anybody that beliebes the Sox would bring back Manny is a flaming idiot.

    Tom K

    Nederland, Texas

    How about bringing back Dick Stuart? Remember him? maybe he will sign for a few million and give us another jerk

    Posted by Anonymous January 22, 09 03:41 PM
  1. I tried to be as subtle as I could, Milligan. She DID have the scoop. Just giving credit where it's due.

    Posted by cf January 22, 09 03:44 PM
  1. Rob, Pedroia hit just fine in 2008 without much assistance from Ellsbury in the leadoff role. He only scored 81 runs while playing in the leadoff spot and that didn't hamper Pedroia's ability to hit, so I can't see that being the thing that is going to hold this lineup back this year. Any boost from Ellsbury will be huge, that is obvious, but he isn't the catalyst of this offense.

    It was pretty simple to figure out, but CF points out the biggest concerns of the offense: Papi and Bay. I'd go out and say that more consistency from JD Drew is up there too, but the club has done fine with his somewhat pedestrian numbers (although he is tremendous in the OF and a great baserunner).

    Posted by Jeffery Lebowski January 22, 09 04:06 PM
  1. Good call with Jason Bay, as I see him playing a PROMINENT role this season. He's in a contract year, and you can tell he'd love to stay in Boston. I hate seeing his name hitting 6th or 7th... I understand the logic, as Francona generally likes to mix his line up R,L,R,L but seriously, Bay should either be hitting 4th or 5th.

    Posted by Jason Bay-niac January 22, 09 05:52 PM
  1. It's amusing NESN still as the "apparently well-sourced Watney" covering the Sox, let along Tek, given if not fact, public perception. But, then again, Mae still covered the Sox for her entire run and she was by all accounts even more well-sourced than her replacement.

    Posted by Melissa January 22, 09 06:26 PM
  1. Another Moron Speaks!! The globe is getting very desperate to have this garbage published. Honestly, I cannot even begin to post what's wrong with these 2 IDIOTS!!....Enjoy,whatever , I will make sure I skip past your posts from here on out....PeteGeranioussis

    Posted by PeteG January 22, 09 10:55 PM
  1. Sign Manny and win the world series! I sent the same message on a Mets Blog. If winning is the onl thing bring the oops, my bad Manny back for less years and less money. He will tantrum in august as he whines for more money but in october...

    Posted by psycholojets January 23, 09 12:55 AM
  1. Chad, I'm still in disbelief that until recently you've never watched Freaks and Geeks. You are watching way to much sports.

    Posted by Rick Derby January 23, 09 08:42 AM
  1. Other than perhaps being a good "clubhouse man", Jason Varitek's value to the Red Sox is nil. Pudge Rodriguez would be a much better aquisition, if only for a single year.

    Posted by Bobby Bud January 23, 09 09:23 AM
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Charles P. Pierce writes for the Boston Globe Magazine. A long-time sportswriter and columnist, Pierce is a frequent guest on national TV and radio.
Tony Massarotti is a Boston Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. He is currently spotlighted as a featured columnist on Boston.com.
Tom Caron serves as studio host for NESN's Boston Red Sox coverage.
Bob Lobel was a WBZ-TV sportscaster for 29 years, anchoring more than 10,000 sports reports.
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