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Putting On The Hurt

Nomar Garciaparra smiled to reporters this spring and told everyone not to worry because his ankle was just a little sore and that, after all, spring training games are meaningless. You don’t win championships in Florida, unless you happen to be the Marlins. But, just days before the 2004 season was to begin, the Red Sox placed the All-Star shortstop on the 15-day disabled list due to a sore Achilles with a likely return date around the end of April. You can’t help but flash back a few seasons when he missed most of 2001 due to a nagging wrist injury that required surgery on Opening Day.

Trot Nixon is another of the walking wounded for the Red Sox; out since early in spring training with a sore back, he is not expected to return until the start of May at the earliest. Ditto for Ramiro Mendoza, who was placed on the DL with shoulder tendonitis four games into the young season, and Byung-Hyun Kim, who started the season on the DL and spends these days rehabbing in Sarasota. Johnny Damon has also sat out for a couple of games, perhaps in part because his long hair has robbed him of any peripheral vision and caused him to run into his fellow outfielders during the first few games. Fortunately, his injury will not require injured reserve status and he should be back for action when the rains end.

Perhaps the slew of injuries that have plagued the Red Sox early in this year’s race can account in part for the stagnant production at the plate. Yes, the Sox are 4-3 after a week of baseball, but perhaps more thanks to a strong bullpen that have helped keep games close. Except for the absence of Todd Walker, this team has the same makeup as last season’s team that scored 961 runs; the difference is that the Sox were relatively injury-free for most of that year. So, instead of fielding the dream team that was molded in the off-season, Boston has had to go to the bench early and rely on role players like Gabe Kapler, Mark Bellhorn, and Cesar Crespo to fill in the blanks.

Fortunately, the schedule makers are usually very kind to the Red Sox in April. Yes, they face the Yankees seven times, but the rest of the competition consists mainly of the weak sisters from the East: Baltimore, Toronto, and Tampa Bay. Yes, they have improved and are not to be taken lightly but, even with one eye closed, the Sox can manage .500 in April without much effort and stay close to New York.

Boston, to keep its sights on October, must count on the return of its starters as expected by the end of this month. Until then, manager Terry Francona must continue to juggle the lineup as he has and hope for the best; so far, the oddball combinations have worked to help stay the course. Most important is that the rest of the team, minus the injured regulars, must remain healthy; any further setbacks may dig a hole out of which is too deep for Boston to climb.

2004 Season Preview

Now that another wild and crazy off-season is finally coming to an end, it’s time to dust off the binoculars and look over the field of players that will be putting on a uniform for the Boston nine this season. For you holdovers from last season, you won’t see many differences; the only significant loss being 2B Todd Walker, who left as a free agent and signed with the Chicago Cubs. Where the Sox have improved the most is with the pitching staff, having added starting pitcher Curt Schilling and closer Keith Foulke to give the Red Sox a solid staff on the mound. On paper, you have to like what you see, but this column would be relatively uninteresting if we didn’t take a closer look, let’s answer some self-imposed questions first.

1. Who will be the number one starter, Schilling or Pedro Martinez?

The truth is that there is no “number one” on this team, but Pedro will have the honor of opening the season against Baltimore on 04 April. While a definite rotation has not been set to my knowledge, there is a good chance that Schilling and Martinez will NOT pitch in back-to-back games this season. More likely, we will watch Tim Wakefield‘s knuckleball flutter between their starts. So does that make Schilling a number three starter? The good news for Red Sox nation is that Boston has one of its strongest rotations in years; when you toss in Derek Lowe, you have four proven starters that between them could easily collect 70 wins.

2. Will Bill Mueller have another career year?

It’s unlikely that Mueller and the rest of his team will repeat the offensive output that they had last season, when they out-slugged the 1927 New York Yankees and were first in runs scored in the majors. Still, it’s very likely that he can hit .300 again and continue to use the Wall to his advantage. He’s probably also good for another 10 to 15 home runs. Most importantly, he has proven himself at third base, one of the trickiest positions in baseball to play.

3. Is manager Terry Francona on the hot seat already?

Given the fact that there are several big contracts that expire at the end of this season, the pressure is on for the Red Sox to go all the way, if you ignore the fact that history and the other 29 teams are not on their side. Francona was not the first choice that the Red Sox had but, if consider that Grady Little, who had no major league coaching experience when he was named manager two years ago, won nearly 200 games in two years, you just need to have enough knowledge and personnel skills to repeat that success. As long as he is smart enough to pull a pitcher who is obviously fatigued late in a Game Seven, then he should do fine.

4. Who will see more time at first, David Ortiz or Kevin Millar?

Ortiz would like to spend more time covering the bag, but he will come second to Millar. However, when Ellis Burks is used as the DH, Ortiz will win over Millar on this battle. Ortiz just has better numbers at the plate and the Sox will not want to keep his bat out of the lineup too often.

5. What free-agent signing will have the highest impact?

Although Curt Schilling’s presence in the lineup will make the starting rotation an opponent’s nightmare, having Keith Foulke come in to shore up the closer role will mean the most to this club. Since Derek Lowe’s 2000 season in that role, the Sox have been very weak in this respect. Lowe faltered the following year, Ugueth Urbina was anything but solid in 2002, and the closer-by-committee experiment last season was, while a sound idea in theory, a complete failure in practice. Foulke collected 43 saves in his one year in Oakland and that means that the rest of the bullpen can be used better to set him up to close the door.

6. What bench player will have the highest impact?

My money is on Gabe Kapler, who enjoyed a solid spring and will actually start the season in right field as a replacement for the injured Trot Nixon. Once Nixon returns in May, Kapler will likely take a seat on the bench but will called out for service if Manny Ramirez is thrown into the DH role or is given a seat by Francona to rest for a day. He also makes a nice pinch hitter should the opponent throw out a left-handed reliever, having hit .326 last season against southpaws.

7. Will the Red Sox be able to hold off the Yankees and win the AL East?

As strong as the Red Sox have become with several key additions, you cannot ignore the Yankees, who have also made key additions for another chance at a World Series title. They certainly have a stronger lineup with the addition of Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield. The only real question for the Yankees will be if Kevin Brown can have an injury-free season and if newcomer Javier Vazquez, recently of the Montreal Expos, will prove unflappable under the lights of Yankee fans and the front office. As Sox fans have seen for the last six years, you can never underestimate New York; every year, they remain tough. It helps when your owner is willing to shell out nearly $200 million to pay for the collective salary of this team.

8. Overall, is Boston good enough to… you know?

Anybody who has followed the Red Sox as long as I have knows enough NOT to start opening the champagne bottles prematurely. However, with all that happened during the off-season, good and bad, Boston has made significant strides to improve on a team that came very close to tasting a championship in 2003. It will be critical for Boston to play to this potential if they are to stay ahead of the Yankees. With the addition of Schilling, the starting rotation looks strong and, with the addition of Foulke, so does the bullpen. Although it will tough to match last season’s offensive output, there are plenty of bats available to score runs when needed and, defensively, the Red Sox are better than average at most positions and should keep the untimely errors to a minimum. In conclusion, the 2004 edition of the Boston nine is good enough, but let’s not say any more than that.