Saturday, February 7, 2009

Winter's Almost Done

I haven't checked in for a while, and we're getting pretty close to the start of spring training, so I thought now was a good time to post. I've been working full-time in Newburyport for the past few weeks so it's one of those things where writing for fun hasn't carried the same significance. It's been fantastic so far, and finally getting paid to write stuff is awesome.

Also, the Bruins' stretch of excellence has awakened my love for hockey that's mostly been dormant since junior high, so I can honestly say I've paid less attention to the hot stove this winter than any in the last few years (that doesn't mean I'm not obsessive about it, just not as obsessive). I've seriously considered starting a hockey blog, and I'm also getting to the point where I'll be consciously shutting out most sports chatter from my life besides baseball and hockey. Well, at least until football comes back.

Next weekend I'll be back with my annual American League preview, starting as always with the AL East sans Red Sox. And I won't be commenting on the A-Rod situation in this format until then at the earliest.

Pitchers and catchers will be reporting to Fort Myers in just a few days. With the signing of Jason Varitek to what amounts to a two-year, $8 million deal, the Sox will head into spring training with a club with several big questions, including but not limited to:

Will J.D. Drew, David Ortiz and Mike Lowell be healthy enough to play all year? Which Josh Beckett will we get this season, the 2007 or 2008 version? Can Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Jon Papelbon improve on their '08 successes? Who will be the fifth starter? What will be the breakdown in playing time between Varitek and Josh Bard? Does Varitek really have anything left? Who starts at shortstop on Opening Day, Julio Lugo or Jed Lowrie? Can Jacoby Ellsbury handle being the undisputed #1 center fielder for the Sox? How long will Mark Kotsay be out, and will Brad Wilkerson step up in his absence? Which of the Sox low-risk signings (John Smoltz, Brad Penny, Rocco Baldelli, Takashi Saito, Bard) will pan out? Which will bust? Who's going to contribute in the bullpen, and who'll drop off?

That's more questions than I expected to have when I started writing that paragraph. If the answers to all those pan out in club's favor, there's no reason why they won't finish first in the AL East regardless of what kind of seasons are had in Tampa and New York. And I believe most of them will. I'm most concerned about the trio of veteran hitters.

But Theo Epstein has set the Red Sox up very well for 2009. They failed in pursuit of Mark Teixeira, but wound up with the aforementioned five-some of free agents plus Mark Kotsay for a total of $14 million in guaranteed money (remember that Bard's $1.7 million is part of a non-guaranteed deal), which is $6 million less than what the Yankees will pay Teixeira this year.

Epstein knows of the risks carried by Drew, Lowell and Ortiz. Epstein knows the economic climate of baseball will cause poorer teams to shed high-salaried stars by the spring and summer if their attendance plummets. So the Red Sox are in a great position to pick up these players should they have needs to address during the season.

Teams like Colorado, Milwaukee, Minnesota, Detroit, Houston, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Texas come to mind as potential salary-dumpers. And don't expect many of them to wait until July 31 to make a move. If these teams are sagging in attendance, don't feel they can be competitive, and are just in general hemorrhaging money come as early as May, their respective ownerships will push to move players to cut costs.

The Red Sox are one of the fortunate teams that will be able to pick up the pieces, and Epstein knows it.

That's all for now.

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