By Gerard Gallagher, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2003 FINISH (95-67) - Second Place (AL East); lost in ALCS to New York Yankees
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: INF - Mark Bellhorn, OF - Ellis Burks, RP - Keith Foulke, 2B - Pokey Reese, SP - Curt Schilling
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: RP - Casey Fossum, INF - Damian Jackson, RP - Brandon Lyon, SP - Jeff Suppan, 2B - Todd Walker
PROJECTED LINEUP: Johnny Damon (CF), Bill Mueller (3B), Nomar Garciaparra (SS), Manny Ramirez (LF), David Ortiz (DH), Kevin Millar (1B), Trot Nixon (RF), Jason Varitek (C), Pokey Reese (2B)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Pedro Martinez (RHP), Curt Schilling (RHP), Derek Lowe (RHP), Tim Wakefield (RHP), Bronson Arroyo (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Keith Foulke (RHP)
MANAGER: Terry Francona
With all the issues surrounding baseball this year, questions about illicit steroids, the sanctity of the game's records and the possibility of a comprehensive drug testing policy, still only one question remains in the city of Boston: Can the Red Sox beat the New York Yankees, and can they win their first World Series title since 1918?
They nearly killed both those proverbial evils last fall when they were just five outs from winning Game 7 of their ALCS with the Yankees, just five outs from moving ever closer to getting the Curse of the Bambino off their backs.
But an oft-criticized pitching decision and one swing by Aaron Boone prolonged what seems like a perpetual state of "always a bridesmaid, never the bride" in Beantown.
The biggest fallout from that extra-inning loss came when the Boston front office fired Grady Little, who was crucified for a coaching decision he made to leave laboring ace Pedro Martinez on the mound in the eighth inning.
Martinez yielded three game-tying runs, and Boone sent the Sox packing on the first pitch in the bottom of the 11th inning.
Little was fired after leading the team to its first playoff appearance since 1999. In steps new manager Terry Francona, widely considered to be a players’ manager who has only one previous head coaching stint. He skippered the Philadelphia Phillies from 1997-2000, compiling a 285-363 record.
"Four years of experience in a city like Philadelphia where it is tough not to be very good helps me in a job like this," Francona said after he was hired, later adding that the Red Sox position was the "perfect situation."
He does have a link of familiarity with the club, as former Phillies and Diamondbacks ace Curt Schilling is now with the team, signed in the offseason to be the two in a one-two punch with Martinez.
This infield would look a lot better with AL MVP Alex Rodriguez anchored on the left side. Alas, the Yankees (gasp) won that off season battle, but the Red Sox' infield remains one of the best in the game.
It begins and ends with Nomar Garciaparra at shortstop. There was some discussion about whether he would be back with the team, but now that A-Rod has landed in the Bronx, the Red Sox should be happy they have Garciaparra, who has a career average of .323 in eight seasons with the team. He is nursing a mild right Achilles’ tendon injury, but may be back for Opening Day.
In his stead, Francona will play capable second baseman and off-season addition Pokey Reese, a two-time Gold Glove winner at second who was signed to replace the departed Todd Walker.
When he's not filling in for the injured Garciaparra, Reese is competing with backup infielder and fellow offseason addition Mark Bellhorn for the starting job at second base. Bellhorn should be the primary reserve for Boston's infield, unless injury problems persist and he's forced into a starter's role.
Kevin Millar is the team's starting first baseman, but with right fielder Trot Nixon sidelined until May with a back injury, designated hitter David Ortiz is likely to see time at first while Millar fills in the outfield.
There are fewer questions at third base, where Bill Mueller hopes to build upon the career year he had in 2003. Mueller posted surprising numbers last season, batting .326 with 19 homers and 85 RBI, all personal bests. He will be backed up by Bellhorn when Bellhorn isn't busy filling other injury gaps in the infield.
The Red Sox had signed veteran infielder Tony Womack to a minor-league contract in the offseason, hoping to strengthen their depth in the field, but he was traded to St. Louis for a minor league pitcher.
At catcher, the steady Jason Varitek is back for his seventh full season in a Red Sox uniform. Varitek also posted surprising numbers last season, batting .273 with 25 homers and 85 RBI in 142 games. He and Schilling should make one of the smartest batteries in the league. Doug Mirabelli, who appeared in 62 games last season, will be the backup.
Nixon's injury is the biggest question mark in a sturdy Boston outfield. When Millar isn't filling in, backup Gabe Kapler figures to be the starter. Kapler is also the backup in center field, where starter Johnny Damon has a career .994 fielding percentage. Damon batted .273 last year with a team-leading 30 stolen bases. He's really Boston's only speedy base-running threat, and that quickness fuels his aggressiveness in the outfield, where he frequently makes highlight-reel plays up against the wall.
And then there's leftfielder Manny Ramirez, who was nearly traded to Texas in the off season for MVP Rodriguez. That would have been an unprecedented power swap between two AL teams, in terms of money and statistics.
The 31-year-old Ramirez, who has five seasons and $97.5 million to go on his $160 million, eight-year contract, completed his third season with Boston and his 10th full major league campaign in 2003. He has been named to seven AL All- Star teams, including the last six in a row, but is said to have worn out his stay in Boston. Earlier last year, Ramirez missed a Labor Day weekend series against the Yankees, yet was spotted in public. He was even put on irrevocable waivers by the Red Sox, but there were no takers.
However, Ramirez' numbers speak volumes about his prowess as a player: a .325 average last season with 37 homers and 104 RBI, and eight seasons with at least 30 home runs.
When Ortiz isn't busy filling in at first base, he is the team's designated hitter. And what a surprise he was last season. Ortiz finished fifth in the 2003 AL MVP balloting, posting career offensive numbers and coming up big in countless clutch situations for the Sox as they made their playoff push. He batted .288 with career-highs of 31 homers and 101 RBI in just 128 games for Boston. and at just $1.25 million, he is a bargain.
But with persistent injuries. providing the Red Sox with ample reasons to find a backup DH, the team signed veteran Ellis Burks in the offseason. Burks, who was drafted by Boston more than 20 years ago, will serve as another righthanded batter off the bench for the Sox. A former All-Star, he appeared in just 55 games last season with Cleveland and batted .263 with six homers and 28 runs batted in before undergoing season-ending surgery in June to transpose the ulnar nerve in his right elbow.
Along with Garciaparra, Martinez will potentially be a free agent at the end of this season, and so he will have an incentive to pitch more innings than he has in the past three seasons. He hasn't breached the 200-inning mark since 2000, but remains one of the most dominant pitchers in the majors, leading the AL in ERA four of the past five seasons.
Martinez was 14-4 last season with a 2.22 ERA and 206 strikeouts in 186 innings. Coupled with Schilling, Martinez is part of a scary one-two punch as good as any in the league.
Schilling, who waived his no-trade clause with Arizona in November to become a member of the Red Sox, will earn between $12 and $13 million over the next three seasons in Boston. He battled injuries last season and went 8-9 with a 2.95 ERA over 24 starts, but has a World Series ring and is considered to be one of the smartest and hardest-working active hurlers.
"I am thrilled he is here," Francona said of Schilling, who was a steady ace in Philadelphia when Francona was there. "When this guy takes the ball, he prepares to pitch nine innings, and he's good enough to do it."
The remaining Red Sox rotation is formidable, considering it boasts proven talent with Derek Lowe and Tim Wakefield as the third and fourth starters. Lowe followed up his 21-win season in 2002 with a 17-7 record in 2003. He posted a lofty 4.47 ERA with 110 strikeouts in 33 starts, but ate up a lot of innings for the club (203 1/3) and is without a doubt one of the best No. 3s in the game.
Behind him is longtime Boston knuckleballer Wakefield, who surrendered that fateful home run to Boone in the ALCS. Wakefield is coming off consecutive 11-win seasons for the Sox and tied a career-high with 33 starts for the team in 2003. His 4.09 ERA last season was more than a point higher that his 2.81 ERA in 2002, but he remains the best knuckleballer in the league and a flat-out luxury as a No. 4 starter.
Byung-Hyun Kim had been listed as the team’s fifth starter, but he's trying to recover from a sore shoulder. For the time being, the No. 5 job will go to righthander Bronson Arroyo, who posted a 2.08 ERA in six relief appearances for the Red Sox in 2003.
Kim, acquired from the Diamondbacks last season, started 12 of the 56 total games he appeared in with Arizona and Boston in 2003. He was 9-10 overall with a 3.31 ERA and 102 strikeouts in 122 innings.
The bullpen was a sore spot last season for the Red Sox, who used a much- maligned and fruitless closer-by-committee system. But the team traveled miles to fix the problem in the offseason, acquiring proven closer Keith Foulke, who led the AL last season with 43 saves in 48 opportunities.
Foulke may have been a more important acquisition than Schilling, as the Sox already had a proven foundation of starters. But now they have talent to match in the bullpen with Foulke, who not only posted a career-high in saves, but was also 9-1 with a 2.08 ERA and 88 strikeouts in 86 2/3 innings.
Foulke had more individual saves last season that the entire Red Sox staff, which finished in the middle of the AL pack with just 36 combined saves.
His main set up men will be lefthander Alan Embree (4-1, one save in 2003) and righty Scott Williamson (5-3, 21 saves for Cincinnati in 2003). Lefthander Mark Malaska (2-1 in 22 relief appearances with Tampa Bay) and righties Mike Timlin (6-4, two saves in 72 games in 2003) and Ramiro Mendoza (3-5, 6.75 ERA last year) will be in long relief.
Kapler and Bellhorn will be the most frequently used reserves in Boston, with Burks a key fill-in at DH. The Red Sox also have Mirabelli and veterans Brian Daubach and Terry Shumpert available.
The big question is, can the Red Sox win their first World Series since 1918 and forever end the ridiculous Curse of the Bambino? The answer may not lie in whether the Red Sox can beat out New York or the rest of the rapidly improving AL East, but whether they can win in the playoffs as a Wild Card. The Yankees will always be in the way, but there is a reason for that.
New York principal owner George Steinbrenner is better at playing by the rules than the Red Sox front office. BoSox president Larry Lucchino can berate Steinbrenner all he wants...the man gets the job done, as is proven by his A-Rod pickup.
But the Red Sox also made some nice moves in the offseason, and their starting rotation is stronger than New York's. By securing Schilling and Foulke, Boston has maintained its status as one of the top teams in the AL.
But how is anyone supposed to predict when this ridiculous championship drought will end?