Monday, March 24, 2008


Cripes, it’s Opening Day Eve and I’ve got nothing. It’ll be baseball for breakfast tomorrow morning as Daisuke Matsuzaka takes the ball for the Sox against the A’s at 6:00 a.m. Eastern, and here I am all distracted and discombobulated.

As always, then, a completely unpremeditated and poorly researched take on my expectations for the 2008 Red Sox:

Theo and Tito’s Sox have set a pretty high bar for themselves on and off the field after 2 championships in 4 seasons, and there’s a part of me that wants to say that anything less than another World Series victory would be a disappointment. But there’s a lot more of me (35/37ths, let’s say), the baseball fan part, that understands how the game works and values the journey. The Sox players and front office can be upset if they fail to win another ring; I’d be a hypocrite of the highest order if I defined success that way.

So the greatest luxury afforded by the Sox’ recent accomplishments is that of perspective. I’m quite certain that during individual games I’ll be highly irrational, ranting and stomping against the inhumanity of it all. But I’m fairly confident (though not completely – I am, after all, a bit of a whackjob on this topic) that I’ll be able to balance that in-the-moment insanity with a longer view.

That psycho-babbling preview behind us, here’s what my rational brain expects from the Sox – and it’s maybe not as rosy as others may expect. Clearly, this team has the potential to be one of the league’s elite teams. They return the defending World Champion roster nearly intact, and while it’s a year older, that helps in at least as many cases as it hurts, with young players that much more experienced. But there’s enough nagging doubt, especially in the rotation, to give me pause before I proclaim the 2008 Sox a superteam.

On paper, a rotation of Josh Beckett, Matsuzaka, Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield, and Jon Lester looks sensational. In the real world, Beckett enters the season with a nagging back injury, Schilling won’t pitch until at least July, Wakefield is 68 years old, and is Tim Wakefield, and Lester’s proven to be both talented and inconsistent in his short career. Possible fill-ins Bartolo Colon and Clay Buchholz offer high ceilings and unanswered questions of their own. And Julian Tavarez waits in the wings to entertain and confound. Other teams wish they had the same problems, but the fact remains that this group isn’t guaranteed to be as good as they look. It’s my biggest concern.

The Sox will hit – Manny Ramirez is allegedly in terrific shape and David Ortiz enters the season with a newly healthy knee. The law of averages dictates that Julio Lugo and J.D. Drew have to be better than they were in 2007, though it also indicts Mike Lowell. Dustin Pedroia proved he can hit in the bigs, and Kevin Youkilis won’t win any homerun titles, but he’s effective in the Sox’ lineup. Jacoby Ellsbury and his transition to a full-time player is a big question mark, and I don’t expect much of anything from the Sox’ catchers, with Jason Varitek clearly on the decline and Kevin Cash in the running for worst offensive player in history. With Sean Casey, Bobby Kielty, Alex Cora, and Coco Crisp on the bench and Brandon Moss and Kevin Carter waiting in the wings, I feel good enough about the Sox’ depth – hell, all 4 of those guys would start on a lot of other teams.

Finally, the bullpen should be solid to very good once again. In Jonathan Papelbon the Sox have the game’s most dominant closer, as well as the league’s most entertaining idiot. Manny Delcarmen seems poised to take the leap, and while Hideki Okajima likely won’t reach his lofty 2008 numbers, he’s still a better than average setup guy. The ancient Mike Timlin continues to defy time, and the Sox have a ton of fungible middle and long relievers in both Boston and Pawtucket.

So, all things considered, there’s no tangible complaint as we eagerly anticipate the new season, at least none that Pirates fans would brook. But there’s enough doubt mixed in to leaven any expectations with a little bit of realism. As with any championship team, a lot of things have to break right, even for a team as deep and talented as the Sox. Combine that mini-doubt with the unquestionable improvement by the Rays, the talent of the Jays, and the obvious threat posed by the Yankees, and it’s anything but a no-brainer for the Sox in 2008. (Left unsaid in that sentence but not this is the fact that the Orioles may be legendarily, epically awful this year – they enter the season with Kevin Millar batting cleanup. Cowboy Up may be replaced by S.O.S. in Charm City.)

In the end, I think the Sox should probably win the AL East, but not easily. And that means we’ll have an exciting summer, which is about all a baseball fan really wants. Roll out the bats, and let’s get it on. Lotta ball left.

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