Red Sox Opening Day outlook

Red Sox Opening Day outlook

Sporting the deepest pitching staff they've had in recent memory, the Red Sox, at least during Spring Training, looked well-armed to make a run at their fourth consecutive postseason appearance.

But now the games count, which will give a true gauge of where everyone is at.

Will ace Curt Schilling's Spring Training optimism translate into a dramatic turnaround from his exceedingly frustrating season of a year ago? Can Keith Foulke keep taking leaps forward and maintain the strength in his surgically repaired knees?

How will all the new guys -- from Josh Beckett to Coco Crisp to Mark Loretta and others -- fit in and adapt to the intensity and scrutiny that comes with playing for the Red Sox?

The 2006 Red Sox will start answering all those questions when they open their season on the road against the Rangers on Monday afternoon behind Schilling.

1. Coco Crisp, CF:
If anyone wished Spring Training counted, it was Crisp, who seemed to spend his entire Grapefruit League tour on the bases. The challenge of replacing Johnny Damon doesn't appear to be one that will rattle Crisp. His job is to set the table for monster mashers David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez.

2. Mark Loretta, 2B:
The thumb injury that pretty much wrecked Loretta's final season in San Diego hasn't been evident at all, as the second baseman looks primed to have a big year. Defensively, he should be helped by having the gifted Alex Gonzalez at shortstop.

3. David Ortiz, DH:
Can Big Papi do the unthinkable and produce a fourth consecutive career season? Considering how high he set the bar in 2005 (47 homers, 148 RBIs), that could be asking a lot. But there's no reason Ortiz shouldn't have another big year and add to his already legendary status in the city of Boston.

4. Manny Ramirez, LF:
The star slugger was unhappy in the offseason? It didn't show, as Ramirez came to camp and did what he always does -- hit a steady array of line drives to all fields. Ramirez looks forward to another season of feasting on American League pitching.

5. Trot Nixon, RF:
Nixon, who in many ways has been the ultimate Red Sox since moving into the everyday lineup in 1999, will try to rebound after being beset by injuries the last couple of years. This is a crucial season for the gritty right fielder, as he's entering the final year of his contract. Per usual, Nixon will get his uniform dirty just about every night.

6. Jason Varitek, C:
The captain is arguably the most valuable member of the team because of all he does to get the most out of the pitching staff. Of course, Varitek is also a threat from both sides of the plate and a rock behind it.

7. Mike Lowell, 3B:
The third baseman is a star on defense, but he is at a crossroads offensively. Is Lowell's sharp decline last year a sign of things to come, or will the comforts of Fenway Park help him rebound? Stay tuned, but the Red Sox would gladly settle for 20 homers and 80 RBIs from a player noted for his strong clubhouse presence.

8. Kevin Youkilis, 1B:
He finally gets his chance to play every day. Youkilis was a confident player all spring and looks enthused about his opportunity. With J.T. Snow also with the team, Youkilis will likely spell Lowell occasionally.

9. Alex Gonzalez, SS:
A defensive stalwart, many Red Sox pitchers are enthused about his arrival. Gonzalez has been an inconsistent hitter throughout his career, but the Red Sox hope he can at least pose somewhat of a threat in the No. 9 hole. He does have some pop, and he has been known to get clutch hits.

1. Curt Schilling, RHP:
The ace right-hander has had a gleam about him for weeks. The reason? He's healthy again. And after last year's nightmare, you can understand why Schilling is champing at the bit to take the ball on Opening Day.

2. Tim Wakefield, RHP:
The veteran knuckleballer enters his 12th season in a Boston uniform. Though his out pitch is unpredictable, Wakefield's yearly results are amazingly consistent. You can bank on him for double-digit wins and 200-plus innings.

3. Josh Beckett, RHP:
The only thing blistering on Beckett during Spring Training was his fastball. The club's prized acquisition from the offseason, Beckett hopes to go 200 innings for the first time in his career. If he does, the result will be a breakout season.

4. Matt Clement, RHP:
The forgotten man entering this season, it's important to remember that Clement held the Red Sox's rotation together during the first half of 2005. As for the struggles that followed in the second half, Clement aims to make them a distant memory and shed the label that pressure gets the most of him.

5. David Wells, LHP:
Always entertaining, Boomer is embarking on the final season of his impressive career. Coming off right knee surgery, Wells hopes to have healthy legs in '06. Even at the age of 42, he still has an amazingly resilient arm.

Foulke came to Spring Training as the biggest question mark on the team, but he appeared to be back in form by the end of camp. If Foulke can come close to the level he was at in 2004, the Red Sox should be a dangerous team. The bullpen appears to be in far better shape in the supporting roles than the last few years. Not only is dependable Mike Timlin back, but he's been joined by phenom Jonathan Papelbon and veterans Rudy Seanez, Julian Tavarez and David Riske. Papelbon, who stepped up last September, figures to be a difference maker. He has the ability to pitch long, middle or short relief. Fellow prospects Manny Delcarmen and Craig Hansen will be just a phone call away at Triple-A Pawtucket. The one thing the Sox lack in the 'pen is a left-hander. However, if the righties do their jobs, it might not matter.

Wells will start the season on the disabled list and make a Minor League rehab outing at Pawtucket on April 7. After that, he should be set to open his season on April 12 against the Blue Jays.

How will all the new pieces fit together? Beckett, Crisp, Loretta, Gonzalez and Lowell, the five key newcomers, have all spent their careers playing in small markets. Playing for the Red Sox is a unique experience, and one that takes an adjustment period for just about anyone.

Each newcomer has something to prove. Beckett wants to show that he can be durable. Crisp will try to show why the Red Sox felt they could let Damon go. Loretta wants to regain his health and get back to the top level he was at in 2004. Gonzalez aims to recapture some of his pop at the plate. And Lowell once to disprove all the critics who think that one bad year indicates that he's finished as a productive hitter.

"Are we the underdog? From what I read, yeah. Everybody is high on the Yankees again and that's fun. I like our staff, I like our defense, I love our offense. So you know what? Put us down for underdogs and we'll go from there." -- Wells

Ian Browne is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.