Considering the events of this particular Hot Stove season, which has seen the Red Sox make some premier acquisitions, the anticipation level is high.
"We're going to be there tonight and everyone's going to be talking about baseball," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "You'll see some guys [from the team]. But I think we've already gotten to that point [of anticipation]. When the rookies got here over the last couple weeks, you see them [working out] and start interacting and watching them, it's kind of that little internal clock that kind of hits. It's an exciting time."
Clay Buchholz (Red Sox co-Pitcher of the Year), Tim Wakefield (philanthropic excellence), Jed Lowrie (Comeback Player), Ryan Kalish (top rookie) and Darnell McDonald (Jackie Jensen Award) were some of the Sox players to attend Thursday's dinner. Team president/CEO Larry Lucchino, who received the Judge Emil Fuchs Award for long and meritorious service to the game, was also on hand, as was general manager Theo Epstein.
In three weeks, Francona will be in Fort Myers, Fla., in full preparation mode for his eighth season at the helm of the Sox.
With Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez on board as the two star additions, Boston has a lineup that could be loaded. All the positions seem to be set, including shortstop, where Marco Scutaro will likely be Francona's man on Opening Day.
But Lowrie -- who is finally healthy and had a big finish last season -- could be knocking on the door. And if Lowrie opens the season as an infield rover, that isn't necessarily a bad thing.
"Rather than worry about an infield competition because Scutaro's our shortstop, this guy gives us something that I don't know a lot of teams can say they have -- a switch-hitter that can play first, second, third or short, and play it a lot," Francona said. "He could play it for a week, he could play it for a day. He could play it for two weeks. That, I think, is probably going to save us. How many times have you see us go through the year where everybody stays healthy? We have a guy, and he's a switch-hitter to boot, so there's a lot to really like. I think Jed is certainly an everyday player, in our opinion -- it may not happen in April. And that's not really a bad thing."
After an 89-win season last year that included a barrage of injuries, Francona has a loaded roster entering this season.
"I've always said this -- pitching and defense win you games," said Wakefield. "I think with the addition of more speed in our lineup and more offensive power from Adrian Gonzalez, we're in a pretty good position to vie for not only the league championship but for the World Series."
And while expectations are always high surrounding the Red Sox, they will probably even be ratcheted up a notch or two this year.
"I hope so," Francona said. "I think what it means is our ownership and our front office really clutched up. I've heard Theo say it and I believe it -- you can't win in the winter. But they did a pretty [darn] good job. It's exciting. For the guys in uniform, now it's our job to go and take it and go from there. We don't know what's going to happen. Whatever happens, we want to try to be good enough to give ourselves a chance to have a special team. It's exciting."
Though injuries were certainly a central theme to the 2010 season, the struggles of the bullpen had every bit as much to do with the team not qualifying for postseason for the first time since '06.
"I'm really anxious. By the end of last season, I was as tired as any of our fans or our players -- just a little frustrated," Lucchino said. "But all it took was a couple of months away from it and a few big offseason acquisitions, and all of a sudden, I can't wait for [Spring Training]."
This year's team has added Bobby Jenks, Dan Wheeler and Matt Albers to a bullpen that already includes Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon.
"I think it will help," Francona said. "I think Pap's got his job and Bard certainly has grown into his job, but I think Jenks gives us one more swing-and-miss guy that has pitched those types of innings where you don't have to match him up. You put him in the game and let him get them out. That should give us that one more arm. There were times last year, and we all remember, when we may have been an arm short. We'd get into a certain game and we didn't have a guy to go to. They either extended a lead or we lost a lead. We lost a lot of leads last year. That's a tough way to be a real good team."
While the rotation has young stalwarts Buchholz and Jon Lester at the top, Daisuke Matsuzaka will be back for his fifth season with the Red Sox. It's still hard to know quite what to expect from Dice-K, but Francona has reason for encouragement.
"When I was rehabbing my knee, he was in there every day working out," Francona said. "And then he went away for a while, but I think he's actually checking back in for a couple of days here, maybe this week. I know he's been throwing and doing everything. He's real proud, his weight is down -- I think he feels pretty good about himself."