Crawford, Gonzo have Boston as team to beat

Crawford, Gonzo have Boston as team to beat

Crawford, Gonzo have Boston as team to beat
BOSTON -- It would still be true, even if Yankees general manager Brian Cashman didn't say it.

The Red Sox, third-place finishers in the ultracompetitive American League East last year, had the loudest offseason in baseball and are the favorites to win the division -- if not more.

In one December week, Boston managed to pull in two of the game's best hitters: Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford -- both, remarkably, still in their 20s. Mix in an infirmary's worth of faces the Red Sox missed for much of 2010 -- from Josh Beckett to Dustin Pedroia to Kevin Youkilis to Jacoby Ellsbury -- and they could have the best team in either league.

It's an enviable position. It's also one that requires controlling expectations.

Manager Terry Francona said in January he hadn't heard that Cashman believed the Red Sox were the better club. Francona didn't feel it meant much either.

"I didn't see that," Francona said. "That's not going to help us win a lot of games. I love Cash, but I don't think that statement will get us any extra runs or anything."

What will matter, Francona said, is the play on the field, and that starts in a week, when pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers, Fla.

"When people say that [we're the team to beat], it means that our ownership [and] our front office had a really good winter," Francona said. "But once the season starts, now it's time to go to work. ... We haven't been good yet."

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Feb. 13

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First Spring Training game

Home vs. Boston College, Feb. 26 at 1 p.m. ET

Opening Day

Away vs. Rangers, April 1 at 4:05 p.m.

Triple play: Three questions that need answers

1. How much time will Jed Lowrie see?
Plenty, but likely not all at shortstop. The Red Sox will go with whatever tandem makes the club better, and a strong spring could push Boston to consider something resembling a platoon with Lowrie and Marco Scutaro. With Jose Iglesias likely a year away, Lowrie can still be considered a shortstop of the future, and the team knows he needs playing time to grow. The Sox also can see that Lowrie's numbers from 171 at-bats last season -- nine homers, .287 average, .381 on-base percentage and .526 slugging percentage -- might make him more dangerous offensively than Scutaro. But potential injuries have to be accounted for, and Pedroia may have to be cautious with his healing left foot at the start of the season, providing a need for Lowrie around the infield. One way or another, he's going to play.

2. Can Jarrod Saltalamacchia provide enough offense and defense as Boston's full-time catcher?
He's worked hard this offseason, both to get in shape and revamp his defense. Saltalamacchia spent time with bullpen coach Gary Tuck in Florida, working on his release and receiving skills, and he's improved his flexibility this winter, too. The torn ligament in his left thumb that required September surgery isn't expected to be a hindrance, and Saltalamacchia shouldn't feel any undue pressure, but at the bottom of the order, he's not being asked to carry the load. Combine all that with Jason Varitek's mentorship and the support he's received from the front office, and Saltalamacchia has every opportunity to make 2011 successful.

3. What factors into the competition between left-handed relievers?
Three issues will be weighed: Who can best help the big league club? Who is best suited to further their career in Triple-A as a starter? And who provides the most versatility? Carrying Felix Doubront, still a prospect, would give Boston a reliever who could step into the rotation if needed. But like Andrew Miller, the Red Sox may want Doubront to continue to grow at Triple-A Pawtucket. There's no concern about stunting the growth of Lenny DiNardo, Hideki Okajima or Rich Hill, but all have to prove they're capable. Whoever pitches best this spring should win the job, but the decision becomes complicated if there's an injury to the rotation or if Miller or Doubront are the leading men.

2010 record

89-73, third place in the AL East

Projected batting order

1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury:
  .301 BA, .355 OBP, .415 SLG, 8 HR, 60 RBI in 2009
2. 2B Dustin Pedroia:
  .288 BA, .367 OBP, .493 SLG, 12 HR, 41 RBI in 2010
3. LF Carl Crawford:
  .307 BA, .356 OBP, .495 SLG, 19 HR, 90 RBI in 2010
4. 1B Adrian Gonzalez:
  .298 BA, .393 OBP, .511 SLG, 31 HR, 101 RBI in 2010
5. 3B Kevin Youkilis:
  .307 BA, .411 OBP, .564 SLG, 19 HR, 62 RBI in 2010
6. DH David Ortiz:
  .270 BA, .370 OBP, .529 SLG, 32 HR, 102 RBI in 2010
7. RF J.D. Drew:
  .255 BA, .341 OBP, .452 SLG, 22 HR, 68 RBI in 2010
8. C Jarrod Saltalamacchia:
  .233 BA, .290 OBP, .371 SLG, 9 HR, 34 RBI in 2009
9. SS Marco Scutaro:
  .275 BA, .333 OBP, .388 SLG, 11 HR, 56 RBI in 2010

Projected rotation

1. LHP Jon Lester, 19-9, 3.25 ERA in 2010
2. RHP Clay Buchholz, 17-7, 2.33 ERA in 2010
3. RHP Josh Beckett, 6-6, 5.78 ERA in 2010
4. RHP John Lackey, 14-11, 4.40 ERA in 2010
5. RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka, 9-6, 4.69 ERA in 2010

Projected bullpen

Closer: Jonathan Papelbon, 37/45 saves, 3.90 ERA in 2010
RH setup man: Daniel Bard , 1.93 ERA in 2010
RH setup man: Bobby Jenks, 4.44 ERA in 2010

The new guys

1B Gonzalez: Ever want to take someone on a date for the longest time, then finally get that chance? That's how the Red Sox felt when they landed Gonzalez from the Padres for three prospects in December. The only question about the left-handed slugger is how his right shoulder is feeling after offseason surgery. He's on track so far, but it's not known how much game action he'll see this spring.

LF Crawford: Added to the Red Sox the same week as Gonzalez, Crawford's decision to join Boston on a seven-year, $142 million deal could almost be considered a defection. He was widely speculated to be headed for the Angels, but Boston was opportunistic and found itself with another premier player.

RHP Jenks: A closer his whole career, Jenks is something of an insurance policy for Papelbon, who was disappointing last season. Jenks has shown signs of decline the last two seasons, but he's not 30 until next month. He signed for two years and $12 million.

RHP Dan Wheeler: Signed for one-year and $3 million, the 33-year-old Rhode Island native is a veteran piece to a bullpen that needs to bounce back. Red Sox relievers posted a 4.24 ERA last season, third worst in the AL.

LHP Miller: The southpaw has to regain consistency in his delivery, but the one-time top prospect still has plenty of potential. Turning 26 in May, Miller has an outside shot at ending up in the bullpen out of camp, but he's more likely to go to Triple-A as a starter.

Prospects to watch

SS Iglesias: The Cuban shortstop who just celebrated his 21st birthday might be the best defensive shortstop in the Minors, and he was playing against much older competition at Double-A last season. How his bat develops is key, and he likely won't reach the Majors until 2012.

RHP Anthony Ranaudo: One of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft's best pitching prospects, the 6-foot-7 right-hander fell to the Red Sox at No. 39 overall because of an elbow injury. He's yet to make his pro debut, but with Casey Kelly traded to San Diego as part the Gonzalez deal, Ranaudo carries the torch as Boston's best Minor League arm.

LHP Drake Britton: The mid-90s thrower from Texas put up a 2.97 ERA in 21 starts at Class A Greenville last season. Reportedly clocked at 97 mph after his 2008 Tommy John surgery, Britton needs innings and should get them at Class A Advanced Salem.

LHP Doubront: Along with Tim Wakefield, the 23-year-old from Venezuela is insurance in case of an injury in the rotation. Doubront's in the conversation for the left-handed relief spot in the bullpen, too.

On the rebound

RHP Papelbon: The right-hander's ERA rose two full runs in 2010, and he reportedly could have been non-tendered had the Red Sox been able to sign Mariano Rivera. A free agent after this season, Papelbon's future hinges greatly on his '11 performance, and his leash could be short this year.

RHP Lackey: Last season, the righty threw the most innings he had since 2007, but his ERA and WHIP both rose along with his walk rate. The expectations are higher in year two of five on an $85 million deal.

CF Ellsbury: Fractured left ribs kept him to just 18 games in essentially a lost 2010 season. He'll be given a chance at leadoff to preserve Crawford's legs.

2B Pedroia: A broken bone in his left foot required September surgery, when a screw was inserted into his foot to help the healing process. The former AL MVP had some self-described surprises this offseason as he's recovered, and Pedroia is going to be cautious in Spring Training.

RHP Beckett: He is perhaps the biggest question mark of 2011. Back issues led to much of Beckett's struggles a season ago, but just how much of those woes were because of injury is hard to tell.

Long gone

3B Adrian Beltre: Despite a booming season at the plate in his one year in Boston, Beltre, who signed a six-year, $96 million contract with the Rangers in January, likely won't be missed because of the addition of Gonzalez and Crawford.

C Victor Martinez: Boston's backstop left for the Tigers on a four-year deal. Letting him go was a cost-saving measure and a vote of confidence in Saltalamacchia.

INF/OF Bill Hall: His 18 home runs and versatility were valuable, but the Red Sox can use Mike Cameron in the outfield and Lowrie on the infield when they need to give the regulars a day off. Hall, who played in 119 games last season due a slew of Boston injuries, signed a one-year deal with Houston in December.

Evan Drellich is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @EvanDrellich. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.