The pitching is promising out front, with a big three of Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka seemingly as strong as just about any in the game. The bullpen suddenly looks imposing with the rocket arm of Jonathan Papelbon back as the closer.
It all starts on April 2, when the Red Sox take on the Royals in Kansas City. Unlike 2006, when there was no postseason, this Red Sox edition hopes to play deep into October.
1. Julio Lugo, SS:
The energetic shortstop appears to be the type of player who will thrive amid the intensity-filled air of Boston. Lugo gives the Red Sox speed at the top, not to mention some extra-base pop. Lugo has above-average range but isn't in the same class defensively as predecessor Alex Gonzalez. However, the Red Sox feel Lugo will make up for it with his offense and his infectious enthusiasm.
2. Kevin Youkilis, 1B:
It seems as if the patient Youkilis might be the perfect middle man between the speed of Lugo and the thump of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez. The one thing Youkilis can do with regularity is get on base, and he has the perfect hitters to drive him in. Youkilis got off to a red-hot start last year before the combination of injuries and fatigue reared its ugly head in the second half. Now that he knows what it's like to play every day over the course of 162 games, perhaps he'll have a better finish. Youkilis is a stronger defender at first than people think.
3. David Ortiz, DH:
Is there a more feared hitter in the American League than Big Papi? Probably not. The left-handed masher has no detectable weaknesses at the plate. Ortiz, in case you haven't seen the countless highlight reels over the years, is at his best with the game -- not to mention the season -- on the line. Ortiz clubbed a team record 54 homers last year and it's not out of the question he could make a run at 60 this year. After all, he seems to get better every year.
4. Manny Ramirez, LF:
Did you really think the hitting machine was going to get traded in the offseason? Each winter, the Red Sox come to the same conclusion: Replacing Ramirez is not feasible. The definition of a pure hitter, Ramirez hits to all fields and does so with authority. Assuming he can avoid the extended absences from the lineup that took place last summer, Ramirez should smash 40 homers and drive in somewhere around 120. Though he is prone to attention lapses on defense, he's not the butcher people make him out to be in left field. In fact, Ramirez excels at Fenway, where he is a master at playing the Monster.
5. J.D. Drew, RF:
There was all that talk over the winter that the quiet Drew wouldn't be able to stomach the ultra-intense atmosphere of Red Sox Nation. But that's exactly what it seems to be -- talk. As for Drew, he doesn't talk much. He just plays. And judging by his sparkling spring, Drew is going to be just fine. The big thing is that he's healthy. As long as that is the case, his talent, of which there is plenty, takes over. Drew should get on base and drive in runs. His athleticism should also play big dividends in the spacious right field of Fenway Park.
6. Mike Lowell, 3B:
The classy third baseman isn't the huge question mark he was last year at this time. Lowell more than proved that rumors of his demise were false. He has become entrenched as a stopper on defense and a doubles machine on offense. Lowell should be in line for another season of .280-20-80. In a short time, Lowell has emerged as one of the most respected players on the team. No one can ever question his desire.
7. Jason Varitek, C:
The captain is out to show that last year's sharp decline had everything to do with physical woes and little to do with his birth certificate. Don't be surprised if Varitek succeeds in his mission. Nobody works harder or keeps himself in better shape. The Red Sox don't need Varitek to be a force at the plate. But they at least would like to see him re-emerge into the power threat from both sides that he always was before last year. Once again, Varitek's biggest asset will be his work with the pitching staff.
8. Coco Crisp, CF:
All the hype Crisp had going into 2006 is gone. This, thanks to a disappointing opening year in Boston in which he fractured his left index finger in the fifth game of the regular season and never seemed to recover. Crisp again had health issues this spring, as a sore left shoulder nagged him. It should be evident early if Crisp is going to have a bounce back year. The dead give-away will be whether he puts a jolt into fastballs, which is his strength as a player. Perhaps hitting near the bottom of the order will take the pressure off Crisp and allow him to just play his game.
9. Dustin Pedroia, 2B:
Is the diminutive rookie ready to play every day? The answer will come soon, as Pedroia will get his chance to reward the organization's faith in him. Pedroia has a lot of confidence, and he'll need all of it. His six-week initiation at the end of last season should prepare Pedroia for the start of '07. The biggest question seems to revolve around whether he can be a productive hitter. Defensively, he should be fine.
1. Curt Schilling, RHP:
The ace is still adding new tricks, even at the age of 40. Schilling's latest weapon is a changeup, one he thinks can be a bona-fide weapon on certain nights. Schilling is still very much a power pitcher who relies on the location of his fastball. The splitter so responsible for his success hasn't been in top form during the spring. Perhaps it will re-emerge once the games start counting. Schilling still feeds off his passion and preparation.
2. Josh Beckett, RHP:
If anyone on the Red Sox looked like an ace in the making during Spring Training, it was Beckett. He rediscovered the curve that was such a weapon for him in Florida, and made mechanical adjustments that should make the fastball far more effective than it was last year. Because Beckett has been around for a while, it's easy to forget that he's still just 26 years old. Don't be surprised if he has a breakout season. Beckett seems to be expecting one.
3. Daisuke Matsuzaka, RHP:
You'd be hard-pressed to find a player be as scrutinized over the course of a spring than Matsuzaka. It's not going to stop now. Not with the Red Sox having invested $103.1 million -- including the posting fee -- in this talented right-hander from Japan. Matsuzaka is a true craftsman on the mound, throwing as many as seven different pitches. His best weapons seem to be his changeup and his curveball. His low- to mid-90s heat doesn't hurt either. Nothing seems to faze Matsuzaka, which is certainly a good thing for any player trying to become accustomed to Boston.
4. Tim Wakefield, RHP:
The veteran knuckleballer proudly enters his 13th season with the Red Sox. This is a rare season in which Wakefield is coming back from an injury. However, that rib-cage injury that kept him off the mound for more than two months last summer didn't seem to be any kind of an issue during the spring. It appears safe to pencil Wakefield in for double-digit wins and 200 innings once again.
5. Julian Tavarez, RHP:
Nobody was happier about Jonathan Papelbon's move back to the bullpen than Tavarez. For it gave him all that he wanted -- a chance to start. Tavarez was one of Boston's best pitchers down the stretch last season, going 3-0 with a 4.01 ERA in six starts. Tavarez will try to solidify his spot early. Otherwise, he knows he could be headed back to the bullpen. Tavarez has a rubber arm and the versatility to pitch in any role. At least for now, he has the one he wants.
When Papelbon reclaimed his old role earlier than anyone expected, it turned a weakness of the club into a strength. Not only is Papelbon a lights-out closer, but he appears to have a better support staff than he did last year. Mike Timlin should re-emerge as the primary setup man once he gets his oblique injury healed. Brendan Donnelly and Joel Pineiro will also be asked to get key outs. J.C. Romero and Hideki Okajima give Francona two solid options from the left side.
Timlin will miss the first six games of the regular season thanks to the oblique ailment that has ailed him since late February. The plan is for the veteran right-hander to be activated for the home opener. Lefty Jon Lester, who spent the winter recovering from cancer, will build himself back up in the Minors. There's no specific timetable on when he'll return to the Major Leagues. Lester will help answer that question by the way he pitches.
Can Varitek and Crisp rebound from their injury-plagued seasons of 2006? The Red Sox need both those players to be effective in order to have the "relentless" lineup that Fenway watchers loved so much from 2003-05. Otherwise, there could wind up being too much pressure on Ortiz and Ramirez.
ON THE RECORD
"I'm very excited. I think all of us are. I think when you look at our club, you have to recognize there's tremendous upside there. I think we do. I think we feel if we can put the right work in and answer questions the right way, this has a chance to be a pretty special club." -- General manager Theo Epstein