Once pitchers and catchers report to camp under that soothing sun of Fort Myers, Fla., on Feb. 12, the Red Sox will go about the process of trying to win their third World Series in six years. Before that long and winding road begins, it seemed an appropriate time to go around the diamond and examine the top nine storylines that face the team.
Big Papi tries to get his groove back: Impressively, the Red Sox came within one big hit of getting back to the World Series last year without the typical wallop of David Ortiz. The left-handed-hitting slugger, save for a few short stretches, never looked like his All-Star self after returning from his wrist injury in late July. The doctors told him that all he needed to get his hand back to normal was extended rest. The winter afforded the big man time to do that.
Now, Ortiz is hungry to get back to an elite level. The question is, can he get back there? Ortiz is 33 years old, and even before the injury, he was having some consistency issues. After returning from the injury, Ortiz was a little out of sorts because of the trade of his long time mashing mate and friend, Manny Ramirez. Big Papi was a regular at Fenway Park this winter for workouts, so a rebound is by no means out of the question. The Red Sox need the big man to get back to being a dominant force in the No. 3 spot in the lineup.
Lugo and Lowrie battle it out at shortstop: One thing the Red Sox have seldom had in recent Spring Trainings is an all-out position battle. They might have just that this time around with Julio Lugo and Jed Lowrie both vying to be the team's Opening Day shortstop.
Lowrie handled the job in impressive fashion for a rookie in the second half of last season, following the left quad injury to Lugo. But Lugo still has two years and $18 million on his contract. In some ways, the roster fits better with Lugo starting because Lowrie is the perfect roving infielder off the bench. But if Lugo continues to struggle offensively and defensively as he did through much of his first two years in Boston, manager Terry Francona might have no choice but to hand the keys to Lowrie.
Varitek's offense: Because Varitek was a free agent for so long this winter, his offensive shortcomings in 2008 were dissected beyond belief. Everyone knows what Varitek brings to the table on defense. But can he become a viable contributor on offense again?
The Red Sox used to brag about what an advantage it was to have a catcher who had the ability to belt a three-run homer at any time. Varitek was not that guy last year, but given his work ethic, one can safely assume he spent long hours trying to discover his swing over the winter. The club doesn't need Varitek to be one of its top run producers. But the Sox do need him to get back to being somewhat of a threat, particularly from the left side, where he got completely lost last year.
One thing that might help Varitek's bat is the additional rest that Francona is likely to give him this season. It's no secret that catching takes a toll on anyone over the course of a long season, particularly someone who puts as much into it as Varitek.
Bard-Wakefield, together again: Everyone remembers what happened the last time Josh Bard served as Tim Wakefield's batterymate. In just five starts, Bard had 10 passed balls and was traded one month into the 2006 season. Now he's back, confident that he learned from the experience.
Interestingly, Bard said that the big mistake he made was trying too hard to imitate Doug Mirabelli when the two catchers have decidedly different builds and different reach angles. Bard is going to try to catch the knuckleball his way this time, and hopes that will cure the problem. Early on, all eyes will be on the Wakefield-Bard tandem.
Matsuzaka's temporary exodus: Daisuke Matsuzaka will not be present at Boston's Spring Training complex until at least the middle of March. Because the right-hander is pitching for Japan in the World Baseball Classic, the Red Sox thought it would make more sense for Dice-K to train in his native land, rather than come to Florida and then have to go back to Japan for the start of the tournament.
Though the Red Sox are doing everything in their power to make this a smooth process, even sending two full-time employees to monitor Matsuzaka, they will still have some nerves about one of their star pitchers being out of their sight for more than a month of Spring Training. The Red Sox have worked hard with Matsuzaka to get him on more of a Major League arm strengthening program, so they will do everything they can to make sure he doesn't fall back into old habits while he's training with his old team, the Seibu Lions, and then Team Japan.
Then there is the simple matter of Matsuzaka pitching in the Classic. The Red Sox have no reservations about position players performing in the showcase event, but they are leery of pitchers extending themselves too much, too soon. Because Matsuzaka was the Most Valuable Player in the 2006 World Baseball Classic and is such an icon to Japan, Boston didn't feel like pressuring him not to pitch. That said, pitching coach John Farrell will be getting frequent updates on Matsuzaka.
Lowell's recovery: Expect rehab updates on third baseman Mike Lowell to be par for the course in the early days and weeks of Spring Training. The veteran had extensive surgery on his right hip last October and is still working his way back to baseball activities, though he did take some swings off a tee last week. Lowell plans on being in the lineup on Opening Day, but the Red Sox also will make sure he doesn't push his rehab too fast.
Also, Lowell hasn't done any extensive interviews this winter, so it will be interesting to hear what he has to say about all the Mark Teixeira rumors that were flying around in December. If the Red Sox had landed Teixeira, they very likely would have attempted to trade Lowell. Did this create some bitter feelings from a man who has been so loyal to Boston and the Red Sox? In November 2007, Lowell took a three-year deal to remain in Boston instead of signing a four-year deal with the Phillies.
Baldelli's energy level: The Red Sox are hoping that Rocco Baldelli can be a big spark as their fourth outfielder. But there are no guarantees, considering the excessive fatigue that Baldelli has had to deal with over the past couple of years.
Ellsbury's consistency: The numbers from Jacoby Ellsbury's rookie season (.280, 98 runs, 50 steals) were nothing to sneeze at, but the center fielder was a streaky player. During his hot streaks, he was an impact player who seemed to ignite the entire offense. But when Ellsbury's cold streaks had the opposite effect, bogging down the lineup at times to the point where Francona would have to move him out of the leadoff spot. In the middle of the American League Championship Series, Ellsbury went to the bench, and was replaced by Coco Crisp.
However, Crisp is no longer around, which means Ellsbury will be the center fielder, for better or worse. Ellsbury spent much of his offseason training with Dustin Pedroia, so that can only be considered a positive development. Pedroia puts in as many hours in during the winter as any player in the game.
Sorting out the bullpen: The Red Sox have a problem with their bullpen heading into to this spring that every manager and pitching coach would love to have -- they might have too many quality arms. There are only so many setup innings to go around, so Francona and Farrell will have to figure out how all the pieces fit best.
Assuming the other starters stay healthy, Justin Masterson is likely to start the season in the bullpen. Will he go back to the eighth inning role he was in last year, or will he turn more into a long and middle man who goes extended innings? Among the other pitchers the Red Sox have lined up to set up Jonathan Papelbon are Takashi Saito, Ramon Ramirez, Manny Delcarmen and Hideki Okajima. It could be that Boston trades one of its relievers at some point during the spring to fill another hole on the team. At any rate, an overload of bullpen depth is something the club will gladly take.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.