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I'm baaaack! It's been a long, cold offseason, but my World Series Champs t-shirt has kept me warm. And before you ask, I'm not a Pats fan, so please keep your 18-1 anti-Boston mocking far away from here.
Forthcoming after this 2008 inaugural edition of Dead Soxy will be my American and National League previews! Ahh, it's good to be back. Without further ado...
The Red Sox lineup promises to be at least as good as last year, if not a little bit better. David Ortiz, although beginning the downside of his career, will be healthy all season, and the team will enjoy the boost of rookie spark plug Jacoby Ellsbury at the top of the order, who had an argument to win the World Series MVP the year before he became a legitimate ROY candidate. J.D. Drew really came alive in the end of the regular season and in the playoffs, and he figures to be more comfortable this season. There are two big question marks in my opinion. First: Captain Jason Varitek is 35 and is still catching four out of every five days. He was a big hole at the plate last year -- can he regain some of his former offensive presence? Second: Shortstop Julio Lugo can't be that hopeless with a bat in his hand again, can he? Lugo has hit in pretty much every stop in the majors, so there's no reason to believe his .244 average wasn't an aberration. If he picks up the slack in the 9-hole, the team won't be tempted to try to trade him for 40 cents on the dollar and plug in someone like Jed Lowrie. The addition of veteran Sean Casey gives them some pop off the bench, one of their few weaknesses last season.
Fort Myers Watch: Look for what kind of role displaced outfielder Coco Crisp falls into. Will the team still attempt to trade him for bullpen help? Or will they (and he) be content to have one of the best fourth outfielders in the game? If the latter, I could imagine a lot of eighth innings in which Manny Ramirez comes out, Coco enters in to play center and Ellsbury slides over into left.
The starting pitching was undoubtedly the strength of the team last year, and it figures to be once again. However, the loss of Curt Schilling for much of the season will be a blow. True, Schilling was ineffective at times last season, but near the end of the year he really figured out how to work around the loss of velocity that accompanied his shoulder injury and reinvented himself as a pitcher. His absence from the mound means that instead of Clay Buchholz being Boston's security blanket and having the luxury of bringing him around slowly, he is thrust into the 5th starter's spot, Tim Wakefield and Jon Lester slide up, and the spot starting duties will fall to either Kyle Snyder or Julian Tavarez. Headlined by Cy Young finalist Josh Beckett and a second year of Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Red Sox rotation should still be formidable and easily the best in the AL East, but it's a lot shakier than when the offseason began.
Fort Myers Watch: No real battles aside from determining who will get the majority of the spot starts between Snyder and Tavarez, but all eyes will be on the development of Buchholz and Matsuzaka in their first and second full years with the club respectively.
Headlined by the formidable Jonathan Papelbon, the headaches caused by the bullpen of 2003 are a distant memory. Hideki Okajima was a welcome surprise, and should continue his success, despite a rough second half (talk to Dice-K about adjusting to life in the states). Fireballer Manny Delcarmen is another bright spot, as he really settled into a 7th inning role by the end of the season. Gone are injury woes and headaches Brendan Donnelly and Eric Gagne, but most of the rest of the bullpen returns intact, which is a nice thing to say to Boston fans who are not used to this kind of support from the relief core. Papelbon is an elite closer and will challenge pitchers like Seattle's J.J. Putz and LA's Francisco Rodriguez for the AL saves lead.
Fort Myers Watch: After Delcarmen, the bullpen gets a little shakier. LOOGY Javier Lopez was a disgrace to the acronym last year, as lefties actually hit him better than right-handers did. Mike Timlin is old, but has been reliable. How long will that last? It remains to be seen if the team will attempt to add anyone to the mix via trade, possibly of Crisp as mentioned above.
All in all, the Red Sox have to be considered the frontrunner to at least represent the American League in the World Series in 2008. They don't really have any glaring weaknesses at this point. Their biggest stumbling blocks will probably be two players on other teams: Alex Rodriguez remaining in the Bronx, and the addition of Miguel Cabrera to a Detroit Tigers lineup that was already pretty scary. Expect the Red Sox to do very well this season if their injury luck holds up, especially in the rotation. With the loss of Schilling, there isn't a whole lot of room for error in that department.