While the Boston Red Sox had a generally positive off-season, adding Marlin Josh Beckett to the starting rotation, as well as filling their position player needs with the addition of shortstop Alex Gonzalez, outfielder Coco Crisp, and others, Boston (and New England) is still entering one of the most uncertain Marches in the history of the team.
Boston saw major changes not only to its roster, but its longtime home, Fenway Park. The new ownership, who have been regularly renovating the 94-year-old structure since they purchased the team in 2001, this year demolished the long-standing .406 club (so named for Ted Williams' record batting average). The glassed-in section had never been truly popular - and so it won't be in place for the 2006.
The entire infield has changed from the 2005 season, with 3B Bill Mueller, SS Edgar Renteria, 2B Mark Bellhorn and 1B Kevin Millar and John Olerud. The only possibilities for familiar faces are 2B Tony Graffanino and 1B Kevin Youkilis. While Graffanino had a successful season in Boston last year, coming in halfway through the year to take up second after Bellhorn departed for New York, he will be competing with former Padre Mark Loretta for the starting job. Given that Loretta was acquired in a trade for longtime backup catcher Doug Mirabelli, it is generally assumed that Loretta is the preferred second baseman.
Meanwhile, last year's itinerant third baseman Kevin Youkilis will apparently be platooning first base with J.T. Snow, signed as a free agent this year. How Youkilis adapts to first base will no doubt determine how much time he spends driving from Pawtucket to Boston this year. Presumably if he falls short of expectations, the job will go to Snow full-time.
The rest of the infield seems fairly set, with Mike Lowell at third and Alex Gonzalez at short. The outfield, too, seems mostly complete - it seems at this point that left fielder Manny Ramirez will be returning to Boston, as will right fielder Trot Nixon, with newcomer Coco Crisp replacing Johnny Damon in center.
Other questions remain for Boston: Will Curt Schilling be fully recovered from his injury? Will closer Keith Foulke return to 2004 form? Will Matt Clement be consistent and reliable with a career year, as he was in the first half of 2005, or unreliable trade fodder, as he was in the second half? Will Jonathan Papelbon come storming into the starting rotation?
All these pitching questions mean that millions of anxious baseball fans will be closely following Schilling's first spring start (presumably against Minnesota on March 2) and nervously awaiting Keith Foulke's first performance in Spring Training. They'll be rooting for Josh Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon to become All-Stars, and for Jason Varitek to hit a few home runs in the World Baseball Classic.
Really, though, they'll be rooting for some sign that Boston is ready to finally beat the Yankees for the division title.