In the four decades that I’ve been a die-hard Red Sox fan, I don’t think there has been one season to match this one for high expectations. The Sox are “overwhelming favorites” according to the gurus at ESPN. On Boston.com, the biggest question seems to be, “Can the Red Sox win 100 games?”
I, too, am optimistic. I think the ceiling for this team is very high. But I also think there are far too many potential pitfalls for us to get too carried away. Let’s take a look at the top three reasons for caution:
- There are too many players coming back from injury or off-season surgery. Let’s start at catcher, where both Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek suffered injuries last year. At first base, Adrian Gonzalez had shoulder surgery a few months ago. Dustin Pedroia at second base has a screw in his foot. Shortstop Marco Scutaro played all last year with various ailments. Our third baseman, Kevin Youkilis, ended his 2010 season with a broken thumb. In centerfield, Jacoby Ellsbury missed almost all of last season with broken ribs. That leaves just J.D. Drew, not exactly an ironman in right, and Carl Crawford as the only two starting position players without some fairly serious injury they are recovering from. But that’s not all. On the bench is Jed Lowrie and Mike Cameron, both of whom lost significant playing time in 2010 due to illness and injury.
- The bottom 60% of the starting rotation: Beckett, Lackey and Dice-K. (While John Lackey is pitching the second game of the season, we have to assume he really is not the second best pitcher on the staff — if he is, we’re definitely in trouble.) This group is paid a combined $45 million — that is, you could get two Cliff Lees for what it costs for these trio. And they didn’t exactly have a stellar 2010. Dice-K looks to be thriving with the new pitching coach, Curt Young, so that is a good sign. Lackey seems to be doing okay. But Beckett has been miserable this spring, which means he’s in mid-season form. If he doesn’t bounce back and if Dice-K turns back into a pumpkin, this is going to be a fairly mediocre staff, even if Lester and Buchholz pitch like they did last year.
- Jonathan Papelbon. A struggling Papelbon has a terrible ripple effect through this bullpen. First off, I’m not convinced Bobby Jenks can replace him; and while I think Daniel Bard is a closer in waiting, he’s still fairly untried at that job, and I’m not sure I would want to trust a penant race to him at this point. Besides which, he does too good a job in the setup role. Papelbon has looked awful this spring.
So all this adds up to the very real potential for this team to have a slow, agonizing start. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Sox are seven or eight games out of first place by mid May. But I also think the talent on this team will come around and they’ll be a juggernaught in the second half of the season (this is all pending everyone staying healthy). And that gets me to another concern I have. I still think it was an error to pick up David Ortiz’s option. This team is going to need to do a lot of substitutions to keep people fresh and injury free. Ortiz can’t play the field, which means the Sox have only four real substitutes — Varitek at catcher, two outfields in Cameron and Darnel Macdonald, which leaves only one substitute for the infield, Jed Lowrie. Last year the Sox had several players who could play the infield or the outfield, and that helped them chart the injury waters. If the Sox had signed Victor Martinez instead of Ortiz, he could have been the DH and backup first-baseman, as well as providing insurance at catcher.
I know, I know. How can I complain about this team and the money being spent? Well, really, there’s all the more reason to complain. This team SHOULD win, and it is going to be crushing if they don’t. I just wish we could tone down the expectations, so that we can be pleasantly surprised when the 2011 Red Sox surpass them, rather than being disappointed when they don’t.