Boston's trek to playoff baseball starts this week

Feb 16 2010 - 10:24pm

When the Boston Red Sox set their goals at the start of spring training each season, ownership, management, baseball operations and players all have a say before the club begins its trek toward October baseball and, if all goes according to plan, hopefully a World Series.

In order to accomplish that goal, everything has to fall into place just right as it did for the Sox in 2004 and 2007 -- years that ended with a World Series championship.

The biggest component is health. The second is production and consistency. All things being equal in 2010, the Red Sox will battle for the top spot in the A.L. East and a postseason berth. If they can reach 95 victories, the Sox will be in good shape for a playoff run.

Even though many players are already working out at the organization's spring training facility in Fort Myers, Fla., the first official reporting day for pitchers and catchers is set for Thursday. The reporting date for position players is Saturday.

After an offseason featuring the signings of top pitching talent John Lackey, outfielder Mike Cameron and third baseman Adrian Beltre, the team heads into the 2010 season with high hopes. Once camp begins, Boston will have very few questions regarding its lineup.

Red Sox GM Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona will have to decide on a few things, including what to do with their starting rotation, which currently stands at six pitchers. Veteran Mike Lowell enters camp for the second consecutive year without knowing what his role will be. Then there's the DH position and whether David Ortiz will produce. The bullpen is pretty much set with the exception of one spot.

Here's a look at how the Red Sox should look in 2010:

-- FIRST BASE: Kevin Youkilis has emerged as one of the best all-around first baseman in the game. The two-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner has produced consistently and has remained relatively healthy the last two seasons, in which he hit .312 and .305, respectively. His versatility has also been a key factor in the past, but with Beltre a lock at third, Youkilis' full-time role will remain on the right side of the infield.

Also with Beltre's presence, don't be surprised to see veteran third baseman Mike Lowell taking grounders at first base during spring training.

-- SECOND BASE: This is another position the Sox are set with as Dustin Pedroia has become one of the cornerstones in the lineup. The former A.L. Rookie of the Year, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, two-time All-Star and MVP hit a smidgen below .300 (.296) for the first time in three seasons in 2009. He led the league with 115 runs scored and hit 15 homers with 72 RBI. Defensively, he's one of the best second baseman in the game.

-- SHORTSTOP: Unlike a year ago when the Sox had two players -- Jed Lowrie and Julio Lugo -- battling for the starting job during spring training, Boston went out and signed Marco Scutaro to a two-year deal this offseason to bring some stability to the position. He made only 10 errors in 143 games for the Blue Jays in 2009 and hit .282 with 12 homers and 60 RBI.

Lowrie's big-league career has been slow to develop due to a wrist injury he suffered in May 2008. The switch-hitting infielder finally had surgery to repair the damage in his left wrist last April and spent the majority of the season on the disabled list. If he can stay healthy, he could fill the role as the backup infielder at short, third and second if needed.

-- THIRD BASE: Finally, third base looks more certain as the Sox signed Beltre to a one-year deal this offseason. With Lowell's health and future in question, Beltre -- known for his defensive prowess -- will bring stability to the hot corner.

The Sox attempted to trade Lowell this winter, but he failed a physical and needed thumb surgery. If he proves to be healthy, the Sox could attempt to trade him, but don't be surprised if he remains in Boston for the final year of his contract.

-- OUTFIELD: Despite the departure of left fielder Jason Bay, the Sox will still have an impressive outfield. With the addition of Cameron in center field, the Sox thought it best to move Jacoby Ellsbury to left, figuring less running in the outfield will translate into more offensive production on the base paths. J.D. Drew remains in right. Prospect Josh Reddick, who made his major-league debut with the Red Sox last summer, and newcomer Jeremy Hermida will battle for the fourth outfield spot.

-- DESIGNATED HITTER: This needs to be a big season for Ortiz. He faced a ton of adversity on and off the field in 2009 and was able to rebound late in the season. Despite finishing with a .238 average, he was still able to produce 28 homers and 99 RBI. The slugger is in the final year of his contract, but the club holds an option for 2011. If Ortiz struggles, Lowell could end up being the DH. He hit .290 with 17 homers and 75 RBI last season.

-- CATCHER: For the first time since 1999, Jason Varitek will not be the starter. That role has already been given to Victor Martinez. That transition began after the Sox acquired Martinez from Cleveland last July. He has one year remaining on his current contract and the Sox are looking to sign Martinez to an extension. The backup role will no doubt help Varitek from a health standpoint and could benefit him offensively in what could be his last season in Boston.

-- STARTING ROTATION: Boston could have one of the best in the league with Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Clay Buchholz and Tim Wakefield if they're healthy. Because the Sox will start spring training with six starters and not five, Epstein, Francona and pitching coach John Farrell may have to get creative. Epstein did mention this offseason that one of the starters could be moved to the bullpen. One thing is for certain: Wakefield wants no part of a relief role. This situation could get very interesting this spring.

-- BULLPEN: With only one position available, the relief corps will consist of Manny Delcarmen, Hideki Okajima, Daniel Bard, Ramon Ramirez and Jonathan Papelbon. The only southpaw of the group is Okajima, so that last spot could go to someone who can get both right-handed and left-handed hitters out.


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