FORT MYERS, Fla. — Technically, the reporting date for Red Sox pitchers and catchers to spring training is on Thursday, but by Wednesday, virtually all of the pitchers who are competing for major league spots this spring had arrived.
John Lackey essentially completed the group when he showed up at the Red Sox’ minor league training facility on Wednesday afternoon, after nearly everyone else had cleared out of the complex for the day. With all of his teammates having departed, Lackey ended up playing long toss with his new pitching coach, John Farrell, the man who tried (unsuccessfully) to recruit Lackey to Oklahoma State out of Grayson County Junior College.
The Sox are thus positioned to begin to assess the hurlers who will be chiefly responsible for the team’s much-discussed run prevention in 2010 … or at least most of them.
Daisuke Matsuzaka will lag slightly behind the rest of his pitching colleagues, as the Sox have decided to take a conservative approach with what general manager Theo Epstein described as “a really mild strain” in the pitcher’s upper middle back. The 29-year-old will not throw until at least Friday, when the team will administer physicals to all of its pitchers.
That likely brief setback notwithstanding, Epstein said that Matsuzaka — who may have incurred the injury during his ballyhooed participation in the conditioning program at Athletes’ Performance Institute — should be able to assume a normal spring training workload. That being the case, the team remains hopeful that Matsuzaka’s fourth year in the majors can quickly erase the memories of his third big league season, when he went 4-6 with a 5.76 ERA and spent most of the year on the disabled list.
‘I know he’s worked really hard this winter to make up for last year and come out and have a big season. That’s what we’re all hoping for him,” Epstein said. “We want to slow this thing down so we don’t turn something small into something big. Last year, he never really was able to get into condition to pitch in part because of the way things went early in spring. We want to make sure we avoid a repeat of that.’
— The Sox fully expect that Matsuzaka will be fine come the regular season. Even so, his setback offered a reminder of the importance of rotation depth. Toward that end, the Sox aren’t in any hurry to start thinking about committing pitchers with the potential to assume the innings load of a starter to relief duty. Manager Terry Francona, asked whether Tim Wakefield could be considered for the bullpen, said simply, “Wake’s a starter.” Likewise, the team expects to stretch out swingman Boof Bonser — who spent his Twins career in both the rotation and the ‘pen — as a starter. (More from Francona is here.)
And even though there are some talent evaluators who believe that both Michael Bowden and Junichi Tazawa could ultimately land in the bullpen down the road, both will be kept on starters’ schedules this spring, given the immense significance of rotation depth. It is worth recalling that last year the Sox had just two starters who made at least 30 starts: Jon Lester and Josh Beckett. The Sox were one of just 10 teams in the majors last year with no more than two pitchers who made at least 25 starts.
— Though position players have yet to report, there are more perceived questions about that group of players than about the pitching staff. Of course, the most prominent issue facing the Sox remains the future of Mike Lowell, whose role as the everyday third baseman came to a somewhat awkward conclusion this winter when the Sox agreed to trade him to the Rangers (only to have the deal collapse due to the need for the third baseman to undergo surgery), and then, after he remained with the team, still signed free agent Adrian Beltre to become the everyday third baseman. Francona said that the situation could be “a little bit uncomfortable” for Lowell this spring, but Lowell disagreed in an interview with WEEI.com.
Lowell suggested that the issue is not as challenging as it seems, given that the situation is fairly straightforward. The 36-year-old suggests that, if he proves he is healthy and ready to play in spring training, then other teams likely will be interested.
“If I’m healthy and teams out there think I can play every day, there’s going to be a team that wants me to play. If that’s beneficial to the Red Sox, I don’t think any of this is contingent on whether it’s beneficial to me. It doesn’t matter. I have no say,” Lowell said. “But if it’s beneficial to the Red Sox, then yeah, they’d make the move. And then you’d go wherever they send you. That’s the thing. I can’t say, ‘Hey, I want to leave,’ or, ‘Hey, I want to stay.’
‘It doesn’t matter what I think or say. The only time I had that decision was after the World Series when I was a free agent. That’s the only time that I had the say. After that, you’re a product of the industry. I’m not sour about that. I’m cool with it. If you told me that I’d get traded and then they’d take away my contract, then I might have a much bigger issue with the way things are going.’
— There would appear to be an increasing likelihood that, if the Sox make it through camp with both Adrian Beltre and Kevin Youkilis in good health, Lowell will end up as the backup corner infielder. In some ways, he’s an imperfect fit, since Lowell — like Beltre and Youkilis — is a right-handed hitter. That explains why the Sox were interested in seeing whether there might be a fit with a player such as Russell Branyan, a power-hitting left-handed corner infielder. But it is exceedingly difficult for the Sox to convince an available corner infielder such as Branyan to sign with them, given the limited playing time available for a corner infielder.
— Bill Hall (also a right-handed hitter) is most comfortable at third base and in left field, but the team also wants to give him time at shortstop after working with infield coach Tim Bogar. The team would like to move him around the diamond, giving him a look at both second and first. Hypothetically, the Sox could end up with six right-handed infielders if they entered the year with Lowell and Hall in reserve roles behind Beltre, Marco Scutaro, Dustin Pedroia and Youkilis.
“We’re a veteran team and we’re built to compete to win. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. If we showed up and there are eight spots open, I’d say Theo had a rough winter. We’re supposed to have a pretty good team in place.” — Red Sox manager Terry Francona on the possibility that the team has just two or three open roster spots this spring
THE INJURY WARD
— Matsuzaka will not throw until he takes his physical on Friday.
— Wakefield and Lowell will be held out of the team’s initial conditioning drills this spring.
NO MINOR DEVELOPMENTS
Outfielder Ryan Westmoreland, rated by many as the top Red Sox prospect (or at least one of the top two Red Sox prospects), has been taking part in batting practice sessions in Fort Myers, a noteworthy development if only because his 2009 campaign was cut short by a broken clavicle. The 2010 season will be a significant one, since it will represent the 20-year-old’s first opportunity to play for a full-season affiliate, likely Single-A Greenville of the South Atlantic League.
Many evaluators view Westmoreland as a potential five-tool talent. Even so, part of his prospect status (including suggestions that aspects of his game are reminiscent of Indians superstar Grady Sizemore) relies upon his playing in center field to maximize his value. That said, ESPN.com’s Keith Law, in a conversation with the Dale & Holley show on Wednesday, suggested that it remains to be seen whether or not center will indeed be Westmoreland’s long-term position.
The Rhode Island native had plenty of arm strength as a high schooler, but given that he has barely been able to play a position as a professional due to labrum surgery after the 2008 season and his season-ending injury last September, it remains to be seen whether he will be in the middle of the field or if diminished arm strength will force him to a corner.
“[He can stay in center] if he can throw. This is the big question. Speed, range ‘ yes, absolutely. And before shoulder surgery, he had a plus arm. I saw him throw at the Area Code Games, which is a showcase every year in California. He hit 90 out there. So, he’s had plenty of arm, but I just don’t know where his arm is now,” Law said. “He barely threw last year. They were babying him back in left field because he was coming off of a fairly serious shoulder operation, but I just don’t know. If he can still throw, can he play center field? Absolutely. If he can’t, then he’s a left fielder, and he’s certainly got to hit more to be the same kind of impact player that I thought he’d be as a center fielder.”