FORT MYERS, Fla.—The buzz phrase in Boston in the days following the Red Sox' quick elimination from the postseason last October was "bridge season." That is what Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said 2010 was going to be, because many of the organization's top prospects were not going to be ready to help at the major-league level until 2011.
Not surprisingly, that set off panic in Red Sox Nation, where even two World Series titles in the last six seasons hasn't completely cured fatalism. Many fans, it seemed, felt that Epstein was writing off the 2010 season, which just added to the pain of the Red Sox being swept by the Angels in the American League Division Series last October.
However, Red Sox manager Terry Francona is quick to point out that Epstein did not say "losing season" in 2010. In fact, Francona believes the message got misconstrued along the way, observing, "I think some people didn't quite understand what Theo meant. What he was trying to say is there would be some changes and we'd have a bit of a different look this season. He never said we were going to sacrifice this season just to get better down the road. The thought all along was that we could still put together a good team for 2010 while we were waiting for some of younger kids to develop. Our plan was never to give up on 2010 and we're not."
The Red Sox may have retooled over the winter but they hardly surrendered. In fact, PECOTA projects the Red Sox to have the best record in the major leagues at 95-67. Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz won't argue with BP's projection, responding, "I don't really see any weaknesses on this team. We've got good pitching. We're going to score runs. We're going to play good defense. We can play with anybody in the league. I don't see anybody better than us."
Francona won't go quite that far, understanding that the Red Sox play in the American League East with the Yankees and Rays, two other clubs who could make a case for being the best in baseball. However, Francona certainly wouldn't be surprised if the Red Sox are holding up another World Series trophy when the season is over.
"I like our club a lot," Francona said. "It has a little bit different look and a little bit different feel than some of the other clubs. We still have a very good team, though, and I'd be surprised and disappointed if we didn't win a lot of games and weren't still playing in October."
The Red Sox allowed left fielder Jason Bay, who hit a team-high 36 home runs last season, to leave as a free agent as they did not want to commit past a guaranteed two-year contract because of concerns about the stability of his knees. However, there is a suspicion that the whole knee thing was a smokescreen by the Red Sox to placate the fans because they really wanted to become less reliant of bludgeoning opponents into submission and join the industry-wide trend of building with pitching and defense.
Thus, the Red Sox signed Angels ace John Lackey to a five-year, $82.5-millon contract as a free agent to slot into the starting rotation behind Josh Beckett and left-hander Jon Lester. Then, the Red Sox added third baseman Adrian Beltre, shortstop Marco Scutaro, and center fielder Mike Cameron from the open market.
"There has been so much focus on how we went after defense in the winter that people seem to forget we signed one of the best pitchers in the American League in John Lackey and we couldn't be more excited about what he adds to our staff," Francona said. "It was no secret, though, that we were getting a little slow as a team and it was particularly showing up in the field because we weren't getting to as many balls as we should. We feel we've solved that problem."
Yet, at the same time, Francona does not believe the Red Sox have damaged their ability to score runs. PECOTA agrees as it pegs the Red Sox to finish second behind the Yankees in the major leagues with 846 runs scored, and projects all nine Boston regulars to hit at least nine home runs.
"Scoring runs is still going to be a big part of our game," Francona said with a smile. "People seem to think we don't care about offense but we still plan to score a lot of runs this season."
Right-hander Shaun Marcum will be the Blue Jays' starter when they open the season April 5 against the Rangers at Arlington. This is the same pitcher who has 24 career victories and has not pitched in a major-league game since Sept. 16, 2008, as he then underwent Tommy John surgery on his elbow.
That will be quite a step down from so many years past when Roy Halladay was the Blue Jays' opening-day starter. Halladay, of course, was traded to the Phillies in December and, to a man, the Blue Jays say that dealing their ace was the best thing Alex Anthopoulos could have done in his first offseason as GM.
"Everyone loves and respects Doc," center fielder Vernon Wells said. "Through no fault of his own, though, his situation was pretty paralyzing the organization. It was like everything was on hold until Doc's situation was resolved."
Former GM J.P. Ricciardi made a much-publicized attempt to trade Halladay before last July 31's non-waiver deadline. When Ricciardi failed to pull the trigger on a deal, it left everyone feeling uncomfortable.
"First and foremost, it was tough on Doc because it was his future that was at stake and he was the guy who was left hanging," Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said. "However, it really affected the whole team. There was so much talk about Doc and what was going to happen that it really overshadowed everything. Even after the deadline passed, there was still that question of whether Doc would be back this year or if we would trade him in the winter.
"Ultimately, the situation just had to be resolved, for Doc's sake and for our sake. It was time for Doc to move on and have a chance to win a championship, and everybody here wishes him nothing but the best because he's a great pitcher and a great person. At the same time, as a team, we needed to get on to life without him and we have."
Perhaps no GM is looking more forward to spring training ending this week than the White Sox's Ken Williams. He believes in keeping club matters private from the media and fans when at all possible. However, this spring has been anything but quiet, with manager Ozzie Guillen complaining about the White Sox not allowing him to start a website, and with his son, Oney, resigning from his job in the team's video department after club officials asked him to tone done the negative tweets he was putting forth on his Twitter account. Among Oney Guillen's tweets was saying Market, a Chicago restaurant partially owned by Williams, served "the worst food in the city" and that the organization was run by "dorks."
"All the other things have kind of dampened some of the spring-training excitement I usually have," Williams told the Chicago Sun-Times' Rick Morrissey. "And the anticipation to start the season is a little different for me than it has been in the past. It's kind of like, let's start the season so I can take a deep breath and it can all be about baseball."
Many long-time club observers are beginning to wonder if the marriage between Williams and Guillen, one-time teammates with the White Sox, may be running its course. However, Williams insists he is not having any thoughts of firing the seventh-year manager who delivered a World Series title in 2005, noting, "I hired him. I can't point the finger at anybody else if I'm upset about it. I hired him. This is our seventh year together, and we've had our little discussions, for lack of a better word, but we've always seemed to come out of it on the other side. This is going in the same direction. Until there's a day where we're not going in the same direction, it'll work.''
The Padres will be beginning their seventh season at Petco Park next month. It seems the Padres have caluculated that a team built for speed is most likely to succeed in the expansive park, as they have stolen more bases than any other major-league club this spring. As a matter of design, the Padres began retooling their team last August and the emphasis was on finding more athletic players.
"The whole dynamic of this team changed last year in a month-and-a-half period," manager Bud Black says told the San Diego Union-Tribune's Nick Canepa. "There was a transition of the roster, with the trades we made and the players we brought up in our system. Our young guys, like (Kyle) Blanks, (Chase) Headley, (Nick) Hundley, and (Everth) Cabrera said to themselves that they’re major-league players, not up here worrying about whether they’re going back to the minors. And they came together those last two months. They had fun, and it’s carried over to the spring. We’re talking about the defensive aspect of baseball, and while it’s hard to draw conclusions during the spring, we’re leading the majors in stolen bases; we’re running and we’re safe. They’re in the big leagues now. They’re pushing. They’re not just happy to be here. It’s noticeable."
The Padres went 37-25 in their final 62 games last season following a 38-62 start. Black believes they can build on that momentum in 2010, observing, "There’s a teaching aspect to this group. There’s a great satisfaction when you can teach and actually see it on the field, the link, the court, anywhere. I’m a teacher. I’ve noticed the interaction of the players, talking about baseball before the game, after the game, on the bus, on the plane. It’s fun.”
MLB Rumors and Rumblings: If Lou Piniella does not return as the Cubs' manager next season, either voluntarily or involuntarily, all signs point to Triple-A Iowa manager and Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg being promoted to the job. … The Diamondbacks are looking to trade catcher Chris Snyder, but want a starting pitcher back in return; they are also trying to deal infielder Augie Ojeda, as they have no room on their roster for him. … The Mets are willing to trade Gary Matthews Jr., who was beaten out by Angel Pagan in his bid to be the fill-in center fielder until Carlos Beltran returns to the active roster (likely in May, after he recovers from off-season knee surgery). … Rays manger Joe Maddon has an interesting way of explaining his team's 16-7 record in exhibition games: "It means we have a good JV team. To win a lot of games in spring training, you've got to have a lot of depth, a lot of good bench players and good Triple-A and Double-A players because those are the guys who will usually win you the close games at the end."