FORT MYERS, Florida—Terry Francona smiled but squirmed ever so slightly in his chair when it was suggested that the Red Sox are considered the favorites to win the American League this season and capture their third World Series in his eight years as manager.
"It's way too early to think about that," Francona said. "We've still got another three weeks of spring training and 162 games to play in the regular season. And, remember, we didn't win anything last year. We sat at home in October."
However, there is no denying that the Red Sox look like team to beat in the difficult AL East after finishing third in the division last year. They had a huge offseason, highlighted by trading for Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and signing Rays left fielder Carl Crawford as a free agent. Baseball Prospectus' Playoff Odds report rates the Red Sox' chances of reaching the postseason at 82 percent, tops among the 30 major-league teams. That should help improve the television ratings on NESN, which dipped low enough last summer to get ownership concerned, helping lead to the big winter moves.
"It's nice to know people think highly of your club and it's certainly better than them not thinking very highly of us," Francona said. "However, it doesn't mean anything once the game starts. [General manager] Theo Epstein, our management, and ownership had a great offseason. Our ownership gave us the resources to get two of the premier players of the game, but it's still up to us in this clubhouse to uphold our end of the bargain and win."
Gonzalez and Crawford are two players who can help the Red Sox win, as each contributed 7.1 WARP to their teams last season. The Rays won the AL East and the Padres reached 90 wins, finishing one game behind the Giants in the National League West and one game in back of the Braves in the NL wild card race. The 28-year-old Gonzalez hit .298/.393/.511 with 31 home runs and a .324 TAv. Crawford, 29, had a .307/.356/.495 slash line with 19 homers and a .309 TAv.
The Red Sox finished second in the major leagues behind the AL East rival Yankees in runs scored last season, with an average of 5.05 runs per game. They accomplished that despite having a number of players suffer major injuries, including first baseman Kevin Youkilis (who moves over to third base to make room for Gonzalez), second baseman Dustin Pedroia, and outfielders Mike Cameron and Jacoby Ellsbury.
"I think we got the absolute most we could out of our offense last season, considering we weren't very healthy and we had to call on some people we didn't expect to be contributing in the major leagues," Francona said. "You can't help but wonder what would we might be able to do this season when you add guys like Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez and if the rest of the lineup stays healthy. I know this much, I'd like to be a pitcher on this team. Even though you don't want to be in that situation, we're better equipped to win an 8-7 ballgame if we have to. The pitchers should get run support."
PECOTA again expects the Red Sox to finish second in the majors to the Yankees in runs scored, 815-800. Gonzalez is pegged to have a .334 TAv with 30 homers and 4.3 WARP. PECOTA isn't as bullish on Crawford, though, projecting him to have a .276 TAv with 13 home runs and 3.5 WARP. But Crawford doesn't feel the need to have a monster season despite signing a seven-year, $142 million contract.
"We have so many quality hitters up and down the lineup that we're going to make it tough on any opposing pitcher," Crawford said. "I don't have to do it all myself, and neither does anyone else. There are a lot of guys who can do damage."
Run prevention was the Red Sox' problem last season, as they gave up 4.6 runs a game to rank 11th in the AL and 23rd in the majors. Their .693 defensive efficiency was 11th in the majors and sixth in the league. The Red Sox believe Gonzalez
and Everett will help the defense, and they rebuilt much of the bullpen beyond closer Jonathan Papelbon, setup man Daniel Bard, and left-hander Hideki Okajima by signing right-handers Bobby Jenks, Dan Wheeler, Alfredo Aceves, and Matt Albers as free agents.
However, the starting pitching is seemingly a question mark beyond Clay Buchholz (6.3 SNLVAR) and lefty Jon Lester (5.7), who combined to add 12 wins above replacement level last season. John Lackey (2.8) disappointed in his first season after signing a five-year, $82.5 million contract as a free agent. Daisuke Matsuzaka (1.7) was his usual slow-working peripatetic self. Josh Beckett (0.0) provided just replacement-level work in 127 2/3 innings for $12.1 million while being slowed by a back injury.
Francona, though, believes the rotation will be a strength this season. He feels Lackey and Beckett still have top-of-the-rotation talent along with something to prove after their disappointing performances last year.
Crawford sees no weaknesses in his new team and fully expects to be playing in October. "That's the plan," Crawford said of reaching the postseason. "I think we've got everything we need to get there and do something once we get there."
MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Phillies will go with a combination of Ben Francisco and John Mayberry Jr., a favorite of manager Charlie Manuel, in right field until rookie Domonic Brown recovers from his broken hand. Brown is expected to miss four to six weeks following surgery on Tuesday. A longshot to enter the mix is journeyman Cory Sullivan, who is in the Phillies' minor-league camp. One scout who saw Brown struggle this spring believes the Phillies could benefit from the injury in the long run: "He could use the 20 days in the minors on a rehab assignment because he didn't look ready to hit big-league pitching. It also will buy the Phillies time to see whether he is ready to play in the majors or if they need to option him out and give him more time at Triple-A." … The Astros plan on going with a combination of J.R. Towles and Humberto Quintero behind the plate for the time being, as catcher Jason Castro is expected to miss the entire season following knee surgery. The Astros have no interest in taking on the $5.1 million contract of the Pirates' Ryan Doumit and will instead look at what catchers get cut later in spring training.
The Rangers want to limit left fielder Josh Hamilton to about 145 games this season, and it is likely most of his time off will come in day games. He has a 762 career OPS in day games as opposed to a 967 mark at night. … The Mariners also plan to give center fielder Franklin Gutierrez more days off this season after he wore down in the second half of last season because of stomach problems that still persist. … Matt Thornton and Chris Sale are the primary candidates to be the White Sox closer, but some in the organization feel Sergio Santos is ready for the role. … The left side of the infield is a defensive concern for the Cubs. They are stressing to shortstop Starlin Castro that he needs to keep his focus when he is the field. And one scout who has watched Aramis Ramirez this spring said: "He can't move at all anymore. He has no range whatsoever. He's a free agent at the end of the year and he's going to have to sign with a team where he can DH or play first base."
While Okajima has the inside track for the lefty role in the Red Sox bullpen, Andrew Miller has also been impressive in Grapefruit League games, and pitching coach Curt Young likes what he's seen from Rich Hill, who has a new sidearm delivery. … Though he has gotten some starts in exhibition games, left-hander Oliver Perez's only chance of making the Mets' Opening Day roster is as a left-on-left reliever. … Top prospect Jesus Montero is the favorite to be the Yankees' backup catcher with Francisco Cervelli (foot) slated to start the season on the DL, but manager Joe Girardi has also been impressed by another prospect, Austin Romine, and believes he could make the jump from Double-A to the major leagues. … One reason the Yankees believe right-hander A.J. Burnett will bounce back from a sub-par 2010 is that he is showing much better focus this spring.
Padres right fielder Will Venable has decided to copy the swing of Gonzalez, his former teammate, in an effort to add more power. … One of the things Rays manager Joe Maddon has liked about designated hitter Manny Ramirez this spring is, of all things, his baserunning. … Jason Donald is the favorite to open the season at third base for the Indians, but prospect Lonnie Chisenhall has opened enough eyes to be considered a serious threat to be in the Opening Day lineup. … The final spot in the Twins' rotation will come down to either Scott Baker or Kevin Slowey, as manager Ron Gardenhire has settled on Carl Pavano, Francisco Liriano, Nick Blackburn, and Brian Duensing as his first four starters. … Nate McLouth has put a hammerlock on the Braves' center field job, with one scout saying: "He's looking like the guy who was an All-Star with the Pirates again." … Jesse Litsch, who is competing with lefty Marc Rzepczynski and prospect Kyle Drabek for two open spots in the Blue Jays' rotation, has opened plenty of eyes in spring training as he returns from Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery. Said one scout: "He's throwing better than I've ever seen him."