The Boston Red Sox have a very short offseason. They were one of the final two teams playing last season, sweeping Colorado for their second World Series victory in the last four years. Because they and Oakland open the 2008 regular season with a two-game series in Tokyo on March 25-26, the Red Sox will begin spring training earlier than normal: Feb. 15 in Fort Myers, Fla. “The offseasons do seem to get shorter every year,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. “It just seems like we finished the World Series two weeks ago and now we’re on the verge of starting spring training. The time flies.”

Francona’s not complaining. “Actually, I’m anxious to get going,” he said. “Now that the holidays over, it’s time for baseball again.” The enthusiasm of Francona and the Red Sox is understandable. Though General Manager Theo Epstein has had a relatively quiet winter–with the exception of his continued effort of trying to land ace left-hander Johan Santana from Minnesota–the Red Sox still look like the team to beat with spring training on the horizon.

“I would like to think we have a good chance of defending our championship,” Francona said. “I really like our club. Obviously, it was good enough to win it all last year and I don’t think we have any glaring weaknesses. “There is still some offseason left and I’m sure Theo will do some things before we get to Fort Myers, but it’s easy to get excited when you think about what our team is capable of doing.” The Red Sox would like to add some bench and bullpen help, but the roster is indeed set for the most part.

The biggest moves the Red Sox have made this offseason have been retaining two of their own free agents by signing third baseman Mike Lowell to a three-year, $39 million contract and getting right-hander Curt Schilling to return on a one-year, $8 million contract for what very well may be his final season.
Lowell was 16th in the American League with a 46.5 VORP last season and chosen Most Valuable Player of the World Series. Schilling’s 4.3 SNLVAR was 27th in the AL, though he missed a month with a tender shoulder.

“They are both very important parts of our ballclub and I thought it was really important to bring both of them back or it would have created two very big holes, both on the field and in the clubhouse,” Francona said. “What really impressed me the most about Mikey and Schill re-signing, though, is that they left money on the table. They could have gone elsewhere and gotten more years and more money, yet they decided to stay with us. “I think that speaks a lot about the organization we’ve built. The Red Sox are a team people want to play for.”

It remains to be seen whether Santana will be playing for the Red Sox next season. The New York Yankees seem to be fading in that derby and it long seemed the Red Sox were the favorites. However, the New York Mets have now emerged as strong contenders, as they’ve offered a package of prospects that includes center fielder Carlos Gomez and pitchers Deolis Guerra, Phil Humber and Kevin Mulvey.

The Mets would likely seal the deal if they agree to substitute outfield prospect Fernando Martinez–who finished last season at Double-A Binghamton–for Gomez. The Red Sox would still be fine without Santana, as they had four of the top 31 starters in the AL in terms of SNLVAR last season with Josh Beckett (6.2, eighth), Daisuke Matsuzaka (5.1, 19th), Schilling and Tim Wakefield (3.9, 31st). They also have Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz ready to step into the rotation.

“We’d rather have him on our side than have to face him if the Twins trade him,” Francona said of Santana. While the Red Sox would have to give up either Lester or rookie center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury in a trade with the Twins, Santana would certainly add to a core of Red Sox players under the age of 30 that includes Beckett, Matsuzaka, Buchholz, closer Jonathan Papelbon, first baseman Kevin Youkilis and second baseman Dustin Pedroia.

“Our front office has worked really hard to create a situation where we not only have talent at the major-league level but a good group of prospects in the minor leagues,” Francona said. “It’s really the ideal situation. It puts you in position to contend on a regular basis. You’re not going to win the World Series every year but you want to give yourself a chance every year and we’re doing that.”

The Rockies, like the Red Sox, have had a quiet winter after making only the second post-season appearance in their 15-year history. The only major addition to Colorado’s major-league roster has been reliever Luis Vizcaino, signed to a two-year, $7.5 million contract as a free agent. Beyond that, the Rockies have traded Denny Bautista to Detroit for Jose Capellan in a swap of enigmatic relievers, signed left-hander Mark Redman and right-hander Kip Wells as free agents to challenge rookie left-hander Franklin Morales for the fifth starter’s spot. They also signed several players to minor-league deals: left-handers Micah Bowie, Chris George and John Koronka, right-hander Josh Towers, infielder Matt Kata and catcher Mike Rose.

History has made it quite easy for the Rockies to avoid trying to make a big splash. “The last time we had one of those winters, you know the result,” manager Clint Hurdle told the Rocky Mountain News. That was following the 2000 season when the Rockies invested $172 million on free-agent pitchers Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle.

“One thing we have done well the last four years is honestly evaluated our organization and stay focused on what we feel we need to do to get better,” Hurdle said. “That isn’t going to change.”

Goose Gossage finally gained election to the Hall of Fame this past week and that made the two men who first brought the fireballing reliever to the major leagues very happy. Roland Hemond was the general manager and Chuck Tanner was the manager in 1972 when the Chicago White Sox put Gossage on the major-league roster coming out of spring training–he had gone 18-2 at Class A Appleton the year before. “I think the world of Goose,” Hemond told the Chicago Tribune. “I’ve been agonizing over this for the last four or five years, so it was very fulfilling to hear the good news. He is certainly worthy of the honor, and I can’t wait to see him in Cooperstown to congratulate him.”

Tanner managed Gossage twice, with the White Sox from 1972-75 then again with Pittsburgh in 1977. “I was fortunate as a manager to have a lot of quality guys out of the bullpen,” Tanner said. “I had Rollie Fingers, Kent Tekulve and Bruce Sutter, and without question Goose was the best. He was always in such command, he could throw 100 miles per hour and he had that intimidating look with the Fu Manchu mustache. He looked like John Wayne coming out of the corral. And the thing about Goose was he never had an easy save. It wasn’t uncommon for him to throw two or three innings at a time to get a save. He should have been chosen the first year he was eligible. In my opinion there shouldn’t be a Hall of Fame if Goose is not in it.”

Gossage had four seasons of at least 25 saves and 100 innings pitched. In the past 20 seasons, only two closers have accomplished that feat: Houston’s Doug Jones with 36 saves and 111 2/3 innings in 1992 and Cincinnati’s Danny Graves with 27 saves and 111 innings in 1999.

Another pitcher who has Hall of Fame credentials, Bert Blyleven, came up short for the 11th straight season as he was named on 61.9 percent of the ballots, after slipping from 53 to 47 percent last year. Blyleven has four more years on the ballot. Despite the increase in votes, Blyleven was a bit frustrated to be shut out again. “If it ever happens, I’ll be very excited, but I just hope I’m on this side of the grass when it does happen,” Blyleven told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “It sounds sad, but there are some guys who are going in who are no longer with us–(former Commissioner) Bowie Kuhn and (former Dodgers owner) Walter O’Malley–and those guys should have been in a long time ago.”

“I’m very happy for Goose Gossage. That’s something that should have happened years ago. I know Goose vented last year. You find yourself–when you get too close, and you know your numbers are there–you get upset. I was upset before, and now I just look at it and say it’s out of my hands, what can I do?”

Blyleven went 287-250 with a 3.31 career ERA. He ranks fifth on the all-time strikeout list with 3,701 and ninth in shutouts with 60. “I can’t control wins, and sometimes I wonder if writers really understand,” Blyleven said. “I didn’t win 300, but I was in a lot of ballgames. That was the main objective as a starter when I pitched–to go nine innings. And if you lost 3-1 or 3-2, you kept your team in the game. But it does get frustrating when you feel like you have to defend those numbers this time of year.”

When the Cleveland Indians open their 2008 season on March 31 by hosting the White Sox, they will be doing so at Progressive Field rather than Jacobs Field. The Indians reached an agreement this past week with Cleveland-based Progressive, which describes itself as “a leading car, motorcycle, and commercial auto insurer,” on a 16-year deal for naming rights to the ballpark. Indians officials say Progressive will pay an average of $3.6 million per year, which makes the total deal worth about $58 million.

Jacobs Field had been the name of the Indians’ stadium since it opened in 1994. It was named after brothers Richard and David Jacobs, the club’s owners at the time. The Jacobs paid $10 million for the naming rights to the ballpark in a deal that expired at the end of the 2006 season. The Indians immediately began changing all the signs around the ballpark from Jacobs Field to Progressive Field.

“There have been a lot of great memories at Jacobs Field over the last 14 years,” Indians President Paul Dolan told the Lake County News-Herald, “but in due time we feel Progressive Field will become a part the fabric of our community and produce just as many memories as did Jacobs Field.”

Rumors and Rumblings:
Cleveland left-hander C.C. Sabathia will have a tough decision in the upcoming months, as he must decide whether to re-sign with the Indians or become a free agent at the end of the 2008 season. The Indians are expected to hold firm at an offer of four years and an option, while Sabathia–who genuinely wants to stay in Cleveland–will likely look for a contract similar to what Santana is seeking should he be traded … Those close to the Yankees are certain GM Brian Cashman will leave the organization when his three-year contract expires at the end of the upcoming season now that the Steinbrenner sons–Hank and Hal–have taken control of the franchise … Though former St. Louis GM Walt Jocketty was hired this past week as a special adviser to Cincinnati owner Bob Castellini, Reds insiders insist it does not mean GM Wayne Krivsky’s job is in jeopardy. Jocketty has told friends he has no desire to be a GM again … Baltimore wants more for second baseman Brian Roberts than the Chicago Cubs‘ reported offer of left-hander Sean Marshall, right-hander Sean Gallagher and shortstop Ronny Cedeno. A deal is becoming more unlikely by the day, as the Orioles won’t make the deal without getting one of Felix Pie or Tyler Colvin. Thus, they are more likely to acquire Adam Jones from Seattle as the centerpiece of a package for left-hander Erik Bedard.

Detroit is interested in signing third baseman Miguel Cabrera to a contract extension, even though it would almost certainly be an eight-figure deal. Meanwhile, the Tigers are having a hard time trading Brandon Inge, who lost his spot in the lineup with the acquisition of Cabrera from Florida last month, as the Tigers do not want to eat any of the $19 million left on the final three years of his contract … Boston is expected to sign catcher Jason Varitek to a two-year extension worth around $20 million that would take him through 2010, when he is likely to retire … Dmitri Young will go to Spring Training as Washington’s starting first baseman, meaning Nick Johnson–who missed last season because of a broken leg–will have to win his job back. Young has also been enlisted by Nationals GM Jim Bowden to serve as a mentor for troubled outfielder Elijah Dukes … Milwaukee’s signing of free-agent center fielder Mike Cameron means Bill Hall will shift from center field to third base and Ryan Braun will move from third to left field … Reliever Keith Foulke still plans to come out of retirement and will begin throwing for interested clubs in Arizona later this month … San Francisco would consider trading for White Sox third baseman Joe Crede if they don’t re-sign Pedro Feliz, who is drawing interest from Philadelphia.

Outfielder Corey Patterson is receiving minimal interest on the free agent market and could end up back in Baltimore on a cut-rate deal if the Orioles fail to land a center field prospect in a trade … Cashman says the only spots certain in the Yankees’ bullpen are closer Mariano Rivera and right-handed set-up men Kyle Farnsworth and LaTroy Hawkins. The Yankees are also considering re-signing free agent lefty Ron Villone for the bullpen. Villone is also getting interest from the Mets and Pirates … St. Louis is considering offering a multi-year extension to catcher Yadier Molina, who is eligible for free agency in 2010.

Texas appears close to signing free agent Jason Jennings to fill out the starting rotation … Florida has interest in signing outfielder Luis Gonzalez as a free agent if he is willing to accept a backup role … Cincinnati and Seattle are considering making offers to free agent starter Josh Fogg. The Reds are also kicking the tires on Brett Tomko as a possible free agent addition to the rotation … The Mets are considering brining back free agent infielder Jose Valentin on a non-guaranteed contract … The Pirates have backed off on their pursuit of free agent catcher Johnny Estrada, meaning Ronny Paulino will likely retain his starting job behind the plate … Pittsburgh is interested in signing first baseman Adam LaRoche and closer Matt Capps to long-term contract extensions. LaRoche is eligible for free agency after the 2009 season, while Capps is under the Pirates’ control through 2011 … Big right-hander Runelvys Hernandez, who spent last season at the Triple-A level with three different organizations, has supposedly gotten back into shape and his fastball up to 97 mph, which has gotten interest from Houston, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Texas.

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