Fun in the sun (and baseball, too)
Here are 10 things we're looking forward to this spring at Red Sox spring training
My boss had just finished shoveling out the driveway that had been plowed in for the third time in a few hours when he called. Got an assignment for you, he said. I want you to write about the 10 things you're looking forward to in spring training. Think you can handle that?
Sheesh. No need to be sarcastic. It was his idea to put me on a plane to Fort Myers, not mine. Next seven weeks in Florida? Somebody has to do it.
My boss broke in. Enough, wise guy. You're on the company dime, remember? Nobody cares what you do in your spare time. Pitchers and catchers report on Friday, the rest of the squad three days later. Everybody will be on the field on the 20th. How about enlightening us about the things you're looking forward to baseball-wise, if it's not too much trouble.
My pleasure. It has been more than 30 years since I went to spring training for the first time -- 1983, Dodgertown -- and the 18th spring I will be in Red Sox camp, and for me it truly never gets old. Watching the early-morning fog lift from beautifully manicured outfield lawns, walking past batting cages already alive with activity at an hour when most folks are still having breakfast, greeting Kevin the security guard before strolling into a clubhouse filled with faces both familiar and unknown, seeing the happiness of the snowbirds gathered along the rope lines separating the practice fields, sitting in a quiet press box overlooking a ballpark from where the sounds of small talk and laughter and coaches' exhortations drift up during bunting drills and infield practice and cutoff plays ... these are the things that fill my days in February and March.
Sure, a certain tedium sets in after awhile. Players want to get on with the season, and so do we. But the game could not exist without its annual exercise of renewal and discovery, and I am grateful for the privilege of having a front-row seat, and sharing what I see with you.
Now, my boss is really annoyed. Look, if I wanted some dime-store poetry, I would have bought a greeting card. How about just getting on with it?
OK, then. Here are 10 things I'm looking forward to observing in Sox camp this spring, in no particular order.
So, it's not unprecedented. Roy Hobbs was 19 years old when he was shot by that loon Harriet Bird, but returned 15 years later with Wonderboy intact. That was fiction. A real-life example? Reds pitcher Jose Rijo, a bona-fide ace in the late 1980s and early '90s for the Reds, had five operations on his right elbow that sidelined him for five seasons and came back at age 36. It didn't last long -- he went down for good a year later -- but he made it back. Josh Hamilton, the No. 1 overall pick in 1999 (one pick ahead of Josh Beckett), was out of organized ball for three years because of his crack addiction before the Tampa Bay Rays gave him another chance in 2006. A year later, he was in the big leagues.
And in basketball, as my ESPN Boston colleague Jackie MacMullan reminded me, Grant Hill missed 281 regular-season and 15 playoff games between 2000 and 2004 with ankle injuries and made it back at age 32, and was voted an All-Star starter.
So now comes Grady Sizemore, a three-time All-Star before the age of 25, a player who hit 20 home runs and stole 20 bases in each of his first four seasons in the big leagues, a center fielder and leadoff hitter who was Jacoby Ellsbury with a tad less speed, a lot more power, and a better arm. Then the injuries came, and the seven operations -- on both knees, including microfracture surgery on his left knee, his back and two for sports hernias. Since 2008, Sizemore has played a total of 210 games in the big leagues, and hasn't played anywhere in the past two years. The Red Sox have seen Sizemore work out and think he has a chance to make it back. He's 31 now, and while they've made a modest bet on his return -- -$750,000 base contract -- the odds still seem impossibly long. If he pulls it off, it's one of the great stories of this or any other season, but the guess here is that rookie Jackie Bradley Jr., who had a terrific spring in 2013, will be the Opening Day center fielder, with Sizemore left facing a decision of whether he is willing to go back to the minors to pursue his dream.
This close to camp, and Stephen Drew remains unsigned, which means his return to the Red Sox still cannot be entirely ruled out. Sox brass, from Larry Lucchino to Ben Cherington to John Farrell, have all cited the team's depth as the most critical component of their success last season, and entrusting the left side to Xander Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks without a true safety net represents a departure from that approach. The Sox have other potential big-leaguers in the making at both third (Garin Cecchini) and short (Deven Marrero), but they're not yet far enough along in their development. Bogaerts has "can't miss" written all over him, and Middlebrooks is healthy again and presumably wiser for the experience of struggling last season, but the Sox need more protection. If not Drew, then somebody else.
Last spring, it was Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster, and rookies Brandon Workman and Drake Britton making the biggest impact. They are by no means an old story -- both almost certainly will be pitching again in Boston this season -- but the Sox are excited about the pitchers in the pipeline, and Owens, in particular, who was ranked the team's No. 2 prospect behind Bogaerts by ESPN.com's Keith Law. The 6-foot-6 left-hander has had just two seasons in pro ball, but made dramatic strides last season, ending in Double-A Portland, where he posted a 1.78 ERA in six starts and struck out 46 batters in 30 1/3 innings. Scouts rave about his changeup and curveball, and are just waiting for his fastball to catch up with his secondary pitches. Barnes and Ranaudo also have impressive arms and are ahead of Owens in potential big-league ETA. They're not all going to make it, but the Sox haven't had a collection of young arms like this in a long time.
4. Charting the progress of young catchers Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart
It was an eye-opening experience last spring when the 22-year-old Vazquez, a native of Puerto Rico, showed off his powerful arm in his first big-league camp, and it wasn't a mirage: Vazquez threw out nearly 47 percent of the base-runners who attempted to steal on him in Portland last season (47 out of 101). With the Sox entering the season with 37-year-old veterans A.J. Pierzynski and David Ross behind the plate, there will be an opportunity soon for a young catcher, and the switch-hitting Swihart, who will be in his first big league camp, and Vazquez are the two leading contenders. Swihart is regarded as the better prospect, but Vazquez is closer to the big leagues.
5. Spotting this spring's fashion trend
Jonny Gomes has declared an end to the Beards, although Mike Napoli is expected to be a conscientious objector, the Sox first baseman now fully invested in the concept of his hedgerow whiskers defining his essence. Gomes said he is running short on ideas, but with veteran free spirits such as Ross, Ryan Dempster, Jake Peavy and A.J. Pierzynski around, someone will step up.
The man just makes everyone around him feel better. No one in the Sox clubhouse pays more than passing attention to Ortiz's annual lobbying for a new, improved contract. They just want to hear his booming laugh, be on the receiving end of one of his massive bear hugs, and make sure they don't miss any of his outrageous pronouncements. The biggest misconception about the Sox during the Ortiz years, one that makes him indignant, is the idea that he hasn't been a leader almost from the day he put on the uniform. The new guys brought a lot of energy, commitment and a renewed focus, but the glue that holds it all together belongs to Dustin Pedroia and Big Papi.
7. The first time Sox hitters take BP against Shunsuke Watanabe
It used to be Tim Wakefield's knuckleball that evoked dread among the Sox hitters assigned to face him in his first live BP session. The novelty act this spring is Watanabe, the Japanese submariner whose knuckles practically scrape the ground before he delivers a pitch. Watanabe didn't fool Ortiz much, though, when they faced each other in an exhibition in Japan. Ortiz hit one of the longest home runs ever in the Tokyo Dome.
8. How A.J. Pierzynski fits in
This story will have a short shelf life, and is a topic only because Pierzynski is a perennial winner in the "Players They Love to Hate" polls. A.J. is a world-class agitator, but that's when he's on the other side. In his own clubhouse, especially at this stage of his career, he prides himself on being a good teammate, even if he may have annoyed his manager in Chicago, Ozzie Guillen, from time to time. He should fit right in with this group, though he is replacing a pitchers' favorite in Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
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The man missed three months during the season with shoulder bursitis, gave the Sox a gallant few innings in his one World Series start (Game 4), then went home and did not require any kind of procedure on his arm, other than rest and the usual strengthening exercises. His enforced inactivity suggested something needed to be done, but so far that hasn't been the case. Healthy, Buchholz was one of the league's best pitchers and played a huge part in the team's high-flying start last season. His 1.74 ERA in 16 starts was the stuff of which aces are made. But can he stay in one piece? His long-term future with the Sox depends on it.
10. John Farrell choosing a leadoff man
Jacoby Ellsbury has taken his talents to South Bronx, so the Sox will be auditioning candidates to lead off. Daniel Nava, with his high on-base percentage, and Shane Victorino, with his speed, are logical candidates, but the suspicion here is that by the end of camp, Bogaerts may emerge at the top of the order, the way a rookie named Nomar Garciaparra did in 1997.