At Fort Myers, a day of new beginnings
Revamped squad eager to put the pieces in place
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- This was a day for sweat and swagger, routine and ruminations, pacing and possibilities.
Fitting, then, that before the morning would end on the first Red Sox workout of 2010, a warm sun Saturday would chase away any lingering whispers of winter.
This was a day set aside for pitchers and catchers, but even as the gates opened for the first time to snowbirds and transplanted retirees eager for a glimpse of their team -- the head count for the day was 905 fans -- other familiar faces came striding into the clubhouse.
"You know what I'm going to do this year? Bat fifth and DH," cracked Dustin Pedroia. "I'm waiting to tell Papi that second base is all his.''
Forget all that talk about the Sox's offense being less than it was, said Pedroia, who hasn't added a pound nor lost an ounce of presence.
"Look at [Marco] Scutaro, he scored over 100 runs last year," Pedroia said. "He was a pain in the butt. [Mike] Cameron, he's going to hit a ton of home runs at Fenway.
"And me, I'm going to have at least 10 more hits this year, because that's about how many [Adrian] Beltre took away from me."
A few cubicles down, a muscular Jacoby Ellsbury, who maintained his usual offseason routine of two-a-day workouts, was quickly surrounded by reporters eager to hear his thoughts about shifting from center to left field, a position he last played with any regularity in 2007, when he filled in for a hamstring-challenged Manny (remember him?) Ramirez.
If anyone expected to sniff the makings of a controversy, forget it. Ellsbury was so positive in his endorsement of the move, it wouldn't have been surprising to hear him say he was the one who suggested it.
"Cameron never played left, I've played left," Ellsbury said. "This worked out better for the team. They asked me how I felt. As long as it helps the team, I told them I'd be fine with it."
But before the Boy Scouts could arrive with a good citizenship badge, someone else broke through the circle of reporters.
"Hey, ma-a-a-n," said Victor Martinez, adopting the pitch of a man with permanently clogged nasal passages. "How's it going, m-a-a-n."
"Hey, m-a-a-a-n," Ellsbury parroted back, while embracing a teammate who was with Cleveland at this time last year. "Good to see you, m-a-a-n."
Ryan Kalish is a 21-year-old rookie from New Jersey. Remember the name. This may be his first big league camp, but Kalish, one of several promising outfielders in the Sox system, gives off the vibe of someone on a collision course with bigger things.
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"It's real exciting to be here -- I can't believe I'm in this row," Kalish said as he observed the scene around him.
"This is my life dream. It's my fifth year, and I've had some ups and downs, been hurt a little bit, but now you just want to seize the moment."
For the Red Sox hopefuls, this was the place to be, where Edison Avenue dead-ends at the minor league facility bordering the canals from which a gator (or two) has been known to rouse himself for a stroll across the fields.
At one point Saturday morning, manager Terry Francona popped up on the diamond where slick-handed Cuban shortstop Jose Iglesias was taking ground balls, and engaged him in a 20-minute conversation, a measure of the regard the Sox already have for Iglesias.
"A very impressive young man," Francona said.
Back in the bullpen area, a freshly minted 20-year-old named Casey Kelly threw in the same group as the kid with the highest jersey number in camp -- Kyle Weiland, No. 97, a number better suited for a defensive lineman at Weiland's alma mater, Notre Dame.
Kelly, the team's No. 1 draft choice in 2008 and consensus best pitching prospect, drew a crowd that included GM Theo Epstein and Francona.
"I'm a little bit guarded," Francona would say later when asked for his assessment of Kelly, the kid from a pure-pedigree baseball family: His father, Pat, played in the big leagues for nine years and is a minor league manager; his uncle Mike played in the bigs for six years; his cousin Dustin played in the Sox minor league system; and his brother Chris is a pitcher in Tampa Bay's system.
"We don't want him to try to do more than he needs to. We want him to be a sponge, soak up as much as he can. He needs to prepare for his year, wherever that ends up being."
No need to rush Kelly, not when you could look from one end of the bullpen mounds to the other and see Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Jon Lester and Tim Wakefield throwing at the same time. The only guy missing was Daisuke Matsuzaka, his back tightness accounting for his absence from the mound, though Francona said he'll be ready to play catch on Sunday.
Wakefield, the only one in the group with a pre-Woodstock birth certificate (Aug. 2, 1966) and a softball player's pouch, made no bones about his determination to protect his place in the starting rotation against any and all poachers.
Wakefield said his surgically repaired back, and the accompanying leg weakness that aborted his All-Star season just after its midpoint, feels great.
"I plan to be one of the five starters," Wakefield said.
"I think Tito and Theo and John [Farrell] all think we're a better team with me in the rotation. I eat up innings, I do whatever it takes to help us win, and I think we agreed on that aspect."
And what if there are six healthy starters, including the emerging Clay Buchholz, come April 4, when the Sox open the season against the Yankees on a Sunday night in Fenway Park?
"Does that ever happen, to have six healthy starters?" Wakefield said, downplaying the chances of a reassessment potentially unfavorable to him. "We'll let the spring play itself out and we'll see, come April 1st."
This was a day for the longtime captain, Jason Varitek, to assert that he has come to terms with his role as backup, a transition that began after Martinez was acquired from the Indians last season.
"I just look at myself as a catcher," Varitek said. "I don't know any other way to do it."
This was a day for Epstein, who just yesterday, it seems, was the 28-year-old hometown kid entrusted with the upkeep of New England's most precious resource and now is in his ninth season, to look at what his offseason work had wrought and pronounce it good.
"We still have a chance to be a good offensive club," Epstein said, addressing one of the concerns raised by outliers. "I think there's been a lot of skepticism about our offense, but I think we still feel that we can be one of the top offensive clubs in the league.
"What we're striving for is balance. We want to be one of the best pitching teams in the league, we want to be one of the best defensive clubs in the league, we want to be one of the best offensive clubs in the league.
"In the years that we accomplished that are the years we tended to be better. Looking back at last year's club, we were one of the better pitching clubs, we were one of the better offensive clubs, we were subpar defensively. So the goal is for this year to be a little better balanced."
That's the plan. It doesn't, alas, allow for Pedroia to swap positions with Big Papi. Somehow, we think he'll get over it.
Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.
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