What the Red Sox learned this spring
Newcomers fit in, health not an issue, pitching looks deep -- but there are catches
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Maybe this is all you need to know about spring training: On the team's last day in Florida, Red Sox manager Terry Francona was asked if there was a player he was particularly impressed by, and he skipped past the usual suspects and rhapsodized about the local hero, Nate Spears.
"Nate Spears had a great camp, there's no getting around it," Francona said. "Fun to watch, worked hard, I think he grew on everybody. Every single coach was like, 'Damn, this guy can play."'
There's also no getting around that Spears, who was born here and grew up in Port Charlotte, is a soon-to-be 26-year-old who has spent eight seasons in the minor leagues and last season took a step backward, going from Triple-A in the Cubs' system to Double-A Portland for the Sox.
Great kid, by all accounts, the kind you hope one day makes it, but hardly a barometer of what kind of club is breaking camp three days ahead of the regular season.
The lesson in that? If the manager isn't caught up in how his regulars look in camp, then maybe you shouldn't be, either.
"It really doesn't matter," Francona said. "You can hit .500 in the spring, but when the season starts you can't bottle it. You just do the best you can to be ready. Somebody's going to get real hot for us, somebody's going to get real cold, that's just the way it goes."
But here are the 10 most important takeaways from spring training, the last in which the Red Sox call City of Palms Park home (and if the baseball gods have any mercy, they'll find a new tenant for COP, so there will be three teams in Fort Myers and far fewer bus rides all over the state):
1. The team was healthy this spring. Almost spookily so.
Especially for a club that lost 1,018 games to the disabled list last season, spread among 19 players and 24 stints.
All the guys who could have been guest stars on "Grey's Anatomy" last summer appear fully recovered from their various surgical procedures, including new first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who didn't play in his first game until March 12 but capped his spring with a long home run to left-center Tuesday off the Rays' Wade Davis. Jacoby Ellsbury played with his usual abandon. John Lackey obviously spent time with the Slenderizer. Daisuke Matsuzaka was as fit as he has been in three years: no shoulder or neck or hamstring miseries. The screw in Dustin Pedroia's foot will draw notice only when he passes through airport security. Mike Cameron and Jason Varitek both made liars of the calendar.
The only real health issue of consequence was the sore left elbow of promising lefty Felix Doubront, and he saw his first game action Tuesday, pitching two scoreless innings in a minor league game.
2. It was all business, all the time.
No distractions, no controversy, no contract talk, no stolen AK-47s (really, Evan Longoria?). The new guys -- Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Bobby Jenks, Dan Wheeler -- all blended seamlessly into the clubhouse. No one asked Big Papi about a contract extension. Jed Lowrie may not be thrilled about being a utilityman, but he kept his head down. Closer friction? Jenks' only problem was with his former manager, Ozzie Guillen. He just pitched and went fishing.
3. Ellsbury staked his claim on the leadoff spot.
At the start of camp, Francona said the Sox would hit Ellsbury ninth if it looked like he needed more time after playing just 18 games in 2010. Not to worry. Ellsbury came flying out of the chute and left little doubt that he's prepared to pick up where he left off in 2009. He hit .390 with five extra-base hits and 11 runs scored this spring.
4. There is a catch.
The Sox played Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Varitek almost equally this spring, which could portend how they will be used in the regular season. Francona said he expected Varitek would play more than the typical backup. No one has publicly voiced that it could be a 50-50 split, but Varitek has said he's not sure how much he'll play. It probably all depends on Saltalamacchia. If he begins to fulfill his great promise, the full-time job is there for the taking. For what it's worth, Saltalamacchia hit .364 with a home run and six doubles this spring.
5. OK, if you must worry
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Kevin Youkilis hit just .189 this spring with 14 whiffs in 53 at-bats, double the number of times he struck out last spring, when he batted .389. Worth noting: In 2009, he hit .233 with one extra-base hit in camp, then hit .395 with five home runs and 15 RBIs in April.
"The season starts in a couple of days," Francona said, "and you just don't know who's going to come out swinging well and who won't. It's the same way every year. But I mean our guys, Youk wanted extra at-bats, Crawford wanted extra at-bats, they got 'em. There's not a lot of pushing to go around here, to get guys to do stuff. They want to come out feeling good about themselves."
6. If you must worry, II
Josh Beckett had a 6.64 ERA in five starts, and the results were no better at the end of the spring. But Varitek insists Beckett has his power back, Epstein told reporters his changeup has been better than it's ever been, and Beckett seems unperturbed, just mighty glad his back is holding up.
7. Deep depth
The Sox have stacked better-than-usual pitching depth in the minor leagues. Alfredo Aceves, Doubront, Michael Bowden and Brandon Duckworth all could figure in the mix as starters, as could the team's most intriguing project, lefty Andrew Miller, aka "Big Slim," according to Michael Cameron. All of the above could show up on Yawkey Way as relievers, along with veterans Hideki Okajima, Rich Hill and Scott Atchison.
8. Future shock
Outfielders Ryan Kalish and Josh Reddick have already demonstrated their ability to help on the big league level, and it's just a matter of time for shortstop Jose Iglesias. Looking for a sleeper? Keep an eye on Cuban outfielder Juan Carlos Linares.
9. Mr. March
Take a bow, Drew Sutton, the veteran utilityman who hit .317 while playing just about every position on the diamond. If Lowrie gets hurt, he'll be good insurance to have.
10. Beware the curse
Wilbur Smith was the Fort Myers mayor who spearheaded the drive to build City of Palms Park, which bears his name on a sign proclaiming Wilbur "Billy" Smith. Now Smith is one of the most vocal critics of the Red Sox for leveraging their way to a $77 million deal for a new yard, to be called JetBlue Park. (That didn't keep him from throwing out the ceremonial first pitch here Tuesday.)
Smith called down a curse on the Sox to a local newspaper columnist. "The Red Sox better win the World Series this year, because after 2011, the curse is back," he told columnist Sam Cook of the Fort Myers News-Press.
A lot of song and dance from an egotistical former pol? Sure. But when you're a Sox fan, you get a little queasy whenever someone starts throwing around curses.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.
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