After everyone had cleared off of the practice fields yesterday, John Lackey arrived in Fort Myers for his first Spring Training with the Red Sox. He was the only remaining pitcher who had not arrived yet in anticipation of today’s official report date for pitchers and catchers. Now Spring Training can officially begin.
After the difficult end to last season for the Sox, all of the returning pitchers probably circled this date on their calendars as the beginning of a road to redemption. With some new faces along side, the strength of the 2010 Red Sox team is their pitching quality and depth. The starting rotation is widely considered to be the best and deepest in baseball and the back-end of the Sox bullpen is as strong as any other, but there are still many questions that need to be answered.
The first, and most glaring, weakness is in middle relief for the Sox. The hope is that Manny Delcarmen will return to his 2007 form when he appeared in 44 games and had an era slightly above 2. His struggles last season were due to an injury, so hopefully he can remain strong throughout the season. Beyond Delcarmen, the Sox have a few options, but none without large question marks.
Brian Shouse will be used as a lefty specialist, similar to the way Francona used Javier Lopez, but at age 41, no one knows how many bullets he has left. Shouse had a high 4.50 era in 45 games last season while splitting time between the majors and minors for the Rays. If he is used only for lefty match ups when needed and stays healthy, he has the veteran experience that is valuable late in the season and into the postseason.
The other member of the bullpen with an even bigger question mark is Boof Bonser. The former Twins starter has expressed his willingness to pitch out of the ‘pen for the Sox, but missed all of 2009 with a torn labrum and rotator cuff. Bonser has a career 18-25 record with an era over 5 as a starter, so the Sox are hoping a change of scenery and role will help him be successful. The good news for the Sox is that Bonser is only 28, so his arm should still be relatively fresh.
The final question for the Sox relates to the 6 starting pitchers in camp. I wrote about this a few weeks ago and my opinion is unchanged. The question about what to do with Tim Wakefield is still unanswered. Theo and Francona are hoping the situation ‘works itself out’, and ultimately it probably will, but what they do to begin the season is still up in the air. Not knowing what to do with too many starting pitchers is a problem, but certainly one of the better problems to have.
Overall the Sox pitching staff appears strong at the start of Spring Training 2010, but not without some uncertainty. If everyone stays relatively healthy, the pitching staff could be the biggest difference maker in October when the Sox are looking to avenge last year’s playoff demons.