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Clouds hang over the Red Sox’ immediate future


Uh-oh. Here comes that "negative" Boston media again. Instead of talking about all of the good stuff going on at Red Sox spring training down at Fort Myers, here’s another example of a Boston writer targeting the bad.

It’s really not all bad, you know. But the status quo is rather unexciting, and there’s something to remember here: this season could be this particular edition of the Red Sox’ last best chance at post-season glory, given the team’s list of potential free agents who are as yet unsigned beyond the current season. With the strength of this roster, coupled with the promise offered up by last year’s squad, it’s plain to see that optimism in the Hub is rampant.

(Optimism? Try going to the Sox’ ticket office and getting a couple of seats together for any home game. The friendly ticket agents will kindly guide you through the schedule — all the way to mid September, when you’ll finally have your opportunity.)

So Sox fans don’t want the bad news; they only want the good. And here’s the good news: Curt Schilling looks great. There have been some great new additions on this year’s team. The chemistry thus far seems fairly stable. New manager Terry Francona is getting kudos for his handling of the squad.

Are you ready for the not-so-good? Because this could go on for a while. And though nothing yet should point card-carrying members of Red Sox Nation toward the cables of the Zakim Bridge for one last swing, there are concerns that undoubtedly should be addressed.

The bad news: lotsa folks hurting on this year’s team, with some of them admitting it, and some being a bit more reticent. This we know: outfielder Trot Nixon came into camp and was immediately beset with back problems. At first he thought the pain stemmed from the long car ride down from North Carolina, but his condition worsened despite all kinds of treatment, and now he’s been diagnosed with a slightly herniated disk and prescribed rest for about six weeks. Nixon, the hard-nosed right fielder who signed a three-year contract extension during the off-season, didn’t appear in any of the team’s Grapefruit League games before he was shelved, and when he returns, he’ll likely start out in Triple-A Pawtucket to get his timing back. Yet anyone who’s had back problems, or remembers that one Larry Bird had to retire prematurely from a Hall of Fame career because of same, knows the potential for long-term downtime or even surgery.

Also on the mend is projected fifth starter Byung-Hyun Kim, who will probably miss the first two weeks of the regular season with shoulder inflammation — an extension of an injury first suffered last October during the ALDS against Oakland (although at that time his omission from the ALCS roster was chalked up to his "Yankee" problems and punitive measures implemented by the Sox for his bird-flipping incident at Fenway Park).

Then we’ve got the woes of that heel, Nomar, or more accurately, Nomar’s heel, an Achilles problem that resulted from the shortstop’s getting hit by a batted ball during warm-ups. The best forecasts call for Garciaparra to be back by Opening Day, but again, anyone who’s familiar with those kinds of injuries knows that the only remedy for the pain is long-term inaction or surgery, and in the case of the former — well, there’s not much rest available for the Achilles tendon of a Major League Baseball shortstop.

The Sox’ M*A*S*H unit also includes newly signed closer Keith Foulke (who has struggled with a strained calf and was lit up for four runs on five hits in one-and-two-thirds innings on Saturday in his third spring start); reliever Ramiro Mendoza, who has yet to return fully from a strained abdominal muscle but is still due $3.6 million this season after a lackluster 2003; third baseman Bill Mueller, who tweaked his elbow over the weekend, although at this point it’s not deemed serious; utility infielder Terry Shumpert, who was fighting for a roster spot but may have lost his opportunity by pulling up lame with a hamstring injury on Sunday (unfortunately, a day after the Sox had traded away another utility man, Tony Womack, to the Cardinals); and projected right-handed DH Ellis Burks, who is coming back from off-season elbow surgery, and therefore is not yet ready to serve as a back-up to Nixon in the outfield.

Then you have perhaps the biggest question mark of them all, although no one has yet come out and said it: is Pedro Martinez really healthy? While Martinez has insisted that he’s on track and that his arm hasn’t felt this good since 1998, a lot of scouts have whispered that most of his work this spring has been in the 80-85 mph range, and in only one inning has he really let loose and aired it out. Pedro may indeed be saving his best stuff for the regular season — and who could blame him, given his recent track record for missing games during the latter stages of the season? Yet in terms of his long-term prognosis and the team’s expectations, the strength of his arm is indeed a significant question, since he’s one of those Sox superstars whose contract is up at the end of the season, and the Sox’ brass needs to know whether he’s indeed really healthy if they’re going to dole out mucho dinero for a long-term extension.

Finally, centerfielder Johnny Damon isn’t hurt at all, as far as we know, but we must question his mental health if the shaggy-haired speedster insists on entering the regular season looking like the long-lost son of Charles Manson and Courtney Love.

Many paragraphs later, and we finally get to the good news regarding the team’s injury woes. The fact is, the Red Sox didn’t lose any regulars to the DL all of last season, and that state of team health went a long way toward helping the team achieve the AL wild-card berth, as well as its run through the playoffs. These things tend to even out, and though it’s unfortunate that the team is so inundated with health-care issues right now, it’s better to deal with them at this point than during the stretch run. In addition, the team has been built with foresight for precisely this kind of situation. The depth exhibited by the 2004 Red Sox is mind-boggling; few other teams can plug so many holes so effortlessly. (And yes, one would think that the Yankees, with their $180-million payroll, could also adapt, but the Bombers actually have paid most of their hard-earned dollars to the superstars, with little left for the reserves. That’s why starter Jon Lieber’s slow recovery means the possible ascension of a guy like Donovan Osborne to fifth starter, and the likes of Tony Clark (BAs of .232 and .207 the past two seasons) and Miguel Cairo (.245, .250) would spell Jason Giambi and Derek Jeter, respectively.)

Sox GM Theo Epstein signed guys like Pokey Reese, Mark Bellhorn, Gabe Kapler, David McCarty, Burks, and Shumpert for these exact reasons, and while Kapler may struggle with the intricacies of Fenway’s right-field layout, he’s certainly no slouch — and can also back up Mueller at third. Same with the other fellas: if Garciaparra misses any significant time, then Reese moves over to his preferred position, shortstop, while the veteran Bellhorn can adequately handle second base — or any of the infield positions for that matter. The versatility of Kevin Millar (first base/outfield), Kapler (infield/outfield), and McCarty (first base/outfield) are critical to the team’s long-range success, and they may well be called upon to serve in these capacities if this disturbing team-wide injury trend continues.

Most injuries are treatable; hurt feelings, greedy agents, and obstinacy are not so easily remedied. And despite all the warm and fuzzy feelings that have carried over from last year’s fun-loving bunch of Soxers, the specter of Red (Sox) Men Walking looms over the franchise. It was hoped by Red Sox fans that the key free agents — Pedro, Nomar, Trot, Jason Varitek, and Derek Lowe — would be taken care of this off–season, and that no dark clouds of impending departure would hover over this year’s edition. Well, a month into the process and only Nixon has been re-upped — and look where it got him. Meanwhile, the other four — along with David Ortiz and Scott Williamson, who signed one-year extensions this past off-season — remain in contractual limbo, with fans having little idea who is realistically to blame for the long-terms deals not getting inked. Is it the agents? Could be, considering the big-name principals involved (Scott Boras represents Varitek and Lowe, Arn Tellem works for Garciaparra). Is it the "respect" factor? That baby is always in play when it comes to the ego-driven Martinez, and Nomar (likely LA-bound this fall) is still sulking a bit about last season’s contract-extension breakdown and the A-Rod nonsense. Is it merely the financial numbers supplied by the two parties? Most likely a consideration, since the Red Sox as usual must preach fiduciary responsibility given their already-huge payroll, while the players mentioned are all, for the most part, indulging themselves for the first time in the wily world of baseball unrestricted free-agency.

These are not easy times for new skipper Francona or wunderkind GM Epstein. All Sox fans can do is trust the parties involved to do what is right and just for the organization, and hope that the ballplayers can put aside off-season machinations as they head into the 2004 campaign.

After all, this kind of melodrama is not exactly foreign to the followers of Boston’s baseball team. Why should this season be anything different?

Sporting Eye runs Mondays and Fridays at BostonPhoenix.com, and Christopher Young can be reached at cyoung@phx.com


Issue Date: March 22, 2004
"Sporting Eye" archives: 2004 | 2003 |2002
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