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The Opposition: Boston Red Sox

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BOSTON RED SOX
2006 Record: 86-76, 3rd Place
Manager: Terry Francona

On SBN: Over the Monster

Incoming: RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka, RF J.D. Drew, SS Julio Lugo, RHP Joel Piñeiro, LHP Hideki Okajima, LHP J.C. Romero
Outgoing: RF Trot Nixon, RHP Keith Foulke, 2B Mark Loretta, SS Alex Gonzalez

Idiots Continue to Scatter
The self-proclaimed "Idiots" team is gradually leaving Boston, or maybe Boston is just getting rid of them. Trot Nixon and Keith Foulke follow Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Johnny Damon, Bill Mueller, Orlando Cabrera, Mark Bellhorn, Bronson Arroyo and Alan Embree (among others) out of Red Sox Nation and on to different -- not necessarily greener -- pastures.

The key players remaining from the 2004 World Series championship team are Jason Varitek, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis, Doug Mirabelli (who briefly went to San Diego), Tim Wakefield, Curt Schilling and Mike Timlin.

Revamped Pitching, or, Direct From Japan
Daisuke Matsuzaka heads up the new-look pitching staff of the Red Sox, the team's biggest weakness in a disappointing 86-win season in 2006. The 26-year old Matsuzaka is being paid as if he's going to be one of the elite starting pitchers in the league, and the Red Sox are banking (literally) on just that. Both Schilling and Wakefield are now 40 years old and aren't going to get any more dependable than they already are, so Matsuzaka really can't be less than hoped for if the Red Sox are to make a serious run at the division.

Josh Beckett (16-11, 5.01) was a flop in his first year in the American League, giving up more home runs in 204 2/3 innings in 2006 (36) than he had in his previous 335 1/3 innings with Florida (30). His strikeout rate was down and he had some control issues, and he simply gave up more runs than he ever has in his career. Beckett is 27 years old in May, and has never lived up to his young ace tag that he had with the Marlins, at least not over a full season. On the plus side, he topped 30 starts and 200 innings for the first time in his career last year. But they weren't a quality 30 starts and 200 innings, either.

26-year old Jonathan Papelbon will move from the closer's role to the rotation, or at least that is the hope from both Papelbon and the Sox. In almost any other season, Papelbon's 2006 would have made him the no-brainer Rookie of the Year, as he recorded 35 saves and posted a 0.92 ERA, one of the all-time great closer seasons. He was bred to be a starter, though, and he wants to start. He has superb power stuff and is re-developing the curveball to give hitters something different from the stuff they saw last year. Moving from closer to starter is not easy, but the Red Sox did it with Derek Lowe and got mostly good results, and Papelbon's raw stuff is far better than Lowe's, and John Smoltz has been very successful since returning to Atlanta's starting rotation. Odds are that Papelbon is going to be good, because his numbers in '06 weren't fluky, he was just dominant.

Also coming in are former Mariner Joel Piñeiro (a career disappointment who will compete for the closer's job) and lefty relievers Hideki Okajima and J.C. Romero (looking to rebound from an awful one-season stint with the Angels).

The Sox are almost certain to get more consistency from their pitching than they did in 2006, and there is a lot of depth and flexibility to be ironed out in the spring, too.

If All Else Fails
There are two names to always remember when talking about the Boston Red Sox: Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. Ramirez, now 35, is still one of the best hitters in the game, and shows no signs of slowing down with his .321/.439/.619 line, with 35 homers, 100 walks and 102 RBI. Ortiz has truly come into his own, hitting .287/.413/.636 with 119 walks, 54 home runs and 137 RBI. They are the most fearsome one-two punch in baseball, a modern day Ruth and Gehrig.

...And the Rest!
The duo will have new insurance in the lineup, too, as 31-year old outfielder J.D. Drew moves to the American League for the first time in his injury-riddled, frustrating career. After a successful season with the Dodgers (.283/.393/.498, 20 HR, 89 BB, 100 RBI, 34 2B), Drew opted out of his Dodger contract and hit the free agent market. The Red Sox paid a pretty penny for a guy who has only twice been over 500 plate appearances (2004, 2006). When Drew is in the lineup, he's a difference-maker. But if -- or when -- he goes down, it will be up to Wily Mo Pena or Eric Hinske to take his spot, and neither of those guys are Drew's equal, even with Pena's talent.

Center fielder Coco Crisp was another 2006 acquisition that flopped, as he played in just 105 games and hit a dreadful .264/.317/.385, far below what anyone would have expected based on his previous two years in Cleveland. If he's healthy, Crisp should return to form and be a positive for the Sox. If he's not, they've got a hole in center that would be left to Wily Mo, who hit pretty well in spot duty last season and is still very young, but will always lack plate discipline and be frustrating for managers, fans and the influential and obnoxious Boston press monster.

In the infield, the Sox are solid with first baseman Kevin Youkilis, third baseman Mike Lowell and new shortstop Julio Lugo, plus either Alex Cora or Dustin Pedroia at second base. Lugo and Cora/Pedroia replace slick-fielding Alex Gonzalez and veteran Mark Loretta up the middle, and should provide better offensive production even if it winds up being Cora and Lugo. Lowell rebounded from his woes in Florida last year, and was really the only 2005 offseason addition that worked out for the Sox. Youkilis is an on-base machine and something of a sparkplug, and plays his role extremely well.

Why Boston Won't Win
The improvements still have to prove that they're going to be consistent and, in some cases, healthy. J.D. Drew makes the middle of the Boston order even more deadly, but Drew should be considered day-to-day even when he seems to be 100 percent healthy. The rotation could go one of three ways: Great, bad, or just not good enough, depending on how effective Matsuzaka and Papelbon are, whether or not Beckett improves, and how much Schilling and Wakefield have left in the tank.