Friday, March 17, 2006

BURNING QUESTIONS

The main reason I cough up the dollars to ESPN.com for the Insider is Peter Gammons. Easily the greatest baseball columnist in recent history, Gammons knows more about what is going on in the major leagues than most general managers. Recently, he wrote about the Five Burning Questions surrounding the Red Sox. Of course, despite bowing to his unlimited baseball knowledge, I do have a few bones to pick with him (Gammons is in italics from his Insider blog on ESPN.com 3/15/06: http://insider.espn.go.com/espn/blog/index?name=gammons_peter#20060315):

1. Can Curt Schilling come back, and how good is the rotation? Schilling says his "arm feels great, best in a long while." But as he threw Wednesday in a minor-league game, questions were raised. He did not get swings and misses with his fastball from minor-leaguers. Because of the ankle, he is still not down to his 2001 weight, and while he makes some good pitches, can he maintain his delivery over 100 pitches? That remains to be seen. Ditto David Wells, who has yet to pitch, period. Josh Beckett is in the best shape of his career and has been very impressive. But while everyone likes to talk about their depth -- Wakefield, Matt Clement, Bronson Arroyo, Jonathan Papelbon -- there are questions about several of those starters, which will keep the organization monitoring how long it will take left-hander Jon Lester to be ready.

OK, Peter, first off every team whose name does not end in SOX is scrambling to find a #4 and a #5 starter. That the Red Sox have seven (and the White Sox six) legitimate starting pitchers who would be a #1, 2, or 3 on any other staff does not make their starting pitching a question mark. Schilling is less a question mark than Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina, AJ Burnett, anyone on the Baltimore or Tampa staff, Pedro Martinez, Ben Sheets, etc. There are plenty of other starting pitchers who are question marks. Beckett, Wakefield, Arroyo, Clement and Papelbon is a rotation that would lead to 95 wins. Most teams would kill to have the problem of too many quality starting pitchers.

2. Is Keith Foulke still a major-league closer? He is in much better shape after having knee surgery and is in a good frame of mind. Problem is, he's still taking medication for those knees and has yet to go to a mound and pitch in a game, so they have no idea whatsoever what he will be. Mike Timlin has closed, and Terry Francona believes that if Papelbon closed he'd be in the All-Star Game, which counts, but this is a mess. They need to figure out Papelbon's role, and even if he does close, jumping to that spot in Boston is a very difficult task. Craig Hansen hasn't thrown to his capabilities this spring, Manny Delcarmen hasn't thrown enough first-pitch strikes and Edgar Martinez needs innings, so their best arms are a ways away.

What did I tell you about Peter Gammons and Edgar Martinez? He cannot go one article without mentioning the El Guapo clone. In short, the answer is yes. Lest anyone forget 2004, but until twin knee surgery shut him down, Foulke was, outside of some guy named Mariano Rivera in New York, the most consistent closer in baseball. The man had a physical ailment; this is no John Rocker/Mark Wohlers/Rick Ankiel situation. Oh yeah, even if the injury lingers into May or June, the Sox still have that Timlin guy available.

3. Can Mike Lowell still play? He has looked as if he cannot catch up to major-league fastballs, and the Sox front office is afraid it gave up four players and $18 million for two years of Beckett. Francona has insisted Lowell is simply pressing and trying to elevate the ball too early, but with Kevin Youkilis capable at first and third base, the Sox are already scanning lists of first and third basemen. Clement looks very good, but if they can get an Adam Dunn or Austin Kearns, they may have to pay the price. This is a big, big deal right now.

Mike Lowell cannot be any worse than Kevin Millar was last season, and worst-case he does not hurt the team on defense.

4. Backup catcher. Josh Bard has done a nice job catching Wakefield, and that is important. But Bard has not thrown well, and without a third catcher, they are in the market.

Back-up catcher? Whoo, because that is a huge concern! Puh-leeze. At the end of spring training they will have 10-12 catchers to choose from if Huckabee or Bard is not capable. If back-up catcher is the main concern, then this team is sitting pretty.

5. In a left-handed hitters' park, they have no lefty-on-lefty BP candidates. There have been a lot of positive aspects to this spring. Francona's contract extension is good for everyone. Beckett seems on the verge of stardom, if he can make 30 starts for the first time. Youkilis appears ready to emerge. Manny has been terrific. But here we are at the Ides of March, and the Red Sox don't have a lot of answers. Theo Epstein saw it coming.

No lefty specialist in the bullpen? That is the big issue? Wow, the team is in dire need. Look, the Red Sox are stacked: line-up, bullpen, and rotation. No one knows what will happen, who will fall off, who will rise, who will get hurt, etc; however, the Sox are in a better place than 90% of the teams out there, so enough of the lack of answers. EVERYTEAM has significant questions in March. EVERY SINGLE ONE! As Stan the Man said (Lee, not Musiel): Nuff Said!

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