The Sox came into spring training with few question marks in the lineup and bullpen, and some serious questions about the starting pitching, which is why I spent a majority of the time looking at the Sox rotation. Let’s be proactive and take a quick preview of the Sox team before all the local papers and national publications do so next week. I’ll start with the infield today:

Catcher: Same as last season, we have Jason Varitek and super-sub Doug Mirabelli. Mirabelli is solid defensively with a plus throwing arm, but never gets to show much being the caddy for Tim Wakefield. Mirabelli has really come on offensively working with the Sox hitting coach, Papa Jack.

My one hope (and not just because V-tek is on my fantasy team) is that Francona lets Varitek catch knuckleballer Tim Wakefield a few times this season. I still have recurring nightmares of all those passed balls by Varitek against the Yankees in the ALCS when he had to catch Wakey in extra innings. Varitek got his huge contract this winter and the C on his jersey as team captain. Don’t get me wrong, I think Varitek is the heart and soul of the team, the leader, and all that jazz. As a former catcher in my playing days so many years ago (softball doesn’t count, and no, they still have not got me back into the tools of ignorance), I understand the significance of a catcher who leads the pitching staff and has their full respect. Fortunately, there was no real market for Varitek (his value, really, exists only with the Red Sox. Other teams either could not afford him, or had the money but not the need at catcher); I was glad to see his psycho-agent, Scott Boras, was able to come down to numbers more agreeable to the Sox management.

In Pawtucket, Kelly Shoppach gets the luxury of another full season in triple-A.

First base: The Sox should again have plenty of options available. David Ortiz and Kevin Millar are equals defensively at first base, but Millar is apparently going to get more of the work there. Personally, I think Big Papi looks a little more fluid and graceful around the sack, but he certainly has performed well in the designated hitter role. One wonders if Millar would become too distracted on the bench all game without some time to himself on the field.

Millar won the battle against Doug Mientkiewicz which, really, was no contest. For an organization that has historically loved power at first base, Mientkiewicz stood no chance. Millar is a streaky hitter with some pop and is a good clutch hitter. He can certainly be infuriating when he gets cold, but when he’s hot he’s as dangerous as Papi and Manny.

David Ortiz, while not playing much first base, has become everything Mo Vaughn should have been in Boston. He is unfailingly positive in attitude, and absolutely devours pitching with his ability to hit with power to all fields. In addition to being the most clutch hitter ever in Red Sox history, he has improved against left-handed pitching as well. He is, like Manny, an MVP candidate every season. How did Minnesota let him walk for nothing again?

Dave McCarty will likely make the team as defensive replacement at first base, sixteenth inning outfield replacement, and blow-out mop-up pitcher. Kevin Youkilis also has gotten some work at first base and should play a few games over on the opposite corner should there be an injury or to give Millar a day off.

Second Base: Inexplicably to all the Todd Walker Fan Club members in Boston (I remember all the fuss about getting rid of Walker), this position belongs to Mark Bellhorn. Ramon Vazquez is the backup in the infield and also will backup at shortstop and possibly third base if back-to-back doubleheaders ever come up.

Going by past history, Bellhorn should flame out and be traded by the All-Star break after hitting .195 with 2 home runs and 115 strike outs; however, I’d like to think that he’s matured enough as a player to be a consistent power threat at the bottom of the order. I like Bellhorn, he’s not the most athletically gifted players, but he can hit with some pop, draws walks, works deep into the count, and I will remember his home run clanking off the right field foul pole in the playoffs for the rest of my days. Barring a catastrophe, Bellhorn will more than fill his role at second base for the Sox.

Short stop: The Nomar era is over. The O.C. is in O.C. All hail Edgar Renteria. Renteria, despite his 2003 season, is unlikely to hit thirty home runs, but he is the best all-around shortstop in the game that actually plays shortstop (as A-Rod inexplicably is still playing third base for the Yankees). He hits for average, power, drives in runs, scores runs, steals bases, wins gold gloves, is clutch, and has always been a winner no matter what team he has played for in the league. I was championing the cause that the Red Sox trade Nomar for Renteria since Garciaparra originally injured his wrist, so you can imagine how excited I am to see Edgar at shortstop.

Renteria will be backed up by Ramon Vazquez, who is a very good fielder who can hit a little and can step in for a day off or fill in for a fifteen game disabled list trip. Vazquez is never going to be confused with an all-star, but he is certainly no Spike Owen, either.

Third Base: Bill Mueller has retained his grasp on the position for what is likely his final year with the Red Sox. As much as I personally like Mueller, this position will belong to Kevin Youkilis in the near future.

Mueller has come back strong from knee surgery late in the winter and will likely play 120 to 130 games at third base this season. Mueller is simply a professional. He comes to the park, he fields everything, he hits everything off of everyone, and is liked by all players and fans. That attitude, along with his batting title and historic regular season home run off of Mariano Riviera in the famous A-Rod Eats Leather game secure him a spot in Red Sox history forever.

Kevin Youkilis is a player I expect to really break-out this season. Youkilis will never hit 30 home runs, but he has deceptive power. He is a good, but not great fielder. What he has is the uncanny patience and eye that led him to be called the Greek God of Walks in the fantastic book on Billy Beane and his front-office philosophy in Oakland, Moneyball. One day soon, Youkilis will be the batting champion on Landsdown Street.

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The Celtics look to put their stinkfest Wednesday against the Knickerbockers behind them with a couple of games this weekend. Friday night against the Bulls stands as a potential first round match-up. It will be interesting to see if the Celtics come out prepared to play and make a positive statement. They’ve built up a lot of goodwill and interest in the NBA in Boston again; hopefully, they can keep the positive momentum going.

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