02/11/2003 09:00 am ET
Red Sox look past sizzle for 2003
Boston confidently builds around team's superstars
By Ian Browne / MLB.com
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BOSTON -- As the 2003 Red Sox get set to embark on Spring Training, there won't be the sizzle that has accompanied some past springs. There are no blockbuster additions in tow. There are no great expectations from national media forecasting that this is the year the seemingly endless championship drought will end.
The good news is that sizzle and expectations don't win championships. Sox fans should know that better than anyone.
What the Sox have is a sturdier and more well-rounded baseball team than the 93-victory unit that walked off the field last Sept. 28 after game No. 162.
While fans are always looking for a splash during the hot stove season, new Red Sox GM Theo Epstein was more interested in methodically touching up what was already a pretty good team.
After all, the Sox already have star players. And the best thing about Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez is that they are all still right in their respective primes.
At 30 years old, Martinez is coming off a season (20-4, 2.26 ERA, 239 K's) in which he returned to past dominance. Garciaparra, who turns 30 in July, made it all the way back from wrist surgery, hitting .310 with 24 HRs and 120 RBIs in 2002. And the 30-year-old Ramirez overcame a broken finger last May and won his first batting title. He also added 33 HRs and 107 RBIs.
The moral of the story is that these are special players you can build around, and that's what Epstein spent his winter trying to do. The result, Epstein hopes, is a deeper lineup, a vastly improved bullpen and a more versatile bench.
If those hopes are realized, the Sox might be in line for their first postseason appearance since 1999.
Spring Training will represent a time for manager Grady Little to see how all his new pieces best fit together.
For starters, Todd Walker replaces Rey Sanchez at second base. That should be a considerable offensive improvement, though some range is lost in that tradeoff. If Walker comes close to the numbers he put up with the Reds last year (.299, 183 hits, 42 doubles), Garciaparra and Ramirez will have more RBI opportunities.
There is also a new tandem at first base, with Jeremy Giambi and David Ortiz replacing Brian Daubach and Tony Clark. Third baseman Shea Hillenbrand could play first base against lefties, though that hasn't been determined yet.
Bill Mueller, a good on-base guy and a proficient defender at second and third, gives Little an infield rover who will play more often than not.
"We wanted to build what we call a relentless lineup one through nine," said Epstein. "We wanted to add on-base skills and some power. With the additions of Jeremy Giambi, David Ortiz and Bill Mueller throughout this lineup, we've really solidified it one through nine. There are no easy outs. I think we're going to have a chance to score 900 runs, which would be quite a feat."
He's equally happy with the bullpen, which was the team's glaring weakness a year ago. Veteran sinkerball artists Ramiro Mendoza and Mike Timlin were acquired via free agency, as was hard-throwing Chad Fox, who could emerge as a key member if he regains his health.
Throw in two solid holdovers -- Alan Embree and Bobby Howry -- and you have depth Little could only dream about late last season.
The only thing the bullpen lacks is a closer, and that is largely by design. The Sox didn't think it was worth the $8 million or so that Ugueth Urbina could have demanded in arbitration. And they didn't see another bona fide closer worth signing.
Epstein and Little don't necessarily agree with the modern phenomenon that a team needs one guy to go to every time there is a ninth-inning lead.
"The bullpen was an area of weakness for our club last year so we wanted to improve and strengthen it, and we did," said Epstein. "We have six or seven quality options out of the bullpen for Grady now and we feel like we're as strong in the sixth or seventh inning as we're going to be in the eighth or ninth. The bullpen as a unit is very capable of taking the ball from the starter and getting the last out.
There's not going to necessarily be a defined closer, but there will be quality options out there and they're going to come together as a unit and get the job done. We're very confident we have a much improved bullpen."
The everyday lineup should also have more reinforcements than last year, when the Sox seemed to tire the final two months of the season. The switch-hitting Mueller will be a workhorse, playing at third, second and DH. Damian Jackson offers speed and can play second, short, third and the outfield. And Adrian Brown gives the Sox the defensive replacement in the outfield they didn't have for the entirety of last season.
"We wanted to fortify and deepen the bench," Epstein said. "A lot of at-bats go to bench players. We have more versatile players on the bench. We have better hitters on the bench. And some defensive versatility."
What kind of position do all these moves put the Sox in?
"We have a chance to be very good. I feel very good about our team," center fielder Johnny Damon said. "No team out there scares me."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. He can be reached at Ian.Browne@mlb.com.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.