Epstein feels good about shape of Sox
General manager pleased about way team has come together
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- With six weeks of evaluation time under his belt, does the general manager have any grand predictions for the 2007 Red Sox?
"Ask me in six months," quipped Theo Epstein.
However, the GM was more forthcoming on a variety of other issues surrounding his club as the season draws near.
Epstein seemed to give his team about an "A" rating for chemistry during camp.
"I think the thing I liked best about the club is there were no real egos on display," said Epstein just a few hours before the club left Fort Myers for a pair of exhibition games in Philadelphia.
"As much as any camp I've been around, this had a real team feel from Day 1 and put winning as the real top priority," continued Epstein. "Everyone got their work in and it seems like it was as cohesive a unit as you can have when there's 55 guys around. That should bode really well for the chances of us coming together as a 25-man unit quickly in April."
Epstein added that the other big positive was that, aside from Mike Timlin's strained oblique, there were no significant injuries during Spring Training.
Though Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka certainly represent an imposing front three to the rotation, Epstein isn't ready just yet to anoint it as the best starting staff he's had in his five years as general manager.
"I don't like assessing teams on paper," Epstein said. "On paper, it's got as high a ceiling as any team we've had. We got it going pretty good towards the end of 2004. Those guys made all their starts. That's an important thing.
"Often times, you look at the end of the year, the team that won the pennant is the team that had a rotation that made the most starts and stayed the healthiest, the top five guys. They can take the ball and not miss starts, that's a good sign. That's a pretty important factor for us and for all of our competitors as well."
In the past, Epstein has admitted that building a bullpen is an art he has struggled at. How does he like this year's bullpen now that Jonathan Papelbon is back in the closer's role?
"It's always wait-and-see [approach] for every team," Epstein said. "I think we have some veteran talent in the big leagues right now. I think we have the best depth we've had in Triple-A in a long time. That's a pretty good Triple-A bullpen that we have right now, and starting rotation. Considering that we usually use at least 20 pitchers to get through the season, I think we're built better for the long haul."
On to other matters, the GM wasn't losing any sleep over the .103 batting average that captain Jason Varitek left Florida with.
"If you look back at his history, '03, '04, '05, he hit over .250 maybe once in those springs" Epstein said. "In 2003, he hit [.190] or something like that and had a pretty feeble spring from an offensive standpoint. First game of the year in Tampa Bay, it might have been his first at-bat, he took a great swing on a pitch from Joe Kennedy and lined it off the wall and get locked in right after that. His history is as a guy who doesn't hit much in Spring Training."
Then, there's rookie second baseman Dustin Pedroia, who had an unimpressive six-week stint with the team at the end of last season and an inconsistent exhibition season. Still, Epstein is confident that Pedroia can hold down the starting job and just needs a little more time to get comfortable.
"I think, for him, the light is going to go on one day where he can just relax and be himself," Epstein said. "I think what you saw last year was a guy pressing and trying to do too much. That's pretty typical of young players and can sometimes carry over into the second year a little bit. Usually there's a moment, whether it's a big hit or a good defensive play or just a deep breath, that helps a guy relax and be himself.
"I think we've seen some signs of that this spring. As Tito [manager Terry Francona] said, it hasn't been a great spring for him. I think that moment will come and where he kind of clicks in and is able to be himself at the big-league level. He could become a real asset for us."
Of course, no wide-ranging Red Sox discussion would be complete these days without some Matsuzaka talk. Epstein is thrilled with the way Matsuzaka and fellow Japanese lefty Hideki Okajima have made the transition to a new culture over the last few weeks.
"I'm very happy with the transition process," Epstein said. "I think both pitchers deserve a lot of credit for their great attitudes towards integrating themselves into the clubhouse and into the Major Leagues, and I think the rest of our players deserve a great deal of credit for turning something that could be a distraction and turning it into a positive. And there are a lot of people in the organization who went out of their way to make this work as well, including the specific support staff for these players."
The 25-man roster that will open the season in Kansas City basically became set earlier this week when Kyle Snyder and Javy Lopez were informed they had landed the final two pitching spots. Could there be any modifications?
"We could be set, but I think we told the last couple of guys that this is baseball, there's always the possibility ... but I expect we're all set," said Epstein. "There's always the possibility of some sort of roster maneuvering. Other teams are trying to sneak guys through waivers this time of year and we have that one almost free spot with Timlin out for a week."
Epstein is aware that he doesn't have a defensive outfielder in the mold of Gabe Kapler or Jay Payton to play in the late innings. But Alex Ochoa and Bobby Scales, both of whom got a lot of time during Spring Training, will be just a short car ride away at Triple-A Pawtucket.
"We'll have that guy when we need him, later in the year," Epstein said. "We have multiple candidates at Pawtucket. Right now, we need to carry 12 pitchers just to keep guys rested and in a good rhythm early in the season. Our bench right now, even with just four guys, takes care of every concern except outfield defense. If we ever go back to 11 pitchers, that 25th spot would be a pinch-runner/defensive-specialist type."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.