Red Sox hope injury bug exterminated
Health a key area of concern for powerful Boston squad
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Backed by a deep cast of power pitchers and proven bats, the Red Sox are clearly a playoff-caliber team. That said, they have one big "if" heading into the 2009 season.
In other words, they should make a strong run at a sixth postseason appearance in the last seven years, not to mention a third World Series championship in six years, if they can stay healthy.
An up-close look at the club as we approach Opening Day
Though health is a concern for any team that has designs on playing deep into October, it is an area of particular curiosity for the Sox. They have no fewer than nine established players -- five of them holdovers and four of them new acquisitions -- who had significant health woes in 2008.
Seven in the group -- David Ortiz, J.D. Drew, Mike Lowell, Josh Beckett, Brad Penny, John Smoltz and Takashi Saito -- have All-Star appearances on their resume. Shortstop Julio Lugo and outfielder Rocco Baldelli are the other two on the list.
If the Red Sox can keep the majority of those players on the field, it could be another memorable season in Boston.
Perhaps most important among the group is Ortiz, who, when he is right, is one of the most impactful hitters in the game. When he is on the field, there is little doubt what the left-handed slugger is capable of.
"I know I can hit," Ortiz said after reporting to camp. "Like I said, all I want is to be healthy like I am right now. If I'm healthy, I know I can do some damage."
Last year it was Ortiz's left wrist that was damaged, limiting him to 109 games. The big man has a quiet determination to him this spring, as evidenced by a firmer physique and a bit of a chip on his shoulder. He did not enjoy listening to suggestions over the winter that at 33 years old, he could be ready for the downturn of his career.
"I think when you look at him, you can tell that he's motivated, which is good," said manager Terry Francona. "He looks terrific. He's obviously spent a lot of time getting ready for this year, which bodes well for us."
For Ortiz to do all he is capable of at the plate, he's going to need protection in the lineup, which makes a rebound in health by Drew and Lowell all the more important.
Though Drew still had some back stiffness during the winter and took a cortisone shot three weeks into Spring Training, the right fielder has been working with a chiropractor to make sure he isn't the daily question mark that he became during the latter stages of the 2008 season.
"I'm healthy," said Drew. "I'm out there playing this spring. I'm having a good time. The thing that matters is when I show up in April ready to go and play the season. Down here it's just about getting enough work to prep yourself for the season. It's very, very early in spring, so we've got a lot of ways to go down here. I'll be ready when the season rolls around."
Lowell hopes to be able make that proclamation soon, but he first needs to gauge how his surgically repaired right hip responds to exhibition games. The third baseman, limited to 113 games last year, will serve as designated hitter on Tuesday and perhaps progress to defense by Friday.
One thing he is fully confident about is that he won't be hobbled the way he was last year.
"I don't want to play like I did the last two months of last year," said Lowell. "That's not really playing. I wouldn't say that I didn't enjoy it, but I was so focused on something else besides playing. It kind of sucked the joy out of it for a little while. We were winning and everything, so that's fun, but you want to feel like you're at the field with all your abilities in place, not that you have something holding you back."
Then there is Beckett, the ace, who isn't nursing anything this spring. This is because all of the ailments that plagued him last year -- the back, the elbow and the right oblique -- were no longer issues by the time he reported to camp.
As he proved in 2007, when he is hot, he can take the Red Sox a long way.
"I think [Beckett's] a little hungry," Francona said. "I think he felt like he had something to prove, and he looks like he's out to prove it. He looks terrific, and that's good news for us."
When it came to the players general manager Theo Epstein acquired in the offseason, there were two clear themes. Just about all of them have had success in their careers, and nearly all of them were injured at some point last year.
"We ended up signing a number of free agents to one-year deals -- guys who have the potential to make a dramatic impact on this club, very talented players who are coming off injury or coming off down seasons for them," Epstein said. "We have four or five players who fit that bill. The way our roster is constructed, the way our organization sits right now, it's more valuable to us to bring in a player who had a chance to really make an impact because of their talent level than it is to bring in a league-average guy."
If health doesn't get in the way, the new guy who could have the most profound effect on the team is Saito, a dominant closer with the Dodgers who can now be a setup man for Jonathan Papelbon.
"I think we're really pleased with what we might have found," Francona said. "He knows what he's doing. It doesn't look like he's favoring his arm at all. It's exciting."
When it comes to Smoltz, the Red Sox have made no effort to get him in a game this spring, because that was never the plan. Their objective for the 42-year-old righty with Hall of Fame credentials is that his season should start somewhere in the neighborhood of June 1.
Despite his fiercely competitive nature, Smoltz is fully on board with the program.
"This team has a lot of talent," Smoltz said. "That's what makes this a lot of easier, knowing you're not needed as much. I obviously like to be depended on, but this is just a bonus here. They've got everything that you could possibly want."
The Red Sox can only hope that good health is part of that "everything" Smoltz mentioned.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.