EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 27, 2009

Spotlight's on Varitek, Bard for all the wrong reasons

Bill Burt

The games in Florida mean nothing. For the most part, neither do the statistics. But that doesn't mean storylines don't deserve our attention.

As spring training season picks up steam — the Boston College game is now in the past — here are nine things to look for before the Red Sox open up against the defending American League champion Tampa Bay Rays:

1. Jason Varitek from the left side

While we rail about his .220 batting average in 2008, a closer look shows that his problems at the plate are on the left side. Varitek hit .201 (66-for-328, 29 RBI, 8 HRs) as a lefty. From the right side, he was pretty good at .284 (27-for-95, 5 HRs, 14 RBI). The problem is most pitchers are right-handed. The good news, Varitek, a natural righty, has apparently spent a lot of time on simplifying his swing from the left side.

2. Josh Bard and Tim Wakefield

In 2006 it looked more like Bard vs. Wakefield with 10 passed balls in five games. With Wakefield being in the rotation to start the season it appears the Sox will continue to give Varitek that day off. With the lack of catching around the league, the Sox will be committed to Bard this time around. Good news, he didn't have a passed ball in two innings with Wake on Wednesday.

3. Josh Beckett's health

Beckett had a bad back last March and it was a sign of tough season (12-10, 4.03 ERA), with other nagging injuries dogging him.

If he can stay healthy — that means blister-free, too — he will have the eye of the tiger, which he never really got in 2008.

4. Mike Lowell's hip

Why did the Red Sox go hard after Mark Teixeira? Lowell's hip injury was one big reason. Expect the Red Sox to bring Lowell along slowly. With Jed Lowrie probably being the utility guy to start the season, he is the backup plan at third base. But it will be interesting to see if Lowell is able to work out the kinks of a difficult off-season.

5. The No. 5 batter

This is a followup to Lowell's hip. In a perfect world, Lowell would be the "protection" for clean-up hitter Kevin Youkilis. He is a power hitter — he can hit 25 to 30 homers. And he's been in that No. 5 spot before. But with his status up in the air, Jason Bay and the oft-injured JD Drew are possible candidates. Both, like Lowell, are power guys. Bay might be the early favorite, but in this lineup he appears suited for the No. 6 spot.

6. Brad Penny's fastball

When Penny is going well, it's because of his blazing fastball. When he's in the mid-90s, he is a premier pitcher. When he's under 90, which was the case last August, he was a shell of himself due to shoulder problems all season. While it may take the entire month of March, his fastball should be well over 90 mph by the time the Sox break camp.

7. Clay Buchholz

Remember him? The no-hitter guy? He isn't penciled in to even make the squad. This could be a good thing as we will see Buchholz simply pitching with no expectations. If he has success and Penny struggles to get back to 100 percent, his role grows exponentially.

8. Julio Lugo's fieldinG

It appears Lugo is the starting shortstop on April 6, barring a Hall of Fame March from Jed Lowrie or a disastrous March from Lugo. The thing to watch is Lugo's fielding. He had 16 errors in only 81 games. No shortstop who played in more than 23 games had a fielding percentage worse than his .945. They can afford him hitting .250 at the eighth or ninth spot. They can't afford him to fumble ball the way he did.

9. Dice-K's IN MIDSEASON FORM

He will join the Red Sox after two weeks in the World Baseball Classic. Now it is time for the Japanese import to take it to "ace" level. His problem — if a 33-15 record is a problem — is too much nibbling (94 walks in 167 2/3 innings last year). Word has it the Sox have been on him to make it 100 pitches over seven innings, which means fewer strikeouts and more pitching to contact. I am still wondering if he is a Cy Young Award candidate or simply a good, but inconsistent pitcher.

E-mail Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.

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