EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 24, 2008

Red Sox preview: The perfect mix Pieces in place for Sox to win it all again

By Bill Burt

Here we go again. That word, "perfect," has returned to the New England sports lexicon.

This description is a little different. The Boston Red Sox will not go 162-0. And their "perfect" sweep of the Colorado Rockies to win the World Series was more the exception than the rule.

But the 2008 Red Sox are not only defending champs, winners of two World Series titles over four seasons, but they are the barometer.

They have replaced the Yankees as the team to beat and emulate.

They have starting pitching. They have relief pitching. They have speed. They have power. They have defense. They have young players. They have veteran players. They have money, lots and lots of money.

And they have someone special pulling the strings.

"They are in the midst of a potential 10-year run of dominance that could be unparalleled — the byproduct of strong management and extremely high resources," said Cleveland Indians general manager Mark Shapiro. "For some strange reason, these two dynamics have not aligned often."

This does not mean the Indians, Tigers and, especially the Yankees will roll over and play dead when the Red Sox come to town.

But the reality is the Red Sox have all of the pieces. So many pieces that they were not going to mortgage away a generation of young talent to acquire one of the best pitchers in baseball, Johan Santana.

"When a player like Johan Santana is available, you have to inquire," said Red Sox GM Theo Epstein. "Remember, you have to pay (Santana) as well."

Nobody is complaining. At least not in March of 2008.

***

In football, as the nearly perfect Patriots learned the hard way, defense wins championships.

In baseball, it's pitching.

The teams with the best combination of starters, especially an ace, and relievers, especially a bona fide closer, usually are around in late October. Like the Sox last year.

Sox catcher Jason Varitek caught Pedro Martinez when Martinez may have been the best pitcher in the history of the game. He has witnessed the benefits of going to the park almost positive you are going to win a game at least once out of five days.

"It is such a big thing to have a Cy Young (Award) pitcher at top of your rotation," said Varitek. "I think the other (pitchers) feed off your ace. And with Josh (Beckett), being the competitor he is, the entire team feeds off that, too."

With Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jon Lester, Tim Wakefield and whoever gets the fifth spot — the guess here is Clay Buchholz — it doesn't get better than that.

With probably the best closer in baseball in Jonathan Papelbon and lefty set-up man Hideki Okajima, the Sox bullpen is among the best in baseball.

***

The Sox are led by six players 27 years old or younger — Beckett (27), Papelbon (27), Matsuzaka (27), Dustin Pedroia (24), Lester (24), Manny Delcarmen (26) and Jacoby Ellsbury (24).

If you add in Kevin Youkilis, who turned 29 on March 15, that's eight pivotal players in their twenties who are entering ... yes, entering, the prime of their careers together.

It looks a lot like the early to mid-1970s when the Sox were loaded with young, homegrown talent.

"One of the things the Sox have made an effort to do is keep the team together as a whole, signing guys to contracts knowing they will be here year after year, a team you'll see continuously," said former Red Sox outfielder Bernie Carbo.

"What impresses me most is that this team is very good in so many areas and they will probably be together, the core, for a long time. I really like the way they play the game. I also like the fact that so many young players, like Jacoby Ellsbury, are playing a key role."

When you add the young talent with veterans with All-Star credentials like David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and Mike Lowell, well, that's where the "mix" comes in.

"I thought our team actually started playing better baseball when the young kids got more involved (in 2007)," said Sox manager Terry Francona. "Our defense was better. Our base-running was better. We seemed to have more energy. It seemed like the veterans got a little bit more energized with those guys around. It was a good mix."

***

After an up-and-down 2006 season, last year Mike Lowell was the perfect complement to two of the greatest hitters of their generation.

David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez had been wreaking havoc, as a tandem, since Ortiz' addition to the starting lineup in May of 2003.

Ortiz has averaged 38 HRs, 128 RBI and a .306 batting average as a member of the Red Sox with Manny not too far off at 36 HRs, 114 RBI and .308 average.

Lowell was supposed to bat sixth last year behind J.D. Drew, who was signed for $70 million over five years. That never worked out and Lowell, one of the best fielding third baseman of his generation and the 2007 World Series MVP, put up All-Star numbers (.324, 21 HRs, 120 RBI) batting behind the "Dominican Dynamos."

"The Red Sox are tough in so many areas, particularly their lineup," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia. "Ortiz and Manny are tough enough. But when you add in a guy like Lowell, a professional hitter, it makes them even tougher. The middle of that lineup is as good as there is in baseball."

***

For decades, the Red Sox have chased the Yankees, almost always unsuccessfully.

Before the Red Sox won the 2007 American League East division, the Yankees had won nine consecutive division titles.

While the teams were almost even over that period, head-to-head, the Yankees always won the big games and always seemed to humiliate the Red Sox.

In 2003, the rivalry hit the pinnacle of shame for the Red Sox, who were two runs ahead and five outs away from beating the Yankees in Game 7 of the ALCS in Yankee Stadium. But manager Grady Little apparently lost his mind, and star pitcher Pedro Martinez imploded, and before everyone knew it the game was tied and eventually won by the Yankees.

Afterward, Derek Jeter bragged that Yogi Berra walked over to him at some point and said something to the effect, "They're the Red Sox. We always beat the Red Sox."

Not any more.

We all know about the great comeback/choke from the 2004 ALCS when the Sox either overcame a 3-0 deficit or the Yankees blew it. Maybe it was both.

The new New York Yankees organization is being dissected as we speak. With a new manager, Joe Giardi, this unit appears to be a little more feisty than under Joe Torre. The tough talk from the owner's son probably wasn't a mistake. The Yankees aren't taking too kindly to all of baseball saying nice things about the Red Sox.

Free agents won't do it alone. The Yankees have proven this the last six seasons, adding nearly $400 million worth of stars in Mike Mussina, Jason Giambi, Alex Rodriguez, Hideki Matsui, Bobby Abreu and Roger Clemens, with not much to show for it outside of a few division titles.

And remember this, the Yankees are one of the oldest teams in baseball with Mussina 39, Mariano Rivera 38, Giambi 37, Jorge Posada 36, Andy Pettitte 35, Johnny Damon 34, Derek Jeter 33 and Matsui 33.

***

On the day he was hired, a then-28-year-old Epstein talked about the tight-rope he would have to walk running the organization's baseball operations.

He said the goal, as is always the case in Boston, was to win now, but always with an eye on the future, adding "our goal is to create one of the best farm systems in baseball."

He has kept his promise.

There are always extenuating circumstances that could derail the Red Sox, like injuries. But like their neighbors in Foxboro, the Sox have nurtured depth for those rainy days.

The Indians, Tigers and Yankees, three legitimate World Series contenders, will be formidable contenders to the Red Sox crown.

But if the Red Sox do what is expected, nothing more, combining all of their top-grade resources — pitching, defense, hitting, power, speed, youth and experience — and survive a catastrophic injury or too, they are the team to beat again.

You can e-mail Bill Burt at bburt@eagletribune.com.