Sunday, April 5, 2009

What I want to see this season

The Spring Training That Wouldn't End finally, mercifully, will come to an end this weekend; the Braves and Phillies open the season on Sunday night, and the Red Sox tangle with the defending league champion Rays on Monday afternoon at Fenway Park.

Are you as excited as I am?

Here's what I want to see this season:

* I want to see Clay Buchholz in the major leagues by Memorial Day.
There's no problem with sending the 24-year-old to Triple-A Pawtucket. This isn't last season's Twins, wasting Francisco Liriano by giving his starts to Livan Hernandez. This is the Red Sox; Brad Penny started the All-Star Game just a couple of years ago. There's tons of depth here.

But at the same time, Buchholz is a guy the Red Sox refused to trade in the offseason; it's getting close to the time when we're all going to have to see what he can do. And if he's not up in the major leagues by Memorial Day, John Smoltz is going to be healthy and in line for a spot in the rotation. What, other than injury, is going to put Buchholz in line for a spot?

* I want to see tempered expectations for Mike Lowell and David Ortiz.
They're old. Let's face facts. They're old. Lowell turned 35 in the offseason; Ortiz turned 33. And even though Lowell is saying all the right things about how great he feels and Ortiz has hit three home runs in 13 spring-training games, there's no telling how they're going to perform once the season begins.

Fans and writers keep referencing 2007. That was the season in which Lowell hit .324 with 120 RBI; that was the season in which Ortiz hit .332 with 35 home runs and 117 RBI.

A year ago, neither guy really came close to those numbers. Lowell hit 17 home runs with 73 RBI; Ortiz hit 23 home runs with 89 RBI. That seems like about what we should expect from those two this season; anything else would be a bonus.

* I want to see J.D. Drew hit in the top half of the lineup.
He's hit 30 home runs just once in his career. Heck, he's hit 20 home runs just three times. He's driven in 100 runs just once.

Still, though, everyone wants J.D. Drew to be what Jason Bay is, to be a home-run hitter. J.D. Drew isn't a home-run hitter. J.D. Drew is an on-base machine. The guy has OBP'ed .390 or better in four of the last five seasons; he hits .280 and knows how to draw a walk. He's a guy you want on the bases in front of Bay and Ortiz, not a guy you want hitting behind them.

* I want to see what Jason Bay can do.
Speaking of Bay: Through six seasons, he has a better batting average (.282 to .281), on-base percentage (.375 to .348) and slugging percentage (.516 to .498) than Justin Morneau. He has fewer at-bats per home run (18.7 to 20.2). Down the stretch last season, even Bay went .293/.370/.527 -- and he was even better in the playoffs.

Still, though, it doesn't seem like Red Sox fans are falling all over themselves to see what Bay can do with a full season. They should be.

* I want to see Jon Lester stay healthy.
Two hundred and thirty-seven innings last year. Five years, $30 million in his new contract. Something tells me John Henry wants to see Jon Lester stay healthy, too.

* I want to see Daniel Bard tear Triple-A apart.
The 23-year-old flamethrower had a 1.99 ERA in 49 2/3 innings at Double-A Portland and didn't allow a run in 9 2/3 innings with the Red Sox in spring training. Some fans already are anointing him the successor to Jonathan Papelbon. The first step, though, is a dominant season at Triple-A -- and maybe a late-summer call-up, a la Justin Masterson last season.

* I want to see the Red Sox explore a trade for Miguel Cabrera -- the most natural successor to Ortiz -- in July.
There's no reason for the Red Sox to empty out their farm system for an unproven catcher like Jarrod Saltalamacchia. But if the Tigers fall out of contention by midseason, Theo Epstein is going to have to see what it would take to land Miguel Cabrera -- and if it takes trading Buchholz, he might have to do it.

Buchholz looks like a stud, sure. But Cabrera has four 30-homer seasons and five 100-RBI seasons under his belt and isn't yet 26 years old. His age-25 comparisons: Ken Griffey Jr., Hank Aaron, Orlando Cepeda, Frank Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Vladmir Guerrero, Al Kaline.

Sound good to you? Sounds good to me, too.

Cabrera has seven years and $150 million left on a contract extension he signed a year ago. Considering how much the Red Sox were willing to pay Mark Teixeira, it doesn't seem like a price tag from which they'd shy away. If the Tigers decide they can't afford that type of contract -- they do, after all, play in Detroit -- the Red Sox ought to be all over them.

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