So how does a team follow up a once-in-a-lifetime season? When a team has ensured millions of its fans can now die content, what does it do for an encore?
Why, win it all again, of course.
The Red Sox made history last year in the most enthralling way possible. Three outs away from a sweep at the hands of the Yankees in the ALCS, the Sox became the first team to ever come back from an 0-3 deficit to win a best-of-seven series before they swept the Cardinals to win Boston's first World Series in 86 years,
Of course, now that Sox fans have tasted the champagne and touched the World Series trophy, they want more. General manager Theo Epstein took a few days off to celebrate the championship before he went back to work retooling a team which had 16 free agents. And as the Sox prepare to head to Ft. Myers for spring training, nothing less than a repeat championship will suffice. Here's a look at the Sox as they head into 2005:
RH reliever Matt Mantei (free agent—one year, $750,000), LH starter David Wells (free agent—two years, $8 million), LH reliever John Halama (free agent—one year, $875,000 with second-year option), SS Edgar Renteria (free agent—four years, $40 million with fifth-year option), RH starter Matt Clement (free agent—three years, $25.5 million), RH starter Wade Miller (free agent—one year, $1.5 million), OF Jay Payton (trade with Padres), INF Ramon Vazquez (trade with Padres)
RH starter Pedro Martinez (signed as free agent with Mets), Derek Lowe (signed as free agent with Dodgers), SS Orlando Cabrera (signed as free agent with Angels), Dave Roberts (traded to Padres), Doug Mientkiewicz (traded to Mets), Ellis Burks (retired), Mike Myers (signed as free agent with Cardinals), Terry Adams (signed as free agent with Phillies), Ramiro Mendoza (free agent), Gabe Kapler (signed as free agent to play in Japan), Pokey Reese (signed as free agent with Mariners), Curtis Leskanic (free agent), Ricky Gutierrez (free agent), Scott Williamson (signed as free agent with Cubs)
1.) Johnny Damon, CF
2.) Mark Bellhorn, 2B
3.) David Ortiz, DH
4.) Manny Ramirez, LF
5.) Jason Varitek, C
6.) Edgar Renteria, SS
7.) Kevin Millar, 1B
8.) Trot Nixon, RF
9.) Bill Mueller, 3B
There are few table-setters in the game better than Johnny Damon, who enters the last year of his contract entrenched atop the Sox' order. Damon can do a little bit of everything—from spraying foul balls around the park and working the count to hitting for power; he hit a career-high 20 homers last year—and he can still swipe a bag. Bellhorn, who led the AL in strikeouts last year, was a seemingly atypical no. 2 hitter, but his discerning plate eye (he ranked third in the league in walks) made him a perfect fit for the Sox. He could bat ninth this year if Terry Francona decides to put the contact-hitting Renteria in the no. 2 spot.
The Sox got David Ortiz for a song after the 2002 season and they've been singing ever since. Ortiz developed into the best left-handed power hitter in the game this side of Barry Bonds last season and his flair for the dramatic in the postseason turned him into a Boston icon. Manny Ramirez, who could have been had for a song after the 2003 season, displayed a new attitude but the same old power bat last season and, at 33, should still have a few prime years left.
Jason Varitek was re-signed as much for his intangibles as his talent, but he continued to improve at the plate last year and hit .346 out of the no. 5 spot. If Edgar Renteria remains in the no. 6 hole, history suggests he'll do well: He had a career year as the Cardinals' no. 6 hitter in 2003 (100 RBI).
The indomitable Kevin Millar returns for another year as the Sox' clubhouse leader after the club passed on Carlos Delgado and dealt ball boy Doug Mientkiewicz. Millar struggled badly for more than half the season before a blistering finish allowed him to finish with solid numbers. With Kevin Youkilis ready to work out at first base this spring, Millar may not have as much margin for error this season.
Trot Nixon signed a three-year extension last February then promptly suffered serious back and quad injuries. If he's healthy, he should be good for 25 HR and 85 RBI out of the eight hole. Bill Mueller, who won the AL batting crown in 2003, could move up in the order if Bellhorn moves down, but if not, Mueller's steadiness and plate patience should give Damon plenty of RBI opportunities.
1B/3B Kevin Youkilis
INF Ramon Vazquez
1B/OF David McCarty
OF Jay Payton
Mirabelli is Tim Wakefield's personal catcher, but the Sox feel they can plug him into the lineup at anytime and not miss a beat offensively or defensively. Youkilis, who became a Fenway cult hero as a rookie last season, has been told he'll need to play first base effectively this spring in order to travel north with the team. He should be able to pick up the position and assure his spot on the team.
Vazquez, a one-time regular with the Padres, played all four infield positions last year for San Diego but will get most of his work in the middle infield with the Sox. McCarty accepted a non-roster invitation to spring training, but the Sox like his leadership and versatility—don't forget he also pitched in three games last season—and he should make the team as the 25th man.
The main backup outfielder will be Payton, who played college ball with Varitek. With Gabe Kapler and Dave Roberts gone, Payton will get plenty of work and should start in place of Nixon against lefties. Still, it'll be interesting to see if Payton can adapt to a backup role: He struggled when he wasn't an everyday player with the Mets between 2000-2002.
LH David Wells
RH Matt Clement
RH Wade Miller
Epstein said this winter the Sox have more starting pitching depth and are better-prepared in case their starters fail to enjoy a run of good health like they did in 2004, when Schilling, Wakefield, Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe and Bronson Arroyo combined to make 157 of 162 starts.
But with Martinez gone to the Mets and Schilling still recovering from ankle surgery, the Sox rotation is less imposing—and certainly much older—than it was a year ago. Schilling may not be back until May, but don't be surprised if he makes a dramatic return against Randy Johnson at Yankee Stadium on opening night Apr. 2. Regardless of when he gets back, it might be a bit much to expect Schilling, 38, to produce another 20-win season.
Wells, who once said he'd love to blow up Fenway Park, realized he loved the place a lot more once the Sox threw plenty of greenbacks his way. Fenway is not usually friendly to lefties, but Wells is a strike machine who should be fine in the no. 2 hole as long as he stays healthy. Of course, with his history of weight and back issues, that is no sure thing.
Clement is six games under .500 lifetime, but he was the subject of a spirited bidding battle between the Sox, Angels, Indians and Blue Jays. The Sox love his stuff and believe he'll miss plenty of bats with his mid-90s fastball and filthy slider.
Miller, who missed the second half of last season with shoulder woes in Houston, is the real wild card. He has ace-caliber stuff, but he's pitched 200 or more innings just once and two of his last three seasons were interrupted by injury. If healthy, he could develop into a 200-inning horse and move up in the rotation. The Sox also have the depth to survive if Miller can't stay healthy.
If Schilling doesn't make it back for Opening Day, both Arroyo and Tim Wakefield will begin the season in the rotation. Given Wakefield's experience as a long reliever/swingman and his ability to pitch almost everyday, Arroyo would seem to have the edge for the no. 5 spot once Schilling returns. Arroyo was outstanding in the second half of last season and nearly cracked the AL top 10 in ERA. At 28, the Sox hope he can continue to improve and win as many as 15 games.
Closer Keith Foulke
MR Mike Timlin
MR Alan Embree
MR Matt Mantei/John Halama
LR: Tim Wakefield
Remember when there were questions about Foulke's ability to handle high-pressure roles? He answered those with authority last October, when he allowed just one run in 14 postseason innings and threw 100 pitches between Games Three and Five of the ALCS. Foulke remains as durable as ever and should continue to rank among the AL leaders in saves for the duration of his Boston stay.
The right-handed Timlin will be 39 by Opening Day but doesn't seem as if he's lost much. His versatility—he can pitch anywhere from the sixth to the ninth—will come in handy but expect him to pitch the eighth. Embree will again be the Sox' left-handed specialist; he held lefties to a .240 average in 2004, down from .263 in 2003.
If healthy, the right-handed Mantei, a former closer with the Diamondbacks, could be the strikeout pitcher Scott Williamson was when he was healthy. Halama, a prototypical junkballing lefty, will be used in a longer role than Embree, typically in the fifth or sixth. If everyone in the rotation remains healthy, Wakefield will likely become the staff handyman again, a role he filled with no complaint from 1999-2002.
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK:
Curt Schilling's right ankle
Schilling became Boston's most beloved athlete last year, when he swore he'd bring home a World Series crown and helped the Sox do just that by pitching through a badly injured—and bleeding—right ankle in Game Six of the ALCS and Game Two of the World Series. But his legendary off-season preparation has been interrupted by his recovery from surgery. Never underestimate Schilling's willpower and determination, but if he's unable to make 28-30 starts, the Sox will face an uphill road to the playoffs.
It's odd to tab a 28-year-old pitcher who is 19 games over .500 for his career as a breakout candidate, but if Miller is healthy and able to adapt to the American League, he could be the Sox' second-best starter behind Schilling. There's no doubting the caliber of Miller's stuff, just his ability to stay on the mound. If he can do so, an 18-win season is not out of the question.
The Sox are once again loaded, though the age and fragility of the rotation is of some concern. If they can get to the July 31 trade deadline relatively intact, you know Epstein will make a deal or three to put the Sox in prime October position. The Sox don't match up on paper with the fantasy-team-come-to-life that is the Yankees, but as the Sox proved last year, a lot of heart and some good chemistry can overcome a group of mercenaries. The core of the "idiot" Sox is back, which should allow the club to maintain the good karma and vibes of the past two seasons. With a team as old as the Sox, there's always the worry they'll suddenly collapse, a la the 2004 Mariners, but this team feels like it's got another run or two left in it. Watch for the Yankees to become the team that grows old suddenly and for the Red Sox to finally win the AL East before falling to the Twins in the ALCS.