Red Sox Five Spring Training Questions

The Red Sox enjoyed a nearly stress-free off-season and began spring training this week with a roster that is almost set, but they still have some questions as the Grapefruit League season approaches. Here are five issues the Sox need to answer before Opening Day.

What will happen to Coco Crisp? Terry Francona made sure to refer to Crisp as the incumbent during his first press conference of the spring Thursday, but unless Jacoby Ellsbury has spent the winter wolfing down Oreos, it's impossible to imagine an Opening Day lineup in which the postseason icon Ellsbury is not batting first and playing centerfield. Crisp's agent said during the winter meetings his client would be unhappy with a backup role, and it's difficult to believe, even in a trade market as lifeless as the 2007-08 prime-time schedule, that there's not a team willing to acquire a 28-year-old centerfielder coming off a brilliant defensive season. The re-signing of Bobby Kielty to a minor league deal lends credence to the theory the Sox expect to move Crisp before the end of spring training.

Who will be the fifth starter? Maybe it's just the Sox' way of building up the self-esteem of Julian Tavarez—or his trade value—but does it really seem possible they'll open the season with Tavarez starting ahead of Clay Buchholz? Sure, the Sox want to limit Buchholz' innings to 180, but that shouldn't be a worry in April and May given the desire of the club to give all of its starters some rest over the course of the season. Most no. 5 starters are place-holders, but Buchholz could be the Sox' ace by 2010. Plus, what kind of message does it send him if he opens the year at Triple-A after his meteoric 2007? Anyway, given Tavarez' versatility and track record of mediocrity as a starter—he's got a 5.08 career ERA as a starter and a 3.90 ERA in relief—expect the Sox to begin the future right now by naming Buchholz the fifth starter.

Is Craig Hansen for real? We can just see the headlines now if Hansen rediscovers the form that made him a first-round pick in 2005: "Sleep apnea surgeries in New England rise 800 percent." Hansen told reporters this week he "…snored like a 500-pound fat man" and was told his sleep was interrupted as often as 56 times per hour before he underwent the surgery. All well and good, but was a lack of sleep to blame for the slider he lost sometime in 2006 and the lack of confidence he displayed thereafter? Pitching coach John Farrell still speaks of Hansen as a future building block in the bullpen, but he's got a long way to go after two lost seasons. He almost surely won't win a spot in the bullpen by Opening Day, but he needs a solid spring to remain on the radar.

Can Manny Delcarmen emerge as an eighth-inning set-up man and backup closer? Hansen wasn't the only pitching prospect to bottom out last year. While pitching for Triple-A Pawtucket, Delcarmen teamed up with Hansen to give up nine runs while recording one out in the ninth inning of a 15-14 loss to Buffalo May 5. The difference, of course, is that Delcarmen was in the majors for good less than two months later and posted a 2.05 ERA with 41 strikeouts and 45 baserunners allowed in 44 innings as he displayed a far more focused attitude on and off the field. Still, only three of his regular season appearances occurred in the eighth inning or later with the game tied or the Sox leading by three runs or less and he struggled in the playoffs (8.31 ERA in six outings). Farrell said this week he expected the Sox to continue their careful regular season monitoring of Jonathan Papelbon and that he expected Delcarmen—whom he said he "challenged" during their winter discussions to continue the improvement he displayed last season—to vie for saves along with Hideki Okajima.

When will Terry Francona sign his contract extension? Here's a fun game to play: Which potential lame duck championship coach will sign an extension first: New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin or Francona? Theo Epstein said it was a priority in November, yet the Sox reported to Ft. Myers this week and Francona is still entering the final season of the three-year contract he signed prior to the 2006 season. Maybe this is just some behind-the-scenes posturing by Larry Lucchino, who seems to be butting heads with Francona, but at some point ownership runs the risk of losing this poker game. Imagine if Francona decides to table negotiations, leads the Sox on another deep playoff run and hits the open market. He might not find a better-paying gig outside of Boston, but he just might find one that gives him plenty of financial security as well as less stress and more say in team matters. No, Francona's not perfect, but if he leaves, who is equipped to succeed him and deal with the unique internal and external pressures of managing the Sox? "We certainly still hope and expect to get something done," Epstein said Thursday. We'll believe it when we see it.


Diehard managing editor Jerry Beach can be reached at diehardmag@yahoo.com. To receive a free issue of Diehard, call 888-501-5752. To subscribe to Diehard or diehardmagazine.com, please CLICK HERE.

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