The 2010 Red Sox season is just 47 days away, but there is no shortage of questions lingering around the team. We can't say for certain how they'll be answered, but we do know which players have the biggest window of opportunity in February and March.
Just look at last year. Clay Buchholz was coming off a brutal 2008 season, one in which he went 2-9 and allowed batters to hit .348 with runners on base. To say there were questions surrounding Buchholz last winter would be a gross understatement.
Then Buchholz showed up to Fort Myers and dominated. He went 2-0 with a 2.52 ERA, striking out 19 while walking just four. Though he was sent to the minors for the first half of the season, the Red Sox knew they had a reliable starter waiting in the wings. Buchholz spent the second half of the year proving them right, posting much more respectable numbers in 16 starts.
By October, there was Buchholz, standing on the hill at Fenway in a playoff game. He walked off the mound that day with a lead, and though his team couldn't hang on for a victory, it would be hard not to see Buchholz's 2009 campaign as one of great success.
So who will be this year's Buchholz? Here's a look at 10 players who have the most to gain — and potentially lose — with the Red Sox in spring training.
10. Boof Bonser
Taking a look at the Red Sox' roster in February, Boof Bonser doesn't figure to play a central role in much of anything. Acquired by the Red Sox in early December, Bonser figured, at most, to be a contributor from the bullpen. Theo Epstein, however, spent the rest of the winter picking up Scott Atchison, Ramon A. Ramirez, Brian Shouse, Gaby Hernandez and Fabio Castro. Needless to say, there will be a battle to make the bullpen. Bonser figures to be among the top candidates, and after missing all of the 2009 season, the 28-year-old's career could very well hang in the balance.
9. Jason Varitek
He won't be the starting catcher, that much we know. But what will Jason Varitek's impact be on the 2010 season?
If the soon-to-be-38-year-old shows up to Fort Myers and hits .220 with a couple of homers, he'll probably assume the role of catching once or twice a week throughout the season. But what if the captain comes into the preseason with a renewed focus and hits above .300? What if his offseason strength and conditioning program has him in the best shape he's been in in years?
A strong spring won't earn him his starting job back behind the plate, but it could give the front office and manager Terry Francona confidence heading into the season. This comes with a warning though, as Varitek hit .241 with five homers in 51 at-bats last spring, and he went on to hit .209 with 14 homers in 109 regular-season games.
8. Mike Lowell
The wild and crazy offseason of Mike Lowell has been well documented, and the veteran third baseman has to be happy it's finally time to put on some spikes and play baseball. Still, it seems more and more clear that by season's end, Lowell won't be wearing a Red Sox jersey.
But for Lowell to entice another team into trading for him, he's going to have to show something in spring training. Though the same can't be said for the regular season, he'll have enough at-bats in the spring to prove that at 36 years old (his birthday is Feb. 24), he still knows how to put the bat on the ball.
In some way, whether on the field at Fenway or through acquiring a player via trade, Mike Lowell will have an impact on the 2010 Red Sox season. Nobody knows the form that impact will come in until he puts on the batting gloves in the coming weeks.
7. Yamaico Navarro
With an invite to major league camp, Yamaico Navarro has the opportunity at 22 years old to show his potential, either to the Red Sox or to teams that may seek the young shortstop via trade. He's been described as an "electric" player in the field, and he would normally have a couple of years to show he's got a future with the club. But with Jose Iglesias, a kid that has been billed as a Gold Glove candidate at shortstop for years to come, rising through the ranks, Navarro's progress will have to be accelerated in order for him to have a chance with the Red Sox. That progress begins now.
6. Jacoby Ellsbury
As we learned last year, his position atop the batting order might never be secure, and as we learned this winter, neither was his position in center field.
With two full seasons and ample postsesaon experience under his belt, he's no longer a youngster, and he'll have to answer to higher expectations. The move to left field is expected to go smoothly, and he'll have to make sure he can do it. That shouldn't be hard, but you never know how someone will respond to an offseason of criticism.
5. Jeremy Hermida
The only other question in the outfield is who will take over for Rocco Baldelli as the fourth outfielder. Jeremy Hermida is the leading candidate, though there are still some who believe Josh Reddick is ready to assume the job.
For both the sake of the Red Sox and for Hermida personally, he better hope he can show he's the man for the job.
From his perspective, obviously, he wants to prove that as a former No. 11 overall pick in the MLB draft, he's no bust. His numbers in Florida always left a little to be desired, but at 26 years old, he still has time to make a career for himself.
For the Red Sox, they simply can't afford the instability of not having a reliable fourth outfielder. Reddick is a good, young player, and he'll make a solid major leaguer some day, but that day might not be in 2010. Yet if Hermida struggles mightily in the spring and Reddick excels, there will only be more questions. Only Hermida has the ability to change that.
4. Casey Kelly
To most folks, Casey Kelly is a highly appealing name, and not much else. At 20 years old, that's all he really can be.
Yet with all the headlines regarding his role in trade rumors and his shift to becoming a full-time pitcher behind him, the time is now for Kelly to prove he's as good as advertised.
He posted solid numbers in Single-A Greenville and High-A Salem (7-5, 2.08 ERA), but he'll likely get to face some tougher competition in the spring. He's on the list of non-roster invitees to camp, so he'll get his chance to show his stuff.
Of course, with Kelly, there's only so much to be gained. Even if he throws 20 perfect innings, he'll be heading to the minors. Yet Kelly is almost universally regarded as the top prospect in the Red Sox' system, and he'll be facing some big league opponents for the first time. It's finally time to see what he's got.
3. Jed Lowrie
What about Jed? Isn't this the same player who was among the top three prospects in the system as recently as 2008? Now, after an injury-plagued season, the 25-year-old shortstop seems to be an afterthought in discussions about the 2010 season.
And while his detractors will point to his consistent inconsistency, his defenders will say we've never seen him healthy.
Here's what we do know about Lowrie: His defense has never been a question, but his health has. Big time.
With Marco Scutaro aboard for two years and Jose Iglesias and Yamaico Navarro in the system, it doesn't look like he'll ever get the chance to be the starting shortstop for an extended period of time. With Dustin Pedroia at second base, there won't be an opening there either. That leaves Lowrie as a utility infielder, set to battle for a spot with the more-established Bill Hall.
It's not ideal for the former shortstop of the future, but it's reality, and he has no choice other than to make the most of it.
As scary as it may sound, it may be his last chance.
2. Tim Wakefield
What is the limit for Tim Wakefield? Is a spot in the starting rotation really out of the question? Terry Francona was noncommittal this week when discussing the topic, but it seems there is at least a window of opportunity for the 43-year-old to earn a spot that he's held for much of the past two decades.
Doing that won't be easy. The organization appears to have more vested in the futures of Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka, so it's safe to assume they'll be given every chance to show they're capable of rounding out the rotation, and Wakefield will have to show the kind of stuff that earned him his first All-Star bid last season.
It's somewhat hard to rememeber now because of how poorly the second half of his season went last year, but Wakefield might have pitched as well as he ever has in the first half. The knuckleball was dancing all over the place, and he flirted with a no-no in Oakland to salvage an otherwise-brutal West Coast swing.
Nothing will be guaranteed for Wakefield this spring, but really, in his entire career, what has? He's bounced from starter to reliever to closer to starter again, and he's never so much as said it was difficult. Now, he wants to start, and he feels he deserves to start. But even with his background in the Red Sox organization, he'll have to earn the chance to climb closer to the franchise record in wins.
1. Lars Anderson
Once the can't-miss, power-hitting first baseman of the future, Lars Anderson fell off the face of the Earth last year. That wasn't without reason, as he struggled considerably with Double-A Portland. In 119 games, Anderson hit .233 with just nine home runs and 51 RBIs, posting a .673 OPS.
That's the bad news. The good news for Anderson is that he's young enough to turn his career around. He turned 22 in September, and he's still got at least a year to work out the kinks in his swing before the major league club will come calling.
For now, Anderson is either headed to Portland again or — if he competes well in the spring — to the Triple-A club in Pawtucket.
"I'd hope, more than anything else that he would learn from past experiences, good and bad," Red Sox director of player development Mike Hazen told the York County Journal Tribune. "I think there were some definite learning experiences for Lars, and based on expectations, you have to take that with a grain of salt. We don't think it was all that bad. He did show some good things. Hopefully … [he'll] turn it into a positive."
Where Anderson's career will end up is still very much unknown, but this spring will play a major factor in the immediate direction it takes.