FORT MYERS, Fla. — With just over one week before the regular season begins, we can almost assess spring training as a whole. Nearly six weeks have passed since pitchers and catchers reported.
For the most part, it has been an extremely positive camp for the Red Sox. Aside from a few tiny issues (Josh Beckett‘s concussion, the requisite flu bug), everyone enters the last full weekend in Florida feeling fine.
For some players, the spring has been exceptional. In a slight twist of things, this week’s edition of the Red Sox Lineup will analyze the nine guys who have most impressed, whether it be with some solid numbers or simply in the way they have made progress, both physically and mentally.
1. Jacoby Ellsbury: Of all the injured players looking for a rebound, nobody had more ground to gain than Ellsbury, whose 2010 season was a virtual wash. Not only has he shown no physical issues in his return from broken ribs, Ellsbury has looked like the best player on the team. He enters Thursday hitting .364 (16-for-44) with a pair of home runs and one stolen base. Also, the coaching staff has raved about the way in which Ellsbury has captained the outfield, showing a large leap in leadership.
2. Bobby Jenks: One of the last pitchers to get into a game, Jenks came into camp with a reputation as a slow spring training starter. The organization was perfectly fine with him taking his time, but, once he got in, it looked as if he was almost in regular season form. Since then, Jenks has continued to impress. He got through his first set of back-to-back days of work this week (one was in a simulated inning at the minor league camp) and has yet to allow a run in six innings.
3. Adrian Gonzalez: His playing time was limited as he worked his way back from shoulder surgery, but Gonzalez has been ahead of schedule from the start and has impressed with his methodical, focused work. He singled on the first pitch he saw since last October and said Wednesday that he is finally having real at-bats, as opposed to simply waiting on a fastball and looking for a good cut. Gonzalez’s timeline was one of the few question marks early in camp, but neither he nor the organization has been disappointed at any stage of the process. In fact, it’s been just the opposite. The last remaining hurdle for Gonzalez will be testing the shoulder in a dive at first base, but that won’t come until the regular season, in all likelihood.
4. Jarrod Saltalamacchia: The star of the camp during the days when it was pitchers, catchers and a few position players hanging around the player development complex, Saltalamacchia gained rave reviews for the smoothness with which he assumed his new role as the starting catcher. His leadership qualities were exalted as being akin to that of Jason Varitek by multiple individuals, and most of the pitchers who have had a chance to work with Salty have said they like the way in which he manages the game. There may be moments when Saltalamacchia struggles at the plate, but he is developing into a trusted receiver behind it.
5. Dustin Pedroia: Pedroia’s spring has been almost quiet, in a good way. He has gone about his work in the way that only he can, 100 percent all the time, and has looked exactly like the guy that was having another tremendous year before he broke his left foot last June. He enters Thursday batting .311 (14-for-45) with a home run, a triple and a double, and has played his usual stellar defense. Because of the need to be quick laterally at second base, that was one area of Pedroia’s game that was worth watching this spring. No issues whatsoever.
6. Rich Hill: He may not make the club, but Hill has given the Red Sox plenty to think about if they want another left-handed reliever, particularly one they can utilize in a specialized role. In 8 2/3 scoreless innings this spring, Hill has given up just five hits and three walks while striking out six. His delivery has been dropped to the side, a change that has a two-fold effect. One, it may make Hill even more difficult against left-handed hitters (they own just a .216 mark against Hill in his career). Two, it provides a more natural feel for a guy who had some injury issues in 2008 and 2009. Don’t be shocked to see Hill in the pen at some point this season, even if he isn’t with the team going north.
7. Mike Cameron: Cameron was one of the great stories earlier in Grapefruit League play. He came out of the gate swinging a hot bat and looking 10 years younger on the base paths. Manager Terry Francona said that Cameron looked “free and easy” early on. Some right knee tendinitis caused the veteran outfielder to miss a couple of days later on, but he came back just fine and enters play Thursday batting .324 (11-for-34). Cameron figures to be a prominent member of the outfield rotation and having him healthy for his 200-300 at-bats is critical.
8. John Lackey: His numbers will not look as good after giving up five runs in 5 1/3 innings Tuesday night against Tampa Bay, but Lackey has been strong since the start. He has talked often this spring about how his arm strength was not quite where it should be when the 2010 season started, in large part to him being a bit careful during spring training after he opened back-to-back years on the disabled list. That arm strength is right where it needs to be, according to Lackey, and he expects to be at full strength entering a season for the first time since 2007, when he went 19-9 with a league-leading 3.01 ERA. Don’t necessarily expect that kind of a line, but there should be improvement across the board for a guy who is much more comfortable in his Red Sox skin than he was a year ago at this time.
9. Drew Sutton: It’s easy to dismiss certain players as non-factors when you have a roster absolutely loaded with talent. But 2010 offered up a great example as to how players like Sutton, versatile guys that won’t kill you, can wind up being extremely valuable. Sutton, who has appeared in 55 games at the major league level the last two years, is hitting .333 (15-for-45) this spring with two home runs. He leads the team with five doubles and 26 total bases and is also tied for the team lead with six walks. Most importantly, perhaps, Sutton has played at least 10 innings at every infield position. If the Red Sox have a need for a second utility infielder behind Jed Lowrie, a very likely scenario at some point, Sutton has made his case for a call.