Red Sox Among Early Favorites to Win American League Pennant as Grapefruit League Play Begins

The Boston Red Sox can start to officially put the great September collapse of 2011 behind them -– sort of –- when they take the field on Sunday afternoon in Fort Myers to face the spring city-rival Minnesota Twins in the Grapefruit opener for both. It's a full squad for Boston after the Sox play a doubleheader against Northeastern and Boston College on Saturday. Minnesota brings a split squad to the official debut of JetBlue Park.

Josh Beckett gets the call against the Twins. Andrew Miller, hoping for a rotation spot, new acquisition Mark Melancon, Justin Thomas, Tony Pena Jr. and Scott Atchison are scheduled to follow Beckett. The first member of the Red Sox' Big 3 of the rotation, Jon Lester, pitches Saturday against Northeastern. The last of the Big 3, Clay Buchholz, will start Sunday at the Twins' Hammond Stadium with Vicente Padilla, another rotation hopeful, to follow him.

With Daniel Bard having the inside track on the fourth spot in the rotation, every pitch will be vital to the chances of Miller, Padilla and Alfredo Aceves to grab the No. 5 job. Manager Bobby Valentine has not yet named an Opening Day starter, but the schedule as of now leaves Lester lined up to pitch the opener April 5 in Detroit.

One player Sox fans won't see until likely early next week is new closer Andrew Bailey. He is scheduled to throw Monday after missing a couple of days with a strained muscle behind his shoulder. Valentine wants to see his progress before scheduling Bailey for a Grapefruit League game. In addition, outfielder Carl Crawford remains sidelined after left wrist surgery in January. But he did take swings in the cage this week and the wrist reportedly is faring well. It's not out of the question he could be ready for the opener against Justin Verlander, Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera and the Tigers.

Here are the 2012 Bodava odds to win AL Pennant:
Los Angeles Angels: 13/4
New York Yankees: 13/4
Detroit Tigers: 4/1
Texas Rangers: 11/2
Boston Red Sox: 11/2

As for Beckett, arguably no Boston player drew more criticism for the historic collapse of a season ago, with some questioning Beckett's weight gain, attitude and alleged drinking of beer and eating fried chicken during games in the clubhouse. Beckett still finished with a 2.89 ERA, fifth-best of any American League starter. That's well under his career ERA of 3.84 and easily his best as a big leaguer. His 1.03 WHIP was also a career best. But he was also 1-2 with a 5.48 ERA in September.

One thing Beckett will have to get used to in 2012 is working without catcher Jason Varitek, who retired Thursday. Varitek spent all 15 of his big-league seasons with the Red Sox after coming over in an trade from Seattle in 1997 along with Derek Lowe for Heathcliff Slocumb (easily one of the most lopsided trades in big-league history). Varitek was Beckett's personal catcher to the end.

Varitek, who turns 40 next month, was only offered a minor-league contract this season and given little chance of making the team with Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Kelly Shoppach ahead of him.

Varitek hit .256 with 193 home runs and 757 RBIs in his career, was a three-time All-Star and won the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger in 2005. He was ninth in team history with 1,546 games and had the most games for a catcher. But perhaps his most memorable moment was a fight with the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez of a July 24, 2004 game. Boston would rally in that game and many considered it a catalyst for the run to the World Series and breaking the team's 86-year title curse.

All spring training games matching MLB teams will have betting lines available at Bovada.

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