It was a typical March morning at Red Sox camp. A sellout crowd packed City of Palms Park in Fort Myers, Fla., three dozen reporters surrounded righthander Curt Schilling--inquiring less about the side session he'd just thrown than about the congressional testimony he would give the next day--and a production crew from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy was shushing bystanders as it mopped sweat off third baseman Bill Mueller's cheeks.
So this is the morning after for Boston, which awoke, for once, not with a percussive hangover but with the prettiest girl at the party. After winning eight straight October games to claim the franchise's first World Series in 86 years, the Red Sox spent the winter as America's sweethearts. They paraded through Beantown, visited the White House, wrote autobiographies and made the rounds of the late-night talk shows. Schilling, whose sense of dramatic timing is unrivaled, underwent surgery on his right ankle, then played Celebrity Poker on crutches three weeks later.
Amid the euphoria, general manager Theo Epstein resisted the urge to keep his club intact and allowed righthanders Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe to walk as free agents. (They signed four-year contracts worth a combined $89 million.) After making unsuccessful plays for Carl Pavano and Brad Radke, also righthanders, Epstein reeled in free-agent Cubs righty Matt Clement for three years and $25.5 million. He also gave incentive-laden deals to 41-year-old lefthander David Wells (two years, $8 million guaranteed) and to righthander Wade Miller (one year, $1.5 million), who missed the second half of last season because of a frayed labrum. And by signing all three to contracts of three years or fewer--the team's preferred duration--Epstein was able to minimize Boston's risk.
"The Red Sox threw out their best offer right away," the 30-year-old Clement says. "They were very professional. In Chicago the media always said, 'They'll mess it up, they're the Cubs.' Knowing it was similar here--if not worse--I admired guys who could do what they did, coming back from down 0-3 [to the Yankees]. I wanted to be a part of that."
Clement typifies Boston's approach of trying to find value. Despite the quality of his stuff, he's 69-75 lifetime, including 9--13 with the Cubs last season. His fussy mound habits, such as shrugging his shoulders and rubbing his legs, have been the subject of relentless armchair analysis, and in the final two weeks of last season he was bumped from the starting rotation for Glendon Rusch. To the Red Sox, however, Clement's won-lost record had as much validity as his shoe size; more important was his 9.45 strikeouts per nine innings last year, sixth best in the majors. Clement has been among his league's top 10 in strikeout rate in each of the last three seasons, a threshold met by only Martinez, Schilling, Roger Clemens and Jason Schmidt.
Wildness is Clement's bugaboo, but this spring he and catcher Jason Varitek have emphasized locating his four-seam fastball early in at bats, rather than depending on his out pitch, the slider. He would concede more contact but improve his efficiency. "Every spring I come out with that plan," Clement says, "but then your first two games, you're getting tattooed, and you go back to what gets outs for you. So I've been using my fastball more, experimenting with moving it different ways. This is how I want to pitch."
Like Clement, Miller was cast off by his old club, the Astros, who nontendered him and then offered one year at $600,000. The Red Sox jumped to nearly triple Houston's bid, again encouraged by the 28-year-old Miller's high strikeout rate (7.5 per nine innings) and high upside. "They were aggressive, they said they wanted me, and it was hard to say no," says Miller, who expects to be ready by the end of the month.
Economizing on pitching allowed Boston to overpay slightly to sign free-agent shortstop Edgar Renteria and retain Varitek (they both got four-year, $40 million deals), ensuring that the majors' best offense keeps humming. And 19 regular-season games against the Yankees ensure that the circus won't soon leave town. --D.G.H.
Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz became the first teammates in major league history to each hit 40 or more home runs and 40 or more doubles in the same season.
an opposing team's scout sizes up the Red Sox
"THEY HAVE fewer questions than any other team in the league, and they probably have the best lineup.... Jason Varitek is the glue; he was the most important guy for them to re-sign for that reason.... David Ortiz has closed up most of the holes in his swing. You used to be able to get him out inside. Not anymore.... Shortstop Edgar Renteria is a solid two-way player. With Bill Mueller at third, this is an excellent defensive left side of the infield.... Curt Schilling is the key. He has to be healthy for them to repeat.... Bronson Arroyo came into his own last year. He's a sweeping breaking ball pitcher who has good control.... It'll be interesting to see how Matt Clement adjusts to a new league and to Fenway Park. He has a lot of ability, but he doesn't have enough on his fastball to get AL lineups out with that alone.... Keith Foulke doesn't have better stuff than other closers, but mentally he's about the best.... One of their concerns is whether they can get another good year from Mike Timlin and Alan Embree. So they're hoping that Matt Mantei will become their secondary closer."
projected roster with 2004 statistics
2004 RECORD 98-64 second in AL East
EDGAR RENTERIA [New acquisition]
MANAGER Terry Francona
second season with Boston
JAY PAYTON [New acquisition]
RH Mike Timlin
IPS: Innings pitched per start
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 69)
The Red Sox are counting on the gifted but erratic former Cub to help fill the void left by Martinez and Lowe.