IN A season in which disabled lists appear longer and more star-studded than ever, the defending champion Red Sox have taken major hits. In the last month Boston has lost David Ortiz to a torn tendon sheath in his left wrist and No. 2 starter Daisuke Matsuzaka to a right rotator cuff strain. No franchise, though, is better equipped to overcome such losses than the Sox. When G.M. Theo Epstein says, "The thing that has stood out so far is our depth," he isn't kidding.
The Red Sox hope that Ortiz will be back before mid-July, but the middle of the order has been as menacing as ever. It starts with Manny being even better than Manny. (Ramirez is hitting .375 with five homers since Ortiz went down on June 1.) Oft-criticized outfielder J.D. Drew has shown why baseball's smartest front office signed him to that eyebrow-raising five-year, $70 million contract before last season. In 14 games since Ortiz's injury, Drew is hitting .447 with seven homers and a 1.106 slugging percentage. Drew and Ramirez, Epstein says, "have been as good as any three-four combo you can have."
Meanwhile, has the absence of a perfect pitcher—Matsuzaka was 8--0 when he went down on May 27—ever caused less agita? Rookie righty Justin Masterson, a 6'6" sinkerballer, and spring pickup Bartolo Colon, a former Cy Young winner who signed a nonguaranteed, performance-based deal, have combined to go 7--2 with a 3.15 ERA.
Epstein credits assistant to the G.M. Allard Baird for pushing through the signing of Colon, who showed decent control but was only hitting the high 80s on the radar gun during the winter. Extensive testing on Colon's right shoulder, however, revealed that it was still strong, so when his velocity recently returned to the mid-90s, Boston's front office wasn't surprised.
Few teams have received more meaningful contributions from its rookies and in-season call-ups than Boston. Epstein spent months in trade talks for Johan Santana but valued the team's young players too highly to put together a package that blew away the Twins, a decision that now seems particularly wise. Each of the key kids that the Twins were seeking—outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, lefthander Jon Lester, Masterson and infielder Jed Lowrie—has had an impact in the bigs this season. And with their glut of prospects the Sox are well-positioned to make a deal this summer. Boston will be in the mix for Indians lefty C.C. Sabathia, though the Yankees are a more likely landing spot, given their greater starting pitching needs.
The bullpen is the one area that needs to be addressed. Last year's setup sensation Hideki Okajima is struggling, and while relievers Manny Delcarmen, 26, and Craig Hansen, 24, are still two more kids making an impact, a proven setup man for closer Jonathan Papelbon would help. (With his power sinker Masterson is an intriguing possibility for a key bullpen role when Dice-K returns.)
But even if the Sox stand pat, they remain, thanks to their depth, the Series favorites.
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JUMP START Since Ortiz (inset) went down, Ramirez (far left) has gone off.
MICHAEL DWYER/AP (ORTIZ)
[See caption above]