PLAYER TO WATCH
Theo Epstein would like to make one thing clear. "You never set out in free agency to sign a 37-year-old," the Red Sox G.M. says. "But if you do, you want one who's a genetic freak and still in top physical condition." Boston found such a creature in centerfielder Mike Cameron, who signed a two-year, $15.5 million deal in December. How much of a freak is Cameron? In speed and agility drills on the first day of spring training, he finished right behind the AL stolen-base champ, 26-year-old Jacoby Ellsbury.
Signing Cameron—a move that allows Ellsbury to shift to leftfield, where his weak arm will be less exposed—was one of several moves Epstein made in the name of run prevention. He also signed starter John Lackey and two defensive standouts, third baseman Adrian Beltre and shortstop Marco Scutaro. "It was an attempt to restore balance and fix some of the issues from last year's club," Epstein says.
Cameron led NL centerfielders in Ultimate Zone Rating (a measure of runs saved defensively) each of the past two seasons while with the Brewers. He has some pop left, too, having hit more than 20 home runs each of the last four years (but he averaged 150 strikeouts during that time). The Red Sox, who won 95 games last year despite an average pitching staff and a subpar defense, think Cameron will help offset the loss of free-agent slugger Jason Bay and get them to the postseason for the fourth year in a row. Says Cameron, "I'm going to make sure my piece fits in that puzzle."
Boston's staff ERA last year when Victor Martinez, who caught 33 games, was behind the plate; over a full season it would have been the AL's worst. When Jason Varitek—this year's backup—caught (108 games), the ERA was 3.87, which would have tied for the league's best.
By signing thirtysomethings Mike Cameron, Marco Scutaro and John Lackey, the Red Sox made it clear that they have a short-term focus: They want to win in 2010. If they're really about the here and now, they're going to have to take a difficult step and platoon David Ortiz. The wildly popular designated hitter has become a hole in the lineup against southpaws; he had a .216 batting average, .302 on-base percentage and .424 slugging percentage against them over the past two years. Developing a big platoon split isn't unusual for older players, and Big Papi is now 34. The Red Sox are loaded with bench players who hit lefties, and they need to find at bats for the likes of Bill Hall and Mike Lowell. Sitting Ortiz against southpaws is one of the few ways they can get those guys playing time. Hard as it might be to admit, it will make the team better.
WITH 2009 STATISTICS
Manager Terry Francona
7TH SEASON WITH RED SOX
4 6 5.76 1.87
7 4 4.21 1.38
1 38 1.85 1.15
2 1 3.65 1.28
JOHN IACONO (CAMERON)
PERFECT FIT Cameron's conditioning and outfield skills attracted Boston.
GREG NELSON (ORTIZ)