Nine questions heading into camp

Nine questions heading into Spring Training

BOSTON -- The one thing you can always count on this time of year when it comes to any baseball team is that there are more questions than answers. The Red Sox, even with all the money they spent this offseason to improve their product, are no different.

Inevitably, the warmth of the Hot Stove keeps optimism high. But only when camp begins do you actually start to sense how things will unfold.

With pitchers and catchers set to report to Fort Myers on Feb. 16, it seems like an appropriate time to go around the diamond and look at nine intriguing questions regarding the 2007 Red Sox.

1. How well will J.D. Drew fit in?
At no time in recent memory has a Boston player been so heavily critiqued before taking his first at-bat for the local nine. The buzz on the talk shows centers on Drew being a soft player, one who might get swallowed up in the frenzy that is Red Sox Nation.

It's time for the critics to at least allow Drew to put on his Red Sox uniform before deciding what kind of person and player he is. The one thing that is very fair to question about Drew is his durability. That makes this the ultimate high-risk, high-reward signing.

Consider what Drew has done the past two seasons he's been healthy. Most recently, he hit .283 with 20 homers and 100 RBIs for the 2006 Dodgers. In '04, Drew's last season in Atlanta, he hit .305 with 31 homers and 93 RBIs. The Red Sox would gladly take those numbers.

Drew feels that the adjustments he's made in offseason training over the past couple of years make him ready to be a durable player. The Red Sox, who will pay Drew $14 million per season, hope he's right.

2. Can David Ortiz take it to yet another level?
Who was the last player to produce four consecutive career years upon joining the Red Sox? Ortiz might be the first. Can he do it again?

If not for a mysterious bout of heart palpitations and lack of protection in an injury-riddled lineup late last season, Ortiz very well might have hit 60 homers. As it was, he finished with 54. If Papi gets 60, it would be the type of power show the Fenway Faithful has never witnessed. And perhaps then, Ortiz could finally win the American League Most Valuable Player Award he's been on the cusp of the past four years.

Because Ortiz was a late bloomer, every season is crucial for him if he wishes to some day have a plaque in Cooperstown. If Ortiz can have four more years like his first four in Boston, he would be right in the mix.

3. Is Manny Ramirez happy?
That question never gets old, thanks to Ramirez's unpredictable personality. The Red Sox will undoubtedly be at least a little on edge until Ramirez reports to camp. Another winter of trade talks -- believed to be initiated by Ramirez -- again led to no deal.

If Ramirez truly was wounded -- as one recent report stated -- by accusations that he shut it down unnecessarily for the majority of the final six weeks of last season, then he must realize this: By not talking to the media, Ramirez made it difficult for anyone to know what the truth was regarding his right knee. If he had simply explained his situation, there wouldn't have been so much speculation on the severity of his injury.

When the Red Sox were in the pennant race, Ramirez was in the lineup virtually every day. The instant they started to fall back, Ramirez was nowhere to be found. Whether it was coincidence or not, the facts back that up.

When Ramirez is healthy, happy and hitting, the Boston offense is tough to stop. His prolonged absence last September had a striking effect on the rest of the lineup.

4. Who will close?
The question has been batted around this winter that is has almost become a tired topic. Manager Terry Francona has indicated that the top four contenders for the job are Joel Pineiro, Mike Timlin, Julian Tavarez and Brendan Donnelly. No, Jonathan Papelbon will not resurface in that role, at least not any time in the near future.

The Red Sox don't believe that you need a lights-out closer in place by Opening Day to win a World Series. See the 2006 Cardinals, 2005 White Sox and 2003 Marlins as reference points that back up that belief.

5. Does Craig Hansen need more time in the Minors?
The Red Sox rushed Hansen to the Major Leagues just months after being drafted in 2005 because of a glaring lack of depth in their bullpen. They did the same thing last year. The Sox weren't happy about it in either case, and that's why it would not be a surprise to see Hansen spend a considerable amount of time in the Minors this season.

In fact, that might be the best way the talented right-hander can become a force during those crucial pennant race months of August and September. Things have gone too fast for Hansen, as even he's acknowledged at times. By slowing things down in 2007, perhaps the Red Sox will finally see the powerful reliever they envisioned when they spent a first round pick on him in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft.

6. Will the real Coco Crisp step forward?
Perhaps only those who spent last spring in Fort Myers will remember that Crisp looked like an imminent All-Star throughout the 2006 exhibition season. He crushed everything and was running the bases with abandon. It carried over through those first four regular-season games and then, bam, he broke his finger on an ill-fated attempt at stealing third in the fifth game. Crisp was never the same after that -- not even close.

Where was the guy who made his reputation crushing fastballs? The fact of the matter is that Crisp, after returning to the team in late May, never regained proper strength in that left index finger. He then fractured the finger again in late September. After a winter of rest and rehab, the Red Sox are hoping Crisp can regain the quick hands that he needs at the plate.

7. Can Josh Beckett make the adjustment?
Much like Crisp, Beckett entered the 2006 season with truckloads of hype. Some national experts predicted he would win the AL Cy Young Award. Ironically, Beckett erased the one criticism -- that he couldn't stay healthy. But his results -- a 5.01 ERA and 36 homers allowed -- were decidedly disappointing.

Beckett did lead the staff with 16 wins and showed flashes of the guy who dominated plenty of games for the Marlins. What Beckett learned more than anything last season was how precious little margin for error there is in the American League. At times, as he said best, there were bouts of "stubborn stupidity".

Look for Beckett to make a significant rebound this year. He's too determined, diligent and talented not to.

8. Will the Captain regain his groove?
At this time last year, nobody could have belived that Jason Varitek would hit .238 with just 12 homers in 2006. But who could have imagined that Varitek would never be healthy? It was just one of those years where everything seemed to break down, culminating with a left knee that was in such bad shape that he had to limp off the field on July 31 and undergo surgery.

Though catchers tend to break down at Varitek's age -- he'll be 35 on April 11 -- the rugged switch-hitter seemingly works hard enough in the winter to avoid such a sharp decline. Still, it bears watching what kind of level Varitek will play at this year.

9. How good will Papelbon be in the rotation?
Papelbon was a shutdown closer in 2006. When he came into a game, it was pretty much over. Statistically speaking (0.92 ERA), it was one of the best seasons a closer has ever had. How will that type of success translate into the starting rotation?

Papelbon will be hard-pressed to produce at the same statistical level while throwing more than 100 pitches a game, but he has the talent to thrive in the rotation. Don't forget that Papelbon was a stud starter throughout his years in the Minor Leagues. At one time, his goal was to be the next Roger Clemens. Papelbon's desire hasn't lessened any. Assuming he stays healthy, he should be a big factor in the rotation.

Ian Browne is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.