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March 16. 2013 10:23PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Spring into encouraging, worrying signs


Boston's Mike Napoli hits an RBI single off Toronto starter Justin Germano last week. Napoli has had an encouraging spring. (REUTERS)
Two weeks from tomorrow the Red Sox will find themselves in the Bronx for the first of their "162 chances to restore the faith," taking on the Yankees in a season-opening series of once-great superpowers who enter this new year with plenty of uncertainties and new realities - chief among them the level of expectations.

Now more than halfway through the Grapefruit League schedule, it's still not clear what to make of these Sox, or how seriously they should be considered as contenders. Conclusions aren't often in made in March. But observations are.

So, then, here are some observations of spring training as Boston puts on its green in honor of St. Patrick's Day:

-- Spring training statistics need to be considered in the appropriate context, of course, but considering that he came to camp with physical restrictions and serious questions about the health of his hip, Mike Napoli's start has been awfully encouraging. He's hitting like the player the Sox came to fear in Anaheim and Texas, and who they were willing to give $39 million before those physical concerns. He's cracked a couple of homers and batted .350 over his first eight games. With David Ortiz looking like a long shot to open the season as the designated hitter, a strong start for Napoli could be huge for a Boston lineup in need of some thunder.

-- Ortiz's ailing heels have reportedly taken well to the prescribed rest, and he could take batting practice as soon as Monday. The better indicator of his progress, however, will be when he gets back into ?baserunning drills. Not until then will he really be on course for game action.

-- Unlike Napoli, Shane Victorino has not looked comfortable in his first few weeks with the Red Sox. Including his time with Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, he was a combined 1-for-22 with eight strikeouts through Friday. His lone hit was a single, and he's grounded into four double plays. Perhaps adding to any concern is that Victorino isn't typically a slow starter. He batted over .300 in each of his last three spring trainings with the Phillies.

-- Fellow newcomers Jonny Gomes (through Friday batting .241, without a walk) and David Ross (batting .067, but at least his one hit was a homer) can relate to Victorino's early struggles, as can Stephen Drew - who was hitting just .188 before being forced to sit with concussion symptoms that leave him uncertain for Opening Day. That would seem to open a door for Jose Iglesias, but after a good start he entered Saturday hitting .206, so Sox fans should prepare for the possibility that Pedro Ciriaco will open the season as the starting shortstop.

-- If manager John Farrell hadn't early on all but eliminated the chance of a competition at catcher, the spring might've settled the matter for him. While Ryan Lavarnway's 2012 struggles have carried over - he entered Saturday hitting .133 - Jarrod Saltalamacchia has been crushing the ball through his first 10 games, batting .417 with a 1.231 on-base plus slugging and seeing six of his 10 hits go for extra bases. True to form, he's also struck out eight times in 27 plate appearances, but the Sox will take that if his pop is the tradeoff.

-- John Lackey's return from Tommy John surgery is more about health and process than an 8.10 earned run average and 13 baserunners in 6 2/3 innings - but among the camp's more encouraging numbers are those detailing the work done by the rest of Boston's starting rotation. Highlighted by Clay Buchholz's 8 1/3 scoreless frames, the Sox' other four starters have compiled a 1.44 ERA over 43 2/3 innings, allowing 28 hits and walking 12 for an average of 0.93 baserunners per inning. In fact, Ryan Dempster's 2.13 ERA was worst of the group, with Felix Doubront at 2.08 and Jon Lester at 1.29.

-- This is where you need to know Josh Beckett had a 0.95 ERA last spring.

-- Boston's apparent bullpen depth thinned quickly, with injuries limiting lefties Franklin Morales and Craig Breslow to a total of one inning thus far, and with neither likely to open the season on the active roster. That could create a spot for Daniel Bard, who hadn't allowed a run over four appearances through Friday. Also encouraging were his six strikeouts as he attempts to find the fastball that made him such an effective setup man prior to last year's failed experiment as a starter.

-- That said, four innings is a tiny sample size - and, accordingly, don't put much stock into the poor numbers posted by the relievers who figure to man the back of the Boston bullpen. Joel Hanrahan lugged a 13.50 ERA into Saturday, while Andrew Bailey brought along his 5.40 ERA - but together they'd tossed just nine innings. In regular season terms, that figures to be less than two weeks worth of work. Nothing to fret about. Yet.

-- No matter how this spring leaves Sox fans feeling about 2013, it's already ensured that it should leave them feeling great about 2014 and beyond. This week some of them started getting sent to minor-league camp, but the biggest revelations to this point have been the players who figure to form the Red Sox future. Jackie Bradley Jr. has been sensational, his .484 average and 1.235 OPS (through Friday) suggesting that, despite never having played above Double-A, he could break camp with the big club. Xander Bogaerts helped the Netherlands reach the WBC semifinals. Deven Marrero, who was at Arizona State this time last year, doesn't look overmatched in major-league games. Rubby De La Rosa lit up all three digits on radar guns. Allen Webster struck out 14 and allowed two earned runs over 11 innings. And even Bryce Brentz recovered from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to homer in his first at-bat.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.

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