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February 13. 2014 9:53PM

Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Talent and depth on staff

As much of New Hampshire digs out from Mother Nature's latest wicked reminder that there's still more than a month of winter left in these parts, the visual transmissions sent north from Fort Myers become all the more entrancing.

They show sunny skies. They show players wearing shorts as they work out. They show baseball. Together, they show us that there's a heat lamp lighting the end of this polar, punishing, snowy tunnel that we can't seem to escape.

And starting Saturday, they'll show the region why they should be excited about the forthcoming return of the Red Sox for more than merely the fact that it suggests warmer days are soon ahead.

Saturday is when pitchers and catchers are due to report to Fenway South. And thus it's when the Sox' defense of their World Series championship really begins in earnest — because it is that group of players, specifically the pitchers, who give Boston its best chance of putting the duck boats to use again in early November.

Much of the offseason attention has been paid to the lineup that will insulate those arms, and most of the questions facing this team early in spring training will center on those position players.

With Jacoby Ellsbury now a Yankee, who will lead off? Who will play center field? Is Xander Bogaerts ready to be an everyday shortstop? Can Will Middlebrooks avoid prolonged slumps? Will an older roster stay healthy?

Whether the club can replicate a season in which it won 97 regular-season games, then 11 more in the postseason, will likely be decided by the performance of those players who officially report this weekend (with much of the roster, in fact, already in camp).

From top to bottom, Boston's pitching staff appears to be well-built — particularly in terms of talent and depth, each of which can be equally capable of making or breaking a season, especially in a team's starting rotation.

There, the Sox might be lacking one of baseball's true elite to lead the staff — in fact, their opponent probably had the better ace in all three of their playoff series last season — but Jon Lester's credentials as a big-game starter were bona fide by his allowing just six runs in 34 2/3 innings last October, and Clay Buchholz says he's healthy after delivering a 1.74 earned run average during his injury-abbreviated 2013 campaign.

Beyond that, the Sox have John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Ryan Dempster, three 30-something right-handers who should at least be serviceable in the middle of the rotation. They also have Felix Doubront, the lefty who's still just 26, and who went three months last season without allowing more than three earned runs in any appearance.

That's six capable arms for five slots, so the Sox should be able to sustain an injury with their major-league depth. And if more than one guy should go down, Boston appears to have minor-leaguers on the brink of being ready, too. Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa both pitched in the bigs last year. Prospect Anthony Ranaudo was added to the 40-man roster during the offseason after reaching Triple-A last summer. The highly regarded Matt Barnes should begin the year with Webster, De La Rosa and Ranaudo in Pawtucket, and Henry Owens — arguably the hottest prospect of the bunch — could be there at some point this season, too.

With so many starting options and Plan-B alternatives, the Sox enter the spring in a more luxurious position than most teams around the game. And part of that luxury is the option to use young pitchers like Brandon Workman and Drake Britton to fortify a bullpen that quietly got significantly stronger over the winter, while folks were distracted by the activity (or inactivity) in the outfield, at shortstop, and behind the plate.




Koji Uehara is back, and though it's silly to expect he'll duplicate one of the great seasons a reliever has ever submitted, the onus upon his right shoulder should be lessened significantly. So should the stress on Workman, Junichi Tazawa and postseason hero Craig Breslow, all of whom can now be slotted into more natural roles because of the fortifications Ben Cherington has brought in.

An important piece of that was retaining hell-on-lefties southpaw Andrew Miller, who was becoming a terrific situational setup man before an ankle injury cost him the final four months of last season. So was trading for Burke Badenhop, a 31-year-old veteran who has a 3.25 ERA the past two seasons, doesn't walk many and induces a lot of ground balls.

But Cherington's biggest score might have been the free-agent signing of Edward Mujica, who was an all-star with the Cardinals last season, when he converted 37 of 41 save opportunities. He lost the closer's job late, then was limited to two innings during the postseason because of a groin injury, so St. Louis let him walk — and the Sox quickly seized the chance to sign a pitcher who posted a 2.27 ERA and allowed a total of just 88 walks and hits in 91 innings with the Cards.

Ideally, Mujica will slide right into the eighth inning and attack hitters with a similar style to the man he's setting up: few baserunners, excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio and lots of splitters. His experience also means he's capable of stepping in to close things out should Uehara need a break.

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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