Sox Equipped To Embark On 2004 Campaign

Most teams break camp prepared for a six-month calendar; the Red Sox will swagger north anticipating a seven-month campaign labeled "October or Bust."

That's not to say that March was a breeding ground for optimism. On the contrary, after the Red Sox made it through last year without placing a member of their lineup on the disabled list, the club endured a rash of spring training injuries that served a reminder of the fragility of any team's hopes.

Even with Boston's vaunted depth, certainly acquired at considerable ($130 million payroll) cost, the Sox will nevertheless begin the year without key members of both the everyday squad and the pitching staff. Trot Nixon's balky back is the biggest source of concern for new manager Terry Francona.

The term "herniated disk in the back" raises red flags, especially since the club's offense dropped by 30 percent (from 5.9 to 4.1 runs per game) with the everyday right fielder on the shelf for the final three weeks of last year. Of course, the club didn't have a DH Ellis Burks to help offset Nixon's absence last year.

Meanwhile, the club begins the season with RHP Byung-Hyun Kim on the disabled list. Though Kim has managed to raise a number of concerns about his maturity (or lack thereof) over his eight months with the Red Sox, the team's brass continues to view him as a potentially dominant starter in the long term. That long term, unfortunately, seems to keep getting pushed back.

Even so, the presence of Bronson Arroyo, the multi-faceted "weapon" celebrated by both GM Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona, ensures that the Red Sox will prove capable of spackling a number of holes. For now, even with injuries to Kim and RHP Ramiro Mendoza, the club remains loaded with arms. Whereas the Sox lineup was lauded for its "1-through-9" depth last year, this year the pitching staff can lay claim to the same title.

Though there are some concerns about the velocity flashed by RHP Pedro Martinez, the Dominican dandy could probably put up a sub-3.00 ERA with his arm dangling. It would also be cynical to dismiss Martinez's claim that he feels stronger than he has at any point since coming to Boston, even if he's rarely cracked 90 mph this spring.

Meanwhile, though spring training is a horrifically misleading platform for evaluations, all signs regarding newcomer RHP Curt Schilling and holdover RHP David Lowe this spring were spectacular. Simply put, the pair dominated the Grapefruit League and served notice that the Sox may possess an extraordinary trio. And while Martinez is expected to provide the most dominant innings of the bunch, Schilling and Lowe will determine whether the starting staff truly ranks among the best in the game.

A year after uncertainty ruled the day in the bullpen, the Sox have, at least in theory, found a robust solution to those problems. RHP Keith Foulke gives the Sox not just a dominant finisher but also his own setup man. If the other members of the 'pen struggle, the club can ride the multi-inning-eating Foulke for stretches without requiring a very effective bridge in the middle innings.

In short, it's difficult to find a glaring weakness on the club's paper roster. The chief vulnerability is to injury; barring a plague, the Sox have the depth to dream deep into autumn.

PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: DH David Ortiz crushed 27 homers in the final three months of last season and wasted little time this spring commencing an assault on the palm trees beyond the fences. Unlike last season, when the presence of Shea Hillenbrand and Jeremy Giambi forced Ortiz into part-time duty in the early months, Ortiz will be a big man in the Sox lineup for a full season. At age 28, he wants to prove last year wasn't a fluke.

ON THE DECLINE: SS Nomar Garciaparra has a number of warning signs circling him like vultures. He begins this season recovering from a heel injury, he authored a career-worst month during last September (.170) and his numbers last year (.301 average, .345 OBP, .524 slugging) closely resemble those of his rookie year (.306, .342, .534).

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