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Red Sox 25-Man Roster, Highlander Version

Christopher Lambert in the 1986 movie "Highlander."

There can be only one! So said Christopher Lambert playing Connor MacLeod in the 1986 cult classic “Highlander,” and so say I playing the role of Red Sox 25-man roster prognosticator. And by “one,” naturally I mean “two,” as it appears there are only two spots up for grabs in Fort Myers this year. You’ll permit me the movie-metaphor inaccuracy, as I’m anxious to use the inevitable decapitation reference.

Ahem.

Now then: Red Sox Spring Training 2010: The Gathering, in which 50-plus men, roster and non-roster invitee alike, battle each other to become immortalized as one of 25 players on the 2010 opening day roster.

A quick briefing on what we know up to this point, namely, the players already penciled in for a roster spot (barring injury of course—please knock on wood after reading). As a primer, when healthy, the Sox typically carry a 25 man roster comprised of 12 pitchers, two catchers, five infielders, five outfielders, and of course David Ortiz, resident DH.

Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’

  • Infield: Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Marco Scutaro, Adrian Beltre
  • Catcher: Victor Martinez
  • Outfield: Mike Cameron, JD Drew, Jacoby Ellsbury
  • DH: David Ortiz
  • Starting Pitchers: Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Clay Buchholz

Theo Epstein will not allow Terry Francona to slot Tim Wakefield as the fifth starter to open the season. No matter how many times Wake publicly declares himself a starter or how badly Tito wants to kowtow to the veteran, Theo will step in if he has to. The young GM has done it before, most recently in the 2009 playoffs when Tito planned to start Jason Varitek at catcher over Victor Martinez to appease Josh Beckett. Terry Francona may be the manager, but Theo is the one running the show in Boston.

  • Relievers: Jonathan Papelbon, Daniel Bard, Ramon Ramirez, Hideki Okajima, Manny Delcarmen, Tim Wakefield

Sorry Wake, but at 43 years old and coming off of back surgery, you’re perfect for the occasional spot start and long relief role. So please stop telling people you’ll be in the starting rotation on April 4th, it’s getting a bit awkward. You don’t have to go gracefully into that good night, you just have to move out to the bullpen.

Poof, just like that, 20 of our 25 roster spots are filled. Now is when things start to get interesting. Let’s whittle things down just a bit more with the three bench players who will make the roster barring a complete spring collapse.

  • Backup Infielder: Bill Hall

The Sox shipped Casey Kotchman to Seattle for Hall, some cash, and a minor leaguer. The 30-year-old started his career as a shortstop and split time between the Brewers and Mariners in 2009, playing 59 games at third base, 22 games in left field, 12 games in right, two at second base, and one game in center field. That, my friends, is the very definition of a utility player. Hall can play everywhere, and that’s good news for Terry Francona, bad news for the outfielder and infielder that are potentially on the bubble because of Hall’s flexibility (more on this in a bit).

As an added bonus, Hall is evidently a good guy, and I mean that literally. In 2006 Hall won the Brewers Good Guy Award. Seriously, Milwaukee has a Good Guy Award. I’m not sure what it is exactly, but I envision Hall’s actual 2006 award being an awkward pat on the back from Brewers owner Mark Attanasio accompanied by an, “Atta boy, Phil. You’re a good guy.”

  • Backup Catcher: Jason Varitek

My Captain, oh Captain, you’re probably the most overrated player in Sox history, a nose ahead of Trot Nixon. Not that you haven’t been a stellar player for the organization. Tek will serve as a fine backup catcher. It’s ironic (1) that we even have a captain, and (2) that he will be on the bench 80% of the time.

  • Backup Outfielder:  Jeremy Hermida

The 11th pick of the 2002 draft ranked as Baseball America’s No. 4 prospect in all of baseball after piling up a .297 average, .377 OBP, .518 SLG, 18 HR, and 63 RBI in 386 at bats for AA Carolina in 2005. There’s a wealth of talent there, and the Red Sox hope it bursts forth with the help of a fresh start in Boston.

You’ll notice Mike Lowell didn’t make it through The Gathering. That’s because Lowell will be traded or released this spring just as sure as Alex Rodriguez will get booed mercilessly when the Yankees play the Sox in Fenway Park on opening day.

Tangent: Goatee artist Mike Lowell reminds me of Ramirez, the character Sean Connery played in Highlander. Funny that Connery, a Scotsman, played a Spaniard, and Lambert, a Frenchman, played a Scottish character. And they both messed up the accents. Let’s hear it for Hollywood casting everyone!

Back to baseball. With our backups in place, we’ve filled 23 spots, and as I inaccurately told you in the lead: There can be only one! So we’ve got two slots left to fill and lots of players on the bubble, namely: infielders Jed Lowrie and Tug Hulett, outfielder Josh Reddick, and a truck load of relievers, including Boof Bonser, Brian Shouse, Scott Atchison, Michael Bowden, the other Ramon Ramirez, Joe Nelson, Jorge Sosa… I’ll spare you the rest and cut it to the candidates I think have the best chance.

The Final Countdown

Our current make-believe roster includes 11 pitchers, five infielders, four outfielders, two catchers, and resident DH David Ortiz. That means, depending on how comfortable the Sox feel using super utility man Hall in the outfield, we need one more infielder/outfielder and one more pitcher. The most promising pitching contestants:

Boof Bonser: The former Twins right-hander missed the entire 2009 season recovering from shoulder surgery. The Twins had to dump him because of a logjam of starters, and the Sox scooped him up hoping the 28-year-old, now healthy, could rekindle some the promise he showed as a minor leaguer. In AAA Rochester in 2005, Bonser struck out 168 batters in 160 innings.

Will he make it? No. Bonser needs to pitch to get back into form, and that’s something he won’t get a chance to do buried in the Sox pen. He will start the season in AAA pitching every fifth day. However, he’s good insurance for Boston should any starters not make it through the spring (please knock on wood again), and if he proves healthy, he’s a nice chip for Theo to offer in any potential trades.

Michael Bowden: I don’t even want to write this summary. Bowden’s numbers in the minors were so awesome (1.15 WHIP), just two years ago he was considered the No. 2 prospect in the entire organization. He was yet another young arm Theo had cultivated, another homegrown starter that would join John Lester in the rotation. There was so much promise. And then we got to actually see him pitch.

Maddux-like was the glowing label most often applied to Bowden in the minors. He displayed uncanny control, and despite a fastball that barely topped 90 MPH, he managed to post a 3 to 1 strikeout to walk ratio. What became clear last season in Boston is that Bowden, with his awkward short-armed delivery, does not have the stuff to get big league hitters out. At least that’s how it appeared in 16 innings in which he posted a 9.56 ERA and 1.76 WHIP. Granted, it’s a microscopic sample size and Bowden is just 23 years old. But, in the words of Bill Belichick that became the sports cliché of the decade, it is what it is. Bowden will begin the season in the minors.

Brian Shouse: The 41-year-old southpaw has made his bread and butter in the Bigs as a specialist, and he can still get lefties out, as he proved last year in Tampa Bay, holding left-handed batters to a .224 batting average. Managers love having just such a pitcher in their arsenal of arms, and Shouse actually had a cup of coffee with the Sox before, tossing 8 innings for Boston way back when Bill Clinton was president.

Will he make it? No. Not because he’s a poor fit for Boston, but because there are only two spots left, and only one of them will go to a pitcher. And that pitcher will be…

Scott Atchison: The 33-year-old righty was the first signing by the Sox at the Winter Meetings, a one year, non-guaranteed deal worth $420,000 with $1 million in club options. In the Bigs, Atchison has tossed just 68 innings for Seattle and San Francisco, posting a career 4.10 ERA and 1.37 WHIP. So why do I think this very average pitcher will beat out Bonser, Bowden, and Shouse (and a baker’s dozen of other non-roster invitees) to make the squad?

Two years ago, the Sox liked Atchison enough to offer him a minor league deal, but the pitcher got a better offer from the Hanshin Tigers and headed east. In two seasons as a setup man in Japan, Atchison posted a combined 2.77 ERA in 194 innings while walking 20 batters. Twenty. The man pounds the strike zone (at least he did in Japan) and that’s just the type of reliever the Sox need.

Bonser has missed an entire year and needs to pitch. Shouse is a specialist, and he will make the squad if Atchison falters in the spring. But Atchison won’t. He’s gained the confidence he needed pitching two very solid seasons in Japan, and he’ll prove to be a more valuable commodity for the Sox.

That makes 24 of 25 spots filled. You know what that means… There can be only one! And this time, one means one. The infield/outfield contestants:

Infielder Tug Hulett: The Red Sox acquired Tug in a trade with the Royals, picking up the 27-year-old Olympic hero for a player to be named later or cash considerations. Claimed off waivers from the Mariners in February, Hulett hit .111 in 15 games for the Royals.

Infielder Jed Lowrie: Y’all know Jed. Derailed from the starting SS job last season due to injury, Lowrie’s future with the Sox is now in doubt, thanks to the acquisitions of Scutaro, Hall, and Hulett.

Outfielder Josh Reddick: One of the Sox promising young outfielders. In 2008, the 22 year old hit .343 with .593 SLG, 17 HR, and 57 RBI in 312 at bats for single-A Lancaster. Bumped up to AA Portland last year, Reddick was on his way to another stellar season, before slumping in Pawtucket and looking a bit over his head in 59 at bats in Boston (.169 AVG, .210 OBP, .339 SLG).

And the player who will stand over the decapitated corpses of his enemies and shout out the tag line I’ve already beat to death … Tugger Nuts. Tug Hulett will emerge from The Gathering with his head firmly attached to his shoulders and stand side by side with his teammates in Fenway Park on opening day. Here’s why:

In six minor league seasons, Hulett has firmly established himself as the type of hitter the Red Sox covet: .284 AVG, .394 OBP, .418 SLG. And those numbers are a bit on the low side. At AAA Omaha last year, Tug hit .291/.384/.473 with 11 HR and 53 RBI in 374 at bats. He’s also displayed Bill Hall-like flexibility as a fielder. In the minors, he’s played 434 games at second, 95 games at short, 57 games at third, 16 games in right, and even six games in left. Hulett, who turned 27 two weeks ago, will earn the final roster spot.

Your 2010 opening day Highlanders:

  • Pitchers: Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Clay Buchholz, Jonathan Papelbon, Daniel Bard, Ramon Ramirez, Hideki Okajima, Manny Delcarmen, Tim Wakefield, Scott Atchison
  • Catchers: Victor Martinez, Jason Varitek
  • Infielders: Kevin Youkillis, Dustin Pedroia, Marco Scutaro, Adrian Beltre, Bill Hall (IF/OF), Tug Hulett
  • Outfielders: JD Drew, Mike Cameron, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jeremy Hermida
  • Resident DH: David Ortiz

For comparison’s sake, how we broke camp in 2009:

  • Pitchers: Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield, Brad Penny, Jonathan Papelbon, Hideki Okajima, Justin Masterson, Manny Delcarmen, Javier Lopez, Ramon Ramirez, Takashi Saito
  • Catchers: Jason Varitek and George Kottaras
  • Infielders: Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Nick Green, Mike Lowell, Jed Lowrie
  • Outfielders: JD Drew, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jason Bay, Rocco Baldelli, Chris Carter
  • Resident DH: David Ortiz

About Sharkey

I was 11 years old when the ball scooted through Buckner's wickets, a moment that is laser-etched in my mind: In my living room, on the floor in front of the TV, ready to burst as the Sox needed just one more out, one more strike, to become World Series champs. Mets players sat with slumped shoulders and dejected looks in the dugout. Even the scoreboard operator recognized the game, and the series, was over, posting on the jumbotron: Congratulations to the Boston Red Sox, 1986 World Series Champions. "They did it!" I said, unable to contain myself. "The Sox won it all!" My father, sitting behind me on the couch with a furrowed brow, knew better. "It's not over yet." And so it was. Having watched the Sox, Celts, and Pats for the past three decades, I truly feel like I've seen it all. I hope to bring that type of perspective as I write about the three teams I love.

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