Last Man Standing: Matt Albers relieved and ready for new role with Sox

When Boston Red Sox reliever Matt Albers was informed that he made the Opening Day roster for the Boston Red Sox, he let out a sigh of relief that could be heard across the clubhouse at City of Palms Park.

However, Albers knows that being the last man standing has its drawbacks as well, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that he stays on that roster.

Albers, signed to a minor league deal by the Sox during the offseason after spending three years in Baltimore, knew he was up against stiff competition vying for two available spots in the bullpen.

Hideki Okajima, Dennys Reyes, Alfredo Aceves and Albers were duking it out all spring for the coveted spots, and Albers and Reyes were the ones still standing at the end of the day.

It also helped that Albers was out of minor league options, and both Okajima and Aceves had options left, however Albers still impressed during spring training, posting a 2.84 ERA and striking out 13 in 12.2 innings.

“It wasn’t just about working on stuff down here, there was intensity to these games,” Albers told Ron Chimelis of The Republican.

Albers also told NESN that he wasn’t worried about what other pitchers were doing, he needed to focus on himself.

Red Sox 25 Man Roster: Is it the Best in Baseball?

When Boston Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein went to work this offseason to rebuild the Red Sox for the upcoming season, he had two major goals in mind: improve the offense and add pitching depth.

The end result is that the 2011 Boston Red Sox will arguably have the best 25-man roster in all of baseball.

There is only one goal for the Red Sox, and it’s the same goal each season: winning the World Series. After last year’s disappointing third place finish in the American League East, and having to fight through key injuries to over half of its starting lineup, the Sox and Epstein spend considerable dollars in the offseason, signing free agent left fielder Carl Crawford to a seven-year, $142 million contract, and trading for the services of first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who will be agreeing to a long term contract sometime after Opening Day.

Epstein also added depth in the bullpen, signing Chicago White Sox closer Bobby Jenks, Tampa Bay Rays reliever Dan Wheeler, and adding Matt Albers and Dennys Reyes, giving the bullpen a much needed lift after struggling in 2010.

Add to that the defense that Crawford and Gonzalez bring to their positions, and the 2011 Red Sox certainly look like a team that improved in all areas.

While the Philadelphia Phillies are the flavor of the month right now in terms of power rankings, one could easily argue that from one through 25, the Red Sox are deeper and have the parts in place to easily contend for the world championship once again.

Then again, the game of baseball is not played on paper.

Red Sox say goodbye to City of Palms Park

On Tuesday afternoon, after 19 spring seasons, the Boston Red Sox played their final home game at City of Palm Park in Fort Myers, FL.

8,015 fans who were in attendance saw the Sox tie the Tampa Bay Rays, 1-1 in a nine-inning game. It was the 15th sellout in 16 games for the Sox this spring, and next spring they will open their state-of-the-art spring facility in Lee County.

By virtue of an eight-year sponsorship agreement, the new spring home for the Red Sox will be named JetBlue Stadium, and will seat 11,000 fans.

The stadium itself will feature the same exact dimensions as Fenway Park, will have its own “Green Monster” with fan seating both behind and on top of the wall, and the complex itself will feature six practice fields, and a brand new Player Development complex.

The logistics at City of Palms Park were a bit tough for the Sox over the years, as their minor league was situated two miles away. The new complex provides all needed amenities and services within the same complex, and JetBlue will commit annual money in order to fund improvements to the facility itself.

The facility will also its own version of “Yawkey Way,” a street designed to act as an extension of the facility’s concourse with added concessions and daily entertainment.

The lease for the land where the facility is being built ensures that the Red Sox will stay in the Lee County area for at least the next thirty years, and the opening of the new facility next spring coincides with the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park as well.

Finding the Gems: Allard Baird crucial to Red Sox success

When one thinks of the Boston Red Sox and their behind the scenes players, instinctively the first names that come to mind are general manager Theo Epstein and CEO Larry Lucchino. However, one man has been a major key to the success of the Sox over the past several seasons: Allard Baird.

Baird, hired by Epstein following his dismissal by the Kansas City Royals in 2006, is the vice president of player personnel, and the man largely in charge of finding players for Epstein.

Last season, Baird was tasked with the unenviable task of finding a significant number of bodies to replace a slew of injured players.

With injuries to Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Cameron, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Josh Beckett, Baird was literally in scramble mode. However, he was more than up to the task.

Baird was largely responsible for finding Scott Atchison, Darnell McDonald, Daniel Nava and Bill Hall, who ended up playing seven different positions over the course of the 2010 season with 18 home runs and 46 runs batted in.

While the Sox were unable to contend late in the season, they were second in the majors with 818 runs scored, all with a patchwork offense that saw manager Terry Francona trot out 143 different batting lineups over the course of the season.

Attrition is a natural course of events during any major league season for any team, however last season, the injury bug was particularly contagious in Boston, and Baird and his team of nine scouts saw to it that holes would be plugged with players who gave surprisingly significant contributions.

Sox’ final two bullpen spots comes down to numbers

The Boston Red Sox had two openings in their bullpen to fill, with four established major leaguers vying for the roles. What it boiled down to in the end was simply a case of numbers, and options.

Sox manager Terry Francona informed Hideki Okajima and Alfredo Aceves that they would not be included on the Red Sox Opening Day roster, and both were optioned to Triple-A Pawtucket.

It literally came down to options, as both relievers had options remaining. However, for Dennys Reyes and Matt Albers, neither had minor league options remaining, and would have had to clear waivers before being demoted, an unlikely proposition given other teams’ interest in acquiring established veterans for added depth.

It’s really a win-win situation for the Sox, as they can continue to keep players as insurance while at the same time making sure both Okajima and Aceves get regular work to stay fresh.

Okajima fell out of favor after struggling through a difficult 2010 campaign during which he posted a 4.50 ERA and 1.72 WHIP, and was largely inconsistent throughout the season.

Reyes had an option in his contract that gave him an out if he was not included on the 40-man roster by March 31. After being added to the roster over the weekend, it became a foregone conclusion that Reyes would indeed be headed north on Opening Day.

“Last year was kind of a struggle,” Francona said about Okajima. “At the end of the year, he did pretty well. This spring he showed, for the most part, he was pretty good. But Reyes has more action on the ball, and we just want Oki to go try and get that consistency back so when he does come back, we can use him and not stay away from him. And he was pretty good about it.”

It’s a huge change for Okajima, who sparkled in his first three seasons with the Red Sox, posting a 2.79 ERA from 2007-09.

Saltalamacchia catching on with Red Sox

When the Boston Red Sox failed to sign free agent catcher Victor Martinez during the offseason, they weren’t terribly worried. They felt they had a diamond in the rough in Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

Saltalamacchia, dealt to the Sox last season at the trade deadline by the Texas Rangers, saw very limited action behind Martinez, and the Sox never got a clear picture as to his overall talents. However, general manager Theo Epstein nonetheless felt confident enough to take a flyer on Martinez and give Saltalamacchia a chance to start behind the plate.

Thus far this spring, Salty has done nothing to disappoint, hitting .355 with one homer and eight runs batted in, and gaining rave reviews for his handling of the pitching staff. During Saturday’s game against the Minnesota Twins, starting pitcher Daisuke Matsuzake clearly felt comfortable throwing to Salty, something that was missing with Martinez behind the plate.

The other members of the Sox starting rotation have been impressed with what they’ve seen from Saltalamacchia as well.

“It’s funny, because he does things like ‘Tek (Jason Varitek) now,” Josh Beckett told MLB.com. “There’s not a better guy to follow if you’re in that position. Everyone said the same thing: ‘He looks like ‘Tek.’ That’s a pretty good guy to look like.”

Ace left-hander Jon Lester agrees with Beckett. “I’ve told a couple of people I think he reminds me a lot of ‘Tek,” Lester said. “He’s got that presence about him. When he talks, you listen. I don’t know if that’s just because he’s a big son of a gun or what, but when he comes out there and says something, you listen to what he has to say.”

High praise coming from the top of the rotation. However, Saltalamacchia knows he has his work cut out for him.

“I’m going to show up every day and give it my best,” said Saltalamacchia. “That’s all I can do. I’m not worried about how many fans are in the stands or the Yankees or anything like that. I’ve got to do what I can do.”

Daisuke Matsuzaka: Number five starter is healthy and ready

While the Boston Red Sox may have lost the annual Mayor’s Cup in Fort Meyers, and Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire was looking for a call from President Obama, the Sox were more than content with the performance of their number five starter, Daisuke Matsuzaka.

Dice-K gave up an early run on Saturday to the Twins, but then shut them down for his final five innings. In his last three spring starts, Matsuzaka has a 1.62 ERA, with 13 strikeouts and just four walks in 16.2 innings.

It’s a far cry from the two previous springs, when Dice-K took heat from the Sox for showing up out of shape in 2009 and hurting his shoulder two weeks into the season, and last year starting the season on the disabled list.

This spring, on the advice of new Sox pitching coach Curt Young, Dice-K altered his between-starts routine, during which he typically threw long toss and a bullpen side session on the same day. Young thought Matsuzaka was being sapped of arm strength with that routine, and now Dice-K has given up the long toss.

The results can’t be a coincidence.

While Matsuzaka won’t admit that the change in routine has helped, he does much better going into the 2011 season.

“My first objective was to keep healthy…and stand at the same starting line as the other pitchers,’’ Matsuzaka told ESPNBoston’s Gordon Edes. “I’m very happy with that.’’

Sox manager Terry Francona is pretty happy with it, too.

“His stuff was sharp, and his fastball had real good finish,’’ he said.

Red Sox Lineup: Table setters are the key to success

When looking back at the 2010 season for the Boston Red Sox, it really is a wonder that they even won 89 games. Just a week into the season, they lost the services of leadoff hitter Jacoby Ellsbury for virtually the entire season, and on June 25 sparkplug and fellow table setter Dustin Pedroia went down with a broken bone in his left foot. Aside from an attempted two-game comeback in August, Pedroia was lost for the season as well.

Losing the top of your batting order never bodes well, and despite the many different lineup combinations that Sox manager Terry Francona trotted out every day, the absence of both Ellsbury and Pedroia were without a doubt a major reason the Sox were unable to mount a playoff run.

This season, not only are both players back and completely healthy, but both are chomping at the bit to start playing games for real and show the world that newly acquired players Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzales won’t be the only weapons in the Red Sox offensive arsenal.

“I knew I had to put in a lot of work to get to where I’m at right now,” Ellsbury told Sean McAdam of CSNNE. “It was nice to just come into camp, ready to go. And it’s nice having good results early in camp, but my main thing is just seeing the ball.”

So far in Pedroia’s relatively short career, he has picked up Rookie of the Year and AL MVP trophies, three Silver Slugger awards and a Gold Glove. Pedroia has more walks (215) than strikeouts (184) during his career, which speaks directly to his ability to spoil good pitches and take advantage of mistakes.

Should Red Sox Nation be concerned about Josh Beckett?

Before we get into the meat of this, Red Sox nation needs to remember one thing: spring training games do NOT count.

That is certainly good news in light of Friday night’s exhibition game with the Toronto Blue Jays. Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Josh Beckett, looking to make a strong comeback from last year’s horrific season, gave up seven runs on 11 hits during his six-inning stint, leading many to wonder if his performance is a harbinger of things to do. Not so, says both Beckett and manager Terry Francona.

“Results aside, I felt like I did some things that we’ve been working on,” Beckett told the Associated Press. “I felt like they were a little comfortable for the first time. I got to take some positives away from that. But obviously the results are what they are.”

Francona also liked a lot of what he saw, and knows that this is the time to work the kinks out.

“The two good things were he got real stretched out and he felt real good physically,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. “He made some mistakes. It seemed like the first hitter of almost every inning was on. So he was pitching out of the stretch.

“Saying that, once he got to that point I thought he made some good pitches. There were some pitches that still wandered back over the middle, got hit pretty good. But he feels real good physically. I think it’s one of those things where in March, you’re glad he feels good and the runs don’t count,” he said.

Beckett, coming off a 2010 season during which he posted a 6-6 record with a 5.78 ERA, will likely have one more tune-up before games are played for real, and for Sox fans, they hope that whatever Beckett has been working on this spring will reap results that will keep Red Sox nation from jumping off the nearest bridge.