FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The marketing department of the Boston Red Sox should have no trouble coming up with a catchy slogan for the 1996 season. The possibilities are endless and general manager Dan Duquette can use some help putting the right spin on what is shaping up to be a difficult year.
Here are a few suggestions:
"Hey, where is everybody?": Pretty well sums things up. Roger Clemens, perhaps the best pitcher in the proud history of the franchise, signed with the Toronto Blue Jays, Jose Canseco was traded back to the Oakland Athletics and Mike Greenwell chose not to return this year. What's left is a questionable pitching staff and a batting order that better not lose Mo Vaughn for any length of time.
"What's all the fuss? The guy was 10-13 last year.": Red Sox management can make a legitimate argument for refusing to pay Clemens $8.25 million per year. He is coming off two losing seasons in a row. But the fans will have a snit if he bounces back and has a big season for the Blue Jays. It could happen.
"How many teams have a knuckleballer for a No. 1 starter?": Not many, but Tim Wakefield helped lead this team to the 1995 American League East championship by getting off to a 13-1 start. It could happen again -- the 13-1 start, not the division championship.
If none of this seems very funny, then you might be a Red Sox fan. The long-suffering baseball boosters of Boston have been waiting 78 years to get back to the World Series, and there is little reason to believe they won't still be waiting when the club returns to spring training a year from now.
The loss of Clemens and the departure of Canseco and Greenwell leave the team with little identity and questionable talent. Duquette has built a reputation making something out of nothing -- he did it in Montreal and he did it in his first season in Boston -- but the strength of the AL East and the apparent weakness of the Red Sox pitching staff makes a surprise run at the division title seem highly unlikely.
The Red Sox made a furious late-season charge to finish third last year, and can rationalize that they might have reached the playoffs if not for their disastrous 6-19 start, but that limited team got worse over the winter, while the competition for the two available playoff spots widened.
To get to the postseason, Boston has to be better than at least two of the other AL East contenders, and better than one of the top two teams in each of the other divisions. To have a chance, they figure to need at least 90 victories from a pitching staff that needs everything to go right just to be adequate.
Duquette hopes that he was able to fill the void left by Clemens with the signing of free-agent left-hander Steve Avery. Wakefield should be good for 14 victories. Tom Gordon is a solid No. 3 guy. And several pitchers -- including Aaron Sele and top prospect Jeff Suppan -- will compete for the final two places in the rotation. If everyone pitches well and closer Heathcliff Slocumb has another good year, the Red Sox just might be in the race after all.
"Anything's possible," said Vaughn, who must feel like the Lone Ranger about now. "Pitching is the name of the game and I think they are really stressing that and working on that. I know we all have questions about letting our top guy go, but they must know something."
"I'm just going to try to be myself," Vaughn said. "I'm not going to try to carry a bigger load."
Duquette looks like the one on the hot seat. He alienated the veteran nucleus of the club when he fired popular manager Kevin Kennedy last October and replaced him with journeyman manager/coach Jimy Williams. Kennedy was so popular that his abrupt termination contributed to Clemens' discontent, prompted Canseco to demand a trade and caused Vaughn to waver in his desire to sign a long-term contract extension. Now, the Red Sox look like a fourth-place club and Duquette's reputation as one of the industry's brightest executives could be on the line.
In 1995, no one thought the Red Sox pitching would hold up, but Duquette's spring gamble on Wakefield and oft-injured Erik Hanson turned the team into a runaway division champion. There are some parallels this year, though no one is predicting a similar outcome.
"The team in '95 was a hungry team," Duquette said. "This team is a hungry team. We had a hangover in '96. By the time we got over it, we were looking up at two teams. But we played well and went 49-28 the second half of the season. Hopefully, our team can get off to a good start this time."
That will depend a lot on what happens the next four weeks. Williams has to sort out a crowded infield situation and figure out who is going to hit behind Vaughn. Duquette conceivably could pull off one more deal to solidify the pitching staff, perhaps dealing power-hitting shortstop John Valentin to make room on the infield for promising Nomar Garciaparra.
Even if that happens, it could be a long hot summer, with three division rivals clearly better positioned for the long haul.
"We've got our work cut out for us," Duquette said.
Red Sox at a glance
Manager: Jimy Williams
1996 record: 85-77
1996 finish: Third
Team batting avg.: .283
Team ERA: 4.98
Projected '97 finish: Fourth
Spring schedule vs. Orioles: March 17 at Fort Myers.
Regular season vs. Orioles: April 18-21, June 10-11 at Boston. April 24-27, July 16-17, at Camden Yards.
Pub Date: 2/27/97