FORT MYERS, Fla. -The Boston Red Sox watched the rival New York Yankees open the vault this offseason for big-money free agents. They also kept an eye on the division's new threat, the Tampa Bay Rays, and their offensive tinkering.
All the while, the Red Sox stayed on the course that was charted earlier this decade: Stockpile pitching and promote from within.
After falling one game short of the 2008 World Series, the Red Sox have to be considered a favorite - if not the primary one - to get there this year.
"I think I found when you think you have too much pitching, go get more," Boston manager Terry Francona said. "We have tried as an organization to have enough pitching where if something goes wrong, it doesn't derail our season."
The Red Sox were fourth in the American League in ERA last year with a 4.01 mark; no AL starting staff won more games. They have three starters 28 or younger who posted double-digit wins in Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jon Lester. The bullpen is anchored by one of the game's best closers, Jonathan Papelbon, 28.
And yet the Red Sox bolstered their staff for 2009.
They signed free-agent starter Brad Penny (one year, $5 million) and former closer Takashi Saito (one year, $1.5 million plus bonuses) away from the Los Angeles Dodgers and lured likely Hall of Famer John Smoltz from the Atlanta Braves with an incentive-laden, one-year contract that includes $5.5 million guaranteed.
Smoltz, a 210-game winner, had shoulder surgery in June and is not expected to join the Red Sox until this June. But the right-hander, 41, is already throwing in hopes of returning earlier. Whenever he does, he'll bring his legendary competitive fire.
"I can't wait," catcher Jason Varitek said. "All I can say about [Smoltz] is I can't wait."
The Red Sox can wait patiently for Smoltz because their rotation is already six deep. Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield and Penny, who was ushered along slowly this spring because of shoulder fatigue, likely will take the final two spots behind Beckett, Matsuzaka and Lester.
That means Clay Buchholz, who no-hit the Orioles in 2007 and had a stellar spring, likely will be sent to Triple-A. Justin Masterson, who pitched well in nine starts for Boston in 2008, will remain in an already strong bullpen.
Francona said he believes it is the deepest staff he has had "going into a season. But we have thought that before, and we ended up short. So you never know. A season starts, and a lot of things happen. That's why we are trying to have depth."
Despite slugger Manny Ramirez's ouster to the Dodgers in July, Francona said he isn't worried about his offense. The Red Sox were second in the AL in runs in 2008 (though they were just seventh after the All-Star break).
The offensive downside is that the club is counting on players with recent injury histories, such as David Ortiz, Mike Lowell, J.D. Drew and Rocco Baldelli. And three of its projected infielders, reigning AL Most Valuable Player Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Julio Lugo, missed time this spring with injuries.
But the Red Sox's depth is not limited to pitching. Lugo had knee surgery in March and likely will miss April. Shortstop will be manned in the interim by Jed Lowrie, 24. The Red Sox believe Lowrie, like many of their prospects in the past few years, is ready for prime time. And ready to help the Red Sox get to another postseason.
"I don't know anything else, but I can't imagine it gets much better than playing in Boston, where every pitch there is an ooh and an aah," said Lowrie, a supplemental first-round pick out of Stanford in 2005. "People are passionate there, and they live and die Red Sox baseball."
BOSTON RED SOX
Manager: Terry Francona
2008 record: 95-67
Estimated payroll: $130 million
Dan Connolly's predicted finish in the AL East: First place
1. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
2. Dustin Pedroia, 2B
3. David Ortiz, DH
4. Kevin Youkilis, 1B
5. Mike Lowell, 3B
6. J.D. Drew, RF
7. Jason Bay, LF
8. Jason Varitek, C
9. Jed Lowrie, SS
RHP Josh Beckett
LHP Jon Lester
RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka
RHP Tim Wakefield
RHP Brad Penny
Projected closer: Jonathan Papelbon
Thursday: The Yankees are baseball's most expensive and talented team, but how all the stars mesh will go a long way to determining whether they return to the playoffs.
Friday: Manager Cito Gaston and the talented Blue Jays are hoping to stay under the radar and surprise the other top teams in the division.
Sunday: 2009 baseball season preview includes a story on the growing relationship between the Orioles' Nick Markakis and Brian Roberts, an analysis of the Orioles' pitching staff, a look at the national baseball picture and more.