By Jacob Luft, SI.com
Player I Saw Whom I Really Liked
Anybody still wondering why the Red Sox signed Matt Clement to a three-year, $25.5 million contract this offseason should have been at City of Palms Park on Wednesday. In the third inning of Clement's second start this spring, Twins reserve Armando Rios struck out swinging at a slider that began in the strike zone and ended up somewhere near his right ankle. It was a mostly inauspicious outing for Clement, who allowed one run on a leadoff homer by Luis Rivas -- on a decidedly less effective slider than the one Rios saw -- in three innings. But the performance, combined with what Clement has shown in his throwing sessions, is enough to give the Boston brass optimism that the career 69-75 pitcher is ready to blossom into a big winner. The Red Sox think the key will be to get Clement to improve his command of the fastball so he can use the slider more as an out pitch.
"We've been really pleased with the way he's been pitching off his fastball, using his fastball in different ways," Boston GM Theo Epstein says. "He may never be a guy with pinpoint command, but as long as he throws enough strikes, his stuff is electric." Clement's control has improved considerably in recent years. He allowed the most walks in the National League (125) in 2000, and led the league in wild pitches three times from 2000-03. But he managed to stay out of the top 10 in walks allowed in each of the past two seasons while striking out 361 batters in 382 2/3 innings. Now Clement thinks he knows what he has to do to get that win-loss record to reflect his nasty repertoire. "The command on my fastball is going to make me a better pitcher," Clement says. "I can kind of put my slider aside this spring because I know it's going be there when I need it."
Team's biggest strengths
With Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz as the anchors, the lineup is fearsome. But explaining the club's success the past couple of seasons goes beyond numbers. Former Cardinals shortstop Edgar Renteria, who signed with Boston this winter after his team was swept in the World Series, says it was Boston's chemistry that impressed him the most. "In the World Series, I looked at their dugout in batting practice and they looked like they were joking around, like they weren't serious about the game," Renteria says. "But they know what they're doing." Clement says the defending world champions have "a quiet confidence. ... It's a bunch of guys who care about winning but want to have fun at the same time."
Team's biggest weakness
Having Renteria at short for the entire season will go a long way toward solidifying the often-shaky defense from last season. But the decision to keep Kevin Millar at first base instead of Doug Mientkiewicz means the Red Sox will limit the overall effectiveness of the infield. Nobody is tossing Gold Gloves at Ramirez in left field, either. But with their lineup and pitching staff, a couple of weak gloves at the corner positions aren't going to derail this train.
Renteria bonded quickly with fellow Latinos Ramirez and Ortiz; it seems the three rarely are apart. Sort of a fourth Musketeer in this equation is top Sox prospect Hanley Ramirez. The 21-year-old infielder from the Dominican Republic has been Renteria's shadow this spring. "[Hanley] is really an impressionable kid," manager Terry Francona says. "Edgar has spent a lot of time with this kid, and that's a good guy to emulate for Ramirez." ... If it seems as if Matt Mantei always is recovering from an arm injury, it's because he is. At least his latest comeback appears to be going well. He said his fastball has reached 96 mph already this spring and he is throwing with "no limitations." ... There were no video-game consoles in sight inside the Red Sox clubhouse, but there were usually at least two card games going on.