Righthander Curt Schilling is lugging an additional burden this season, and that's not a reference to the 10 pounds he put on this winter while spending 10 sedentary hours a day at his Massachusetts-based video game company. Schilling, who is 44-21 in his Boston career, still carries plenty of heft in the Red Sox clubhouse, but he has been overshadowed this spring by the excitement surrounding new teammate Daisuke Matsuzaka, not to mention rejected by Sox officials in his effort to extend his contract, which expires at the end of the season.
Fat chance, the Boston Herald bellowed on its back page on Feb. 23, citing both Schilling's paunch and the lack of largesse coming from the Boston front office. "Yeah, Photoshop is an amazing thing," says Schilling, who promises he will lose the extra baggage and be at his preferred 235 pounds by Opening Day.
Appearances aside, the extroverted Schilling likes playing the heavy. Although the Red Sox have built their staff, in the near and long term, on three 26-year-old righthanded power pitchers -- Matsuzaka, Josh Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon are under Boston's contractual control through at least 2010 -- Schilling, at 40, intends to prove he's still the ace. "Nothing's changed," says Schilling, who in '06 ranked first in the AL in strikeout-to-walk ratio (6.54), fifth in strikeouts per nine innings (8.07) and sixth in opponents' on-base percentage (.303). "I'm the one to lead the staff. A lot of people might not expect me to still be that kind of pitcher. But I'm telling you, the day I'm not a Number 1, I'm not going to be playing ... [and] I'm going to pitch next year."
If Schilling continues to meet his own expectations, Boston's rotation will feature the best pure stuff in baseball. Matsuzaka will be a Rubik's Cube to hitters. Beckett, who won 16 games in a poor season last year, and Papelbon, who returns to starting after a lights-out year closing (.211 opposing OBP), bring mid-90s heat. Fifth starter and knuckleballer Tim Wakefield is a dastardly diversion. "The pitching staffs will determine who wins the East," Schilling said. "The [season-opening] rotation that makes the most starts wins the division. It's that simple."
The Schilling Theory was borne out last year. New York, Toronto and Boston were 1-2-3 in the standings as well as 1-2-3 in starts by what the club considered its top five starters heading into '06. New York received 125 such starts, Toronto 114 and Boston -- because of injuries to Wakefield, Matt Clement and David Wells -- only 107.
Boston better get premier starting pitching, because its bullpen is so shaky that Joel Piņeiro is being considered as the closer despite one career save and a progressively worse ERA five years running. Unless 2005 No. 1 draft pick Craig Hansen, 23, matures quickly -- and there's little to indicate that he's any better than a year away -- the Red Sox don't even have a true power arm to shut down scoring threats in the seventh and eighth innings.
"We're going to have to mix and match there rather than have that one strikeout guy," says manager Terry Francona, who will likely deploy either Brendan Donnelly or Mike Timlin in the closer's role to start the season. Privately, the Red Sox are prepared to move quickly to trade for a closer, such as Washington's Chad Cordero.
Though Schilling calls Boston's offense "relentless," the additions of shortstop Julio Lugo, rightfielder J.D. Drew and second baseman Dustin Pedroia may not prevent the Red Sox from a decline in run production for a fourth straight season -- but perhaps to no harm. This team is built on starting pitching, which was a liability last season (26th in the majors in ERA), so improved run prevention is the key. While Schilling may be the titular ace, Boston's comfort is in knowing that any one of its three young guns may ascend to the top of the rotation. -- Tom Verducci
Issue date: March 26, 2007