Sox facing plenty of uncertainty

If timing is everything, then the 2004 Red Sox are off to an inauspicious start.

After a winter-long reconstruction of their roster which saw them add a front-line starter, a top-notch closer and just miss on landing perhaps the best player in the game, the Red Sox thought they were positioned to improve upon their 95-win season which saw them fall five outs shy of the World Series.

Then, even before Opening Day arrived, reality interceded.

The Sox will play the first month -- minimally -- without right fielder Trot Nixon (herniated disc in his lower back) and shortstop Nomar Garciaparra (Achilles tendinitis), who combined for 48 homers and 192 RBI last season. The nature of both injuries is such that either or both could be chronic conditions. Byung-Hyun Kim, slotted as the No. 5 starter, is out until later this month with a strained right shoulder, depleting the team's pitching depth.

Beyond their health concerns, there's the matter of personnel uncertainty. No fewer than four everyday players (Garciaparra, catcher Jason Varitek, second baseman Pokey Reese and DH David Ortiz), 40 percent of the starting rotation (Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe) and one reliever (Scott Williamson) are eligible for free agency after the season.

It's a virtual certainty that the club won't be able to afford to keep all seven players. But more troubling in the long run is the potential for season-long distractions, with nearly a third of the 25-man roster unsigned.

Is this anyway to challenge the Yankees, who've managed to finish ahead of the Sox in the AL East the last six seasons?

Apparently, yes.

"Our goal," said general manager Theo Epstein, "is to win the World Series, obviously. But first, the goal is to get to the postseason. We feel we're talented enough to do that. Now it's a matter of preparing, executing and surviving all the challenges that come to a club."

The challenges are piling up quickly. The Opening Night lineup featured second baseman Reese shifted to shortstop with journeyman Mark Bellhorn as the starting second baseman. Nixon's absence provides regular playing time for Gabe Kapler, who, while valuable, has never hit as many as 18 homers or knocked in as many as 73 runs in a season.

Still, the Sox aren't looking for sympathy -- or excuses.

"The Yankees didn't have Derek Jeter for the first six weeks and they started 18-3 (last season)," Epstein said. "I don't thnk we have to lower our expectations. We're obviously not at 100 percent (to start the year), but that's baseball reality -- it's good players on the DL; it's players playing when they're not 100 percent; it's key players going through slumps.

"We're just facing our baseball reality early. It's not going to be like this all year long."

The Sox had better hope not. Last year, they were extraordinarily fortunate when it came to health. Only one position player -- reserve Jeremy Giambi -- spent time on the disabled list. Already, the Sox have two players sidelined.

Then, there's the matter of the players in the final years of their contracts, with extra attention focused on the Big Four of Martinez, Garciaparra, Varitek and Lowe.

Historically, the Sox haven't fared well in retaining their own free agents. Worse, many -- including Mo Vaughn and Roger Clemens -- have left amid acrimony, leaving a trail of unrest.

The Sox held negotiating sessions with representatives for each of the Big Four during spring training, with little progress made. But Red Sox management would rather have unsigned players than sign players to untenable deals.

"I've said all along, it's far from the ideal situation," Epstein said. "It is what it is. All we can do is follow the best course of action for the team in the short term and the long term and hope those balance out. The other situation will resolve itself throughout the year, right up to and probably through November. I hope it resolves itself in a manner that is very satisfactory to all parites.

"But we're not going to spend every minute of every day worrying about it. (This is the first week) of the season and that's really the most important thing right now. We've got 162 games and, hopefully, more to play."

Lowe, who was sharply critical of the team's most recent contract extension offer to him, added that the Sox made it "easy" to reject the proposal out of hand. Nonetheless, he has said the team shouldn't lose its focus.

"We're not the only guys without contracts before Opening Day," he said. "You've got to put that behind you. I've already done that. What happens six months from now? Who knows? Yes, it's a risk that you're taking (waiting that long) because the window (to sign potential free agents after the season) shrinks to two weeks.

"But if you're thinking about those things (now), you're thinking about the wrong things."

This being Boston, already there's a whiff of controversy. Martinez, who had one poor inning in the opener Sunday night but otherwise pitched well, left Camden Yards before the game was over. New manager Terry Francona publicly absolved Martinez of any blame, noting that Martinez wasn't yet in camp when Francona passed out his rules and regulations.

Privately, however, Francona let Martinez know that such absences won't be overlooked again.

Francona himself faces dual challenges. Known as a player's manager during his first turn in Philadelphia, he can't afford the perception that his highly-paid players are running the clubhouse.

Additionally, he'll need to incorporate the quantitative analysis that his predecessor, Grady Little, too often ignored, all the while knowing that anything less than a return to the ALCS will be considered a failure.

"I'm going to do what I think is right," Francona said when asked about his decision-making. "There's supposed to be a reason for what you're doing."

Injuries and free agency aside, there's an obvious sense of optimism in the clubhouse and the Sox aren't put off by the expectations in place.

"Ownership has given us everything we need to win a World Series," Curt Schilling said. "It's up to us now."

Along the way, it figures to be an interesting ride. With the Red Sox, it always is.

Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.