Roster musings: Searching for backup SS

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- We are in the high anxiety stage of spring training, as manager Terry Francona acknowledged in his morning chat with reporters.

There are still 44 players in camp, and the cuts will start coming in substantial numbers as the team gets down to 25 for the April 4 start of the season.

"This is a tough week for a lot of guys,'' Francona said.

There isn't a great deal of suspense involved in identifying most of the players the Sox will be taking north.

Here are the locks:

Catchers (2): Victor Martinez, Jason Varitek

Infielders (5): Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Marco Scutaro, Adrian Beltre, Bill Hall

DH (1): David Ortiz

Outfielders (4): Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Cameron, J.D. Drew, Jeremy Hermida

Pitchers (11): Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Tim Wakefield, Clay Buchholz, Jonathan Papelbon, Hideki Okajima, Daniel Bard, Ramon Ramirez, Manny Delcarmen, Boof Bonser.

Disabled list (1): Daisuke Matsuzaka

That accounts for 23 spots on the roster, and for Matsuzaka not being ready to start the season on time.

Bonser, who is starting against the Tampa Bay Rays, is out of options, and while his command has been inconsistent, he has shown enough arm strength to persuade the Sox that he is recovered from last February's shoulder surgery.

From this vantage point, the two question marks revolve around Mike Lowell and the last man in the bullpen. Alan Embree has the clear inside track to win the job as Terry Francona's second left-handed option in the pen, but with Embree having just joined the Sox, there's a good chance he won't be ready for the start of the season. He has an April 15 opt-out in his contract, so the Sox may wait until that date to make a determination on whether he's the guy.

Lowell is the "X" factor. He played third base Sunday, with scouts from the Rangers and Marlins watching, but it's debatable whether he's answered questions about his hip issues. The Sox could trade him and absorb most of his salary, release him and eat the entire $12 million salary, or bring him north to start the season.

But the Sox are looking for a backup shortstop, with Jed Lowrie's wrist issues and recent diagnosis with mono eliminating him, and Bill Hall, who made two errors Monday in a 13-8 loss to the Cardinals, not a guy the Sox would feel comfortable using there if Scutaro went down for any length of time. Scutaro, remember, suffered a torn plantar fascia in his right heel at the end of last season.

The Sox have communicated to other teams that they're in the market for a backup at short, but there's no spot unless Lowell goes.

The Sox will be happy to have people like Joe Nelson, Brian Shouse and Scott Atchison as inventory in Triple-A, though at 41 there's some question whether Shouse would go to Pawtucket rather than retire. As one scout noted Monday, every team in the major leagues used at least 20 pitchers last season. He believes that's the first time in big-league history that has happened.