The Red Sox are good but still needy

All teams should have the Red Sox’s problems, but hey, even filthy rich AL East super-powers worry.

The Sox are good. How good, they’re not sure. A few issues remain:

• David Ortiz. “Big Papi” is so trim, I almost confused him with the Dodgers’ ultra-svelte right-hander, Ramon Ortiz.

Seriously, Big Papi looks fit, sounds confident and cannot understand why fans and media keep dwelling on his poor performance in the first two months of last season.

“How about the last four?” says Ortiz, who hit 26 of his 27 homers after June 1. “That’s what you carry into the season. I think everything is connected. The last three-four months is the closest thing to the following year, not the first two.

“It’s like what happened to Jermaine Dye. He killed it the first half of the season, then he struggled the second half. Maybe that’s the reason why people believe he can’t do it anymore. This game, from what I understand, it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. That’s my perspective. That’s what they taught me.”

Fair enough, but the Red Sox need Ortiz to be a major part of their offense. If he is not, they will pursue a bat in July, if not before.

Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez is the most rumored name, but one rival executive thinks other clubs will offer more for Gonzalez than the Red Sox — and the exec held that opinion even before top outfield prospect Ryan Westmoreland underwent brain surgery, placing his career in jeopardy.

The Red Sox were unlikely to part with Westmoreland or right-hander Casey Kelly in a trade for Gonzalez or anyone else.

• Mike Lowell. The awkwardness continues. The Sox cannot trade Lowell.
They cannot find him playing time. They are not sure how much he could contribute, anyway.

The Rangers’ interest in Lowell is “light,” according to one major-league source, and the Red Sox do not anticipate any team offering an acceptable dollar/prospect exchange for his $12 million salary.

Lowell, 36, has endured one physical problem after another — right hip surgery, right thumb surgery and most recently, a bruised left knee. He barely has played this spring, batting only 10 times.

The Red Sox will not release Lowell, one source says; if capable of producing, he will protect them against injury to Ortiz, third baseman Adrian Beltre or first baseman Kevin Youkilis.

But by keeping Lowell, the Sox are unable to create a roster spot for infielder Tug Hulett or Kevin Frandsen, leaving utility man Bill Hall as the backup to shortstop Marco Scutaro.

Hall, 30, has not played shortstop since 2006, when he was the Brewers’ regular. He said he has since gained 15 to 20 pounds, but remains athletic and is working to relearn the position. The Sox are confident he can spell Scutaro on a limited basis during the season.

• Clay Buchholz. His spring ERA is 9.53, and the Twins hit him hard in his first two innings Sunday. But Buchholz finished strong, striking out seven and walking none in his 4 2/3 innings. The Sox profess to be unconcerned.

Buchholz, 25, is wound tight. The Sox, as reported by the Providence Journal, no longer allow him to make pickoff throws on his own, calling them from the bench instead. It’s reasonable to question whether Buchholz’s approach will ever match his stuff; he occasionally gives hitters too much credit, trying to be too fine.

The Sox, though, can be patient with Buchholz — they’ve stacked three aces ahead of him in their rotation. The team is intent on allowing Buchholz to work through the normal highs and lows of a young pitcher, expecting more good than bad.

• Manny Delcarmen. Still an enigma. Delcarmen’s Grapefruit League stats are OK — six baserunners allowed in 6 2/3 innings — but club officials are concerned about his stuff, his failure to throw on a downward plane, the way the ball is coming out of his hand.

The Sox should be strong in the late innings with closer Jonathan Papelbon, right-hander Daniel Bard and lefty Hideki Okajima. But their bullpen will be weak in the middle if Delcarmen and right-hander Ramon Ramirez are not effective — and Ramirez has had a poor spring.

The Twins’ bullpen-by-committee

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, never one to take himself too seriously, had an interesting way of telling reporters how the Twins plan to replace injured closer Joe Nathan.

“We’re a committee right now,” Gardenhire said Sunday. “Write that. Our closer role is a committee. My committee has not elected that committee yet. But we are going to be a committee.”

Gardenhire obviously will shift course if the Twins trade for a closer, but his initial plan is to mix and match four relievers — left- hander Jose Mijares and right-handers Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain — and eventually identify one as the closer.

Left-hander Francisco Liriano, the likely fifth starter, never received serious consideration, in large part because he did not want serious consideration to pitch in the ninth inning.

The Twins would have turned to Liriano if he had volunteered for the role, then made lefty Brian Duensing their fifth starter, one source said. But Liriano prefers to start and might have handled the role poorly if he had been asked to close against his wishes. Liriano also is hard on himself, and rival scouts question whether he possesses the right makeup to recover from blown saves.

More on the committee

While the Twins are forming their closer-by-committee only in reaction to the loss of Nathan, some sabermetricians advocate such a usage pattern even under normal circumstances.

The problem with such a plan is that relievers generally prefer set roles — and managers generally prefer structure. As the Red Sox’s Grady Little discovered in 2003, managing a committee is not easy.

“I’ve never had to do it, in all honesty,” Gardenhire said. “In the minor leagues, you did it. But in the major leagues, I’ve had a closer every year.

“I’ve seen committees work. It’s not always the easiest thing in the world. But you’ve got to ad lib when you lose your closer.”

One possibility for the Twins later in the season could be right-hander Anthony Slama, their 39th-round pick in 2006.

Slama, 26, closed at Double-A and Triple-A last season, but the Twins
are understandably reluctant to anoint him their closer immediately.

Lackey’s new world order

I asked former Angels ace John Lackey if any of his old teammates are
teasing him about being the Red Sox’s No. 3 starter.

“I say it to them,” Lackey replied, laughing. “I text with those guys all the time. I think I was talking to (catcher Jeff) Mathis. I said, ‘I’m just a No. 3 starter, man, trying to win a couple of games.’

“He was like, ‘Save it. We’re not buying that.’"

Lackey, by the way, said Angels right-hander Jered Weaver is ready to
become an ace.

“I think Weave can handle it,” Lackey said. “When you’re the guy who is asked to end losing streaks and there is a little bit more pressure on you, it’s different, for sure. But he has come a long way in the last couple of years as far as game management, maturity, those kind of things.”

The meaning of Cain’s new deal

The Giants’ signing of right-hander Matt Cain to a three-year, $27.25 million contract further weakens the free-agent class of 2011-12, at least when it comes to starting pitching.

White Sox lefty Mark Buehrle, who will be turning 33, now projects as the top free-agent starter in that group. Cain and Royals righty Zack Greinke will be eligible for free agency the following year, in 2012-13.

The lack of elite starting pitching in the next three free-agent classes is a major reason the Red Sox are trying to sign right-hander Josh Beckett to an extension before Opening Day.

If such a deal occurs, Mariners left-hander Cliff Lee and Yankees right-hander Javier Vazquez will be the top free agents next off-season. Beckett, too, would be part of this class.

Around the horn

• Look out, Roger Federer: David Ortiz said he played tennis for the first time in his life on Saturday, volleying with his wife, Tiffany. For what it’s worth, Ortiz said he exceeded his wife’s expectations, but needs work on his serve.

• Red Sox infielder Kevin Frandsen said his former Giants teammate, first baseman Aubrey Huff, will be better defensively than his critics think. “Don’t let anyone tell you about his defense,” Frandsen said. “He works his butt off on the back fields with the coaches. Hopefully, people will just let him be.”

• Several teams are interested in Padres right-hander Tim Stauffer, but the team would rather keep him in the bullpen to start the season than trade him, according to a major-league source. Stauffer, who is out of options, would provide depth for the Padres’ rotation.

• Braves minor-league right-hander Erik Cordier, acquired from the Royals for shortstop Tony Pena in March 2007, made a strong impression Sunday, pitching four scoreless innings against the Nationals. Cordier, who was coming off Tommy John surgery at the time of the trade, touched 95 mph and threw a good slider, according to a scout in attendance. Pena is now in the Giants’ organization, trying to become a reliever.

• Before acquiring Andres Blanco from the Cubs, the Rangers looked into
obtaining the Nationals’ Cristian Guzman, who will be a utility man after getting beaten out at shortstop by Ian Desmond.