Winter Haven, Fla. — Even with all their pluses, and they have quite a few in the hitting department, the Boston Red Sox are probably going to trail Milwaukee, Baltimore, and New York in the American League East this season, although not necessarily in that order. Boston could also wind up south of Detroit.
Starting his second season as Boston manager, Ralph Houk has a team that got only 19 complete games from its pitching staff in 1981. The Red Sox were also 12 th in the league in fielding, and Houk is mostly guessing that Glenn Hoffman, who struggled there a year ago, now has the arm and range to play 130 games at shortstop.
If Hoffman doesn't perform well enough, then it's either back to Dave Stapleton, who has been shifted to first base this year, or take a chance on rookie Julio Valdez.
Houk's most distiguishing characteristics as a manager are his toughness; his feel for knowing when to go to his bullpen; and the way he mentally plays the game two and three innings ahead. Ralph is an old fashioned manager in the sense that he still gets on players who need to be ridden and doesn't back down.
With 16 hurlers in camp here, many of them kids, it is difficult to put a yardstick on Boston's overall pitching and get an accurate reading. Veterans Mike Torrez and Dennis Eckersley along with last year's rookie standout Bob Ojeda form the nucleus of the starting rotation, with Chuck Rainey, John Tudor, and Bruce Hurst among the top candidates for the other two spots. The Red Sox are also looking at Mark Fidrych, one-time Detroit Tiger phenom who they hope will turn into another reclamation project a la Luis Tiant.
Although Torrez hasn't been a 20-game winner since he was with Baltimore in 1975, Mike had the best won-lost percentage of anyone on the club last season, a creditable 10-3. Eckersley, frustratingly erratic the last two years after going 17-10 with the 1979 Red Sox, seldom finishes what he starts these days.
Houk's hope for a stopper is Ojeda, a 24-year-old left-hander who was 4-0 last season at Fenway Park after being recalled from Pawtucket on Aug. 9, and 6- 2 overall. Rainey, who has a 16-9 record over parts of three seasons with the Red Sox, is suspect because of an injured shoulder that has twice ended his season in midsummer.
Physical problems (elbow and shoulder) have also been roadblocks for Hurst, another left-hander Boston regards as promising. As for Tudor, Houk describes him as a kid with a major league arm who hasn't yet learned to make major league pitches.
The Red Sox might survive what looks like a shaky starting rotation if their bullpen is as strong on the mound as it appears to be on paper.
Bob Stanley is the kind of hard-throwing right-hander who can come in with runners on base and blow the hitter away. Mark Clear won eight games and saved nine more in relief last season, and Tom Burgmeier is especially tough on left-handers. There is also rookie Luis Aponte, a right-hander who saved 15 games last year with Pawtucket and looked promising in some late-season appearances with the parent club.
If Aponte, Clear, and Burgmeier all pitch effectively right away - and if the starters have problems - Houk might move Stanley out of the bullpen and into the rotation. Bob has won in that situation before and, when he's at his best, throws a lot like former Dodger ace Don Drysdale.
One thing the Red Sox have in abundance is a truckload of good hitters, including several with power. Take the team's starting outfield, for example.
Dwight Evans, in right, tied for the American League home run championship last year with 22 and became only the fifth player to lead the AL in both total bases (215) and walks (85) in the same season.
Jim Rice, in left, has three times hit 39 or more homers and four times driven in 120 or more runs. Even though centerfielder Rick Miller lacks power, he hit over .290 in 1981.
Houk will have interchangeable parts at the designated hitter position this year in 42-year-old Carl Yastrzemski, who bats left, and 39-year-old Tony Perez, who bats right. They will alternate there on a regular basis. Despite their ages, they can still hit the ball out, and either can still play first base if the versatile Stapleton should be needed elsewhere.
Boston's infield, in addition to Stapleton at first and Hoffman at shortstop, has Jerry Remy at second, and Carney Lansford (last year's AL batting champ) at third. Rich Gedman and Gary Allenson will do the bulk of the catching, although Houk says he will carry a third backstop.
What the Red Sox figure to give their fans this season is outstanding run production, their usual long-ball fireworks at Fenway Park, and the possibility of between 80 and 90 victories.
But there doesn't seem much doubt that, come October, the American League pennant will be flying from someone else's flagpole.