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Red Sox the ultimate win-now team

Loaded roster will be even more expensive to keep together in future
MLB.com @MikeLupica

JUPITER, Fla. -- Chris Sale hadn't been great in his first spring start for the Red Sox, but he'd been plenty good enough against the Marlins: Four innings for Sale, two hits, five strikeouts, one run.

He pitched this way a lot for the Red Sox last season before fading down the stretch, so often looking like as much of an ace as anybody in the game. He will need to do it again this season if the Red Sox are going to win now. And the 2018 Red Sox are as much of a win-now team as anybody.

JUPITER, Fla. -- Chris Sale hadn't been great in his first spring start for the Red Sox, but he'd been plenty good enough against the Marlins: Four innings for Sale, two hits, five strikeouts, one run.

He pitched this way a lot for the Red Sox last season before fading down the stretch, so often looking like as much of an ace as anybody in the game. He will need to do it again this season if the Red Sox are going to win now. And the 2018 Red Sox are as much of a win-now team as anybody.

After he was done pitching at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium, Sale said all the right things about pacing himself this spring, even though he had come out of the gate throwing at 95-96 mph.

"I'm still working on that buildup," Sale told reporters. "You get out there the first time in front of a crowd and you want to go out there and compete, but you have to understand the end goal. [The coaching staff and I] kind of came to that together. It's not easy to dial it back and trust the process, [because] you're always trying to get better. ... You always want to be better."

Video: Outlook: Sale's strikeouts make him a top starter

Sale really does only have to pitch this season the way he did last season, at least before he got to September. It is David Price, who was hurt last season, who has to be a lot better. So does Rick Porcello, who followed an American League Cy Young Award-winning season with one that sometimes made you think he might lose 20 games, before ending up 11-17. If the three of them are at their best -- or close to their best -- the Red Sox can still be better than the Yankees. If not, the Red Sox -- after all of the money that has been spent the past couple of years under Dave Dombrowski, and after winning the East two years running -- will find themselves in the running for a one-game Wild Card.

"I like throwing strikes," Sale said after his four innings in Jupiter. "I don't like giving in."

"He's one of those elite-type guys who don't come along very often," Mitch Moreland said of Sale.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

Sale always pitches with great urgency -- even in the spring, even pitching in front of a crowd for the first time and facing Major League hitters for the first time. But the Red Sox are Sale's team -- one that hasn't won a playoff series since the 2013 World Series, and one that must play with urgency right now.

Certainly the Red Sox are not the only ones playing with this sort of urgency in the heavyweight division of Major League Baseball. The Astros do the same as they try to make it two World Series titles in a row. The Dodgers do the same, having come as close as they did last season against the Astros, all the way to Game 7 of the Fall Classic at Dodger Stadium. The expectations, of course, are sky high for the Yankees, who have put Giancarlo Stanton in the same batting order with Aaron Judge. New York had a Game 7 of its own against the Astros in the AL Championship Series.

And you have to put the Cleveland Indians on this list, as well. They were supposed to be on the way to their own showdown with the Astros in the ALCS until Corey Kluber got hurt and the Yankees came back from an 0-2 deficit against the Indians in the AL Division Series.

Still, no team is in more of a win-now mode currently than the Red Sox, even having won three World Series between 2004-13. They have traded away a lot of their farm system to make the current run they are making, one that began when they got back to the top of the AL East two years ago.

Video: TB@BOS: Martinez collects first three hits with Sox

They now have a payroll of $230 million. Star closer Craig Kimbrel can become a free agent after this season. Sale is going to want to be paid after next season, and Price will have the opportunity to opt out of his current $217 million deal. They just spent big money to sign J.D. Martinez, who can also leave in two years.

Are the Red Sox as good as the Yankees, especially now that they have put a home-run stick like Martinez's in the middle of the order? They are as good as the Yankees if their starting pitching is better than the Yankees' starting pitching. The Red Sox don't have as much power as the Yanks do, because nobody in baseball does. But they have a deep and versatile batting order, lefties and righties. They still have Mookie Betts, one of the most gifted and complete players in the sport, and someone else who is going to get a raise in the not-too-distant future.

Here is what the Boston Globe's fine baseball columnist, Nick Cafardo, wrote last week:

"So this is the Red Sox' time. They have all of the pieces in place. It's their time, because tomorrow is far more expensive than today. Even with such a large payroll -- which likely will be tops in Major League Baseball -- they have core players in their prime with nowhere near the salaries they will make over the next three years."

The Red Sox are very good. They are as good a bet as the Yankees to win the AL East in what is shaping up to be a rousing Red Sox-Yankees baseball summer out of the past. Now we find out if they are something more than just a contender, a team good enough and tough enough to go toe-to-toe with the big boys in their league.

Video: The young core looks to Cora to help with 2018 run

"I'm excited to be with [Sale] and accomplish our goals," new Red Sox manager Alex Cora said on Friday afternoon.

The goal isn't just to win the AL East. The goal in Boston is to make it back to the World Series. There are two former AL Cy Young Award winners in the rotation: Price, Porcello. Sale, who has never won but come close, is better than both of them. They have Martinez, who hit 45 home runs last season. They have Betts. And Rafael Devers, a talented kid at third. And Andrew Benintendi, another talented kid in left.

You know the old line about the future being now. Could be now or never for the current incarnation of the Boston Red Sox.

Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com and the New York Daily News, and is a best-selling author.

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