Dustin Pedroia determined as ever to contribute for Red Sox

Dustin Pedroia has had three knee surgeries in 18 months, but the Red Sox aren't counting out their 35-year-old spark plug. AP Photo/Elise Amendola

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The first thing you need to know about Dustin Pedroia's left knee is that it will never be 100 percent again.

"It ain't even my knee. It's somebody else's, bro," the Red Sox second baseman said Friday, speaking with the media from spring training camp, where he had arrived early to begin his comeback after missing all but three games in 2018.

Pedroia had surgery on the knee after the 2017 season, a procedure known as cartilage restoration that involved grafting cartilage from a cadaver. Pedroia returned on schedule in late May, but he shut it down after just three games, going 1-for-11, and didn't play again. The team later revealed he had another surgery in July to clean up scar tissue.

After resting this offseason, Pedroia says he feels good and won't have any restrictions in spring training other than being smart and staying on top of things to remain healthy. While the Red Sox have penciled Pedroia in as their starting second baseman and manager Alex Cora already has told Pedroia that he will be the leadoff hitter when the team opens the season in Seattle on March 28, everyone knows there are no guarantees. After all, this is a 35-year-old who has had three knee surgeries in the past 18 months and barely played last season. Fighting off the aging curve is difficult enough for a healthy player in his mid-30s.

Pedroia is also a former American League MVP, in many ways the heart and soul of Boston's World Series champs in 2007 and 2013, and a player who always has defied the odds to become one of the most beloved players in recent Red Sox history.

Chris Sale issued a warning the other day: "I dare you to count him out."

Xander Bogaerts has played more games alongside Pedroia than any other Red Sox shortstop, and if he has learned anything from their six seasons as teammates, it's to never doubt what Pedroia can accomplish.

"Dustin Pedroia, he has the biggest mouth and he backs it up, so anything that he says, I fully believe he can do. If he says he's going to fly, I think he'll fly," Bogaerts said. "He works hard and I think being on that field means the world to him, and he's going to definitely prove that anything is possible."

Before coming to Florida, Pedroia began workouts at home in Arizona. He even texted Cora a video of him taking ground balls. That gave Cora a good laugh because Pedroia was in full uniform -- his World Series uniform. "I saw the patch," Cora chuckled.

Pedroia laughed about that as well, but he had an explanation. He'll have to wear a brace to protect his knee and didn't want to get to camp and find out his pants wouldn't fit over it.

"I can't wear a brace over my pants -- let's not be ridiculous," he said. So he had clubhouse assistant Stephen Murphy send him his pants. "I have just a shirt on and I look like an idiot, so I'm like, 'I have my World Series jersey -- let's go.' So I went to Chandler-Gilbert in full uni. It was awesome."

This is why the Red Sox believe in Pedroia: a player with 1,803 career hits, an MVP award, two World Series rings with a third to be delivered in April, fielding grounders in February in his World Series uniform at a local community college.

What did onlookers think? "They thought the champs were in town," Pedroia said.

Not including that three-game stint last May, the last time we saw Pedroia he was still effective. In 2016, he hit .318/.376/.449 and was worth 5.8 WAR, according to Baseball-Reference.com. In 2017, he played most of the season with a sore knee -- an issue that began in late April after a Manny Machado takeout slide that many called dirty -- and hit .293/.369/.392, although he missed August and faded in September.

Either of those levels of production would provide a boost at second base over what Boston got in 2018. Red Sox second basemen hit a combined .252/.308/.350, ranking 25th in the majors in wOBA. The trio of Eduardo Nunez, Brock Holt and late-season acquisition Ian Kinsler received the bulk of the starts. Given Nunez's lack of range, Holt would appear to be the best option if Pedroia can't play every day.

Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski told reporters on Wednesday that the initial plan is for Pedroia to play 120 to 125 games. Not surprisingly, Pedroia isn't necessarily buying into that figure.

"I've been around long enough, especially around here, that you can't look that far ahead," Pedroia said. "I remember they were saying that in '16 too, and I got 11 straight hits and played for like 40 straight games. Who knows. You don't know. I could wake up tomorrow and not be able to play anymore."

Pedroia ended up playing 154 games that season, but the last part of the quote reflects the uncertainty of his comeback, even if he does feel good right now. He even said he feels much like the same kid who won Rookie of the Year honors in 2007.

"Got a couple gray hairs, but that's about it," he said. "I'm more under control in certain situations, but playingwise, if I'm out there, I feel like I can do what I did then. It's just a matter of doing it every day. ... I've always been good dealing with adversity. I'm confident that whatever is thrown my way I can try to overcome it and do it."

The list of recent position players returning after missing virtually an entire season offers a mixed bag of success. Rays third baseman Matt Duffy missed all of 2017 with a foot issue and returned to his normal level of play in 2018. Cubs outfielder Kyle Schwarber tore up his knee in the second game of 2016, returned in the World Series and has hit 56 home runs the past two seasons. Pedroia's former teammate Jacoby Ellsbury played just 18 games in 2010 and returned to have his best season in 2011. Those players, however, were much younger than Pedroia is.

There are also cases like Grady Sizemore, who was one of the game's best all-around players before injuring a knee. He eventually missed two full seasons before returning in 2014-15 at age 32 and hitting .242/.303/.366 over two final seasons.

Pedroia still has three years left on his contract, and as a franchise icon, there will be every effort to extract value over those three seasons. Not every player goes out in style like David Ortiz, however. We're seeing Felix Hernandez struggle in Seattle as he enters the final year of his deal. Derek Jeter hit .256 with four home runs in his final season. David Wright never could overcome his back issues with the Mets.

How much leeway will the Red Sox extend Pedroia? Even last year, Cora pointed out that Pedroia remained an important part of the team.

"He was a great teammate, he was a great leader, he was part of the team meetings and in the dugout the whole time. He was paying attention to the game. He was outstanding for us," Cora said. "We want him on the field. We know how good he is, what he brings defensively and offensively. But we'll take it day by day. The goal for him is to show up tomorrow and be fine and then map out [the next day] and hopefully keep going until March 28. If that happens, he'll be leading off for us."

Pedroia insists he's going to be more careful this year. In retrospect, he said he came back too soon last year. "I might have pushed it too hard or done too much, but as far as following directions, I followed every step," he said. "I think some of the directions were, timingwise, a little off.

"I don't want to push it and not be able to do what I love to do," he added. "I just have to be smart. Some days, if I wake up and I'm sore, maybe try to hit home runs or something."

For now, the Red Sox are simply hoping for the best, for a beloved teammate to get back on the field. Keep this mind: Even with that subpar production at second base (and the worst production in the majors at catcher), Boston led the American League in runs scored. Yes, the best offense in the league in 2018 has a chance to get even better.