by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com
There are one-hundred days until opening day of the new and (not-quite) improved MLB season with inter-league games each and every day as the borders between the American and National League break down further. With the Houston Astros moving to the American League to balance the two leagues at 15 each, this season seems set to be a bit different than any before. Also putting this season on an uneven kilter, the favorites in the American League East are the Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles. Grab the flannel shirts already, it's the early 1990s all over again.
The Boston Red Sox waved the white flag on the Theo Epstein era last August, unloading a boatload of contracts in the washed-up Josh Beckett, the over-paid Carl Crawford, and the over-rated Adrian Gonzalez. In order to rid themselves of the horrors of Bobby Valentine as manager, the Sox traded their starting shortstop (Mike Aviles) to pick up the manager they wanted (former pitching coach John Farrell) who was already on his way out in Toronto. Keeping their mouths shut for awhile may have got them Farrell for nothing, but the wanna-be Liverpool lads couldn't keep their intentions secret.
Recent news has the Red Sox trying to fix their gaping hole in the back of the bullpen with a trade for Joel Hanrahan (Jonathan Papelbon looks like a deal right now, eh?) created by trading for an injury-prone closer in Andrew Bailey for which they received a whole 15 ineffective innings and a season of Alfedo "as crazy as Izzy Alcantera" Alceves closing games. With Bailey still an unknown and "shoulda been closer" Daniel Bard struggling all season in Pawtucket trying to fix the nightmare issues with control that came back after an ill-advised move to the rotation. So, in hindsight, for a few million dollars, the Sox could have kept Papelbon at closer and kept Bard at set-up and not screwed up their biggest strength in 2009 to 2011: the back-end of the bullpen. Heck, coughing up for a free agent closer instead of trading for Bailey, the Sox could have kept the status quo and won a bunch more.
Also, the Sox first base issue (remember, they traded Kevin Youkilis for no good reason for nothing in return) is still open with reports of issues with the physical for Mike Napoli. Without Napoli at first, there is no real option available in-house. Assuming Napoli eventually signs onto a modified deal, they have a decent, power-hitting first baseman who can fill in at catcher in a pinch. If the Sox keep Jarrod Saltalamacchia at catcher (and other than the fact that he is a "Theo Epstein guy" why would they actively shop him?), that leaves him and David Ross to carry the load and leave Napoli at first base. Ross, if nothing special, is at least a decent backup at catcher. Second base and third are locked in with Dustin Pedroia and future star Will Middlebrooks. At shortstop, the Sox filled the gaping hole from the trade of Aviles with injury-prone Stephen "brother of J.D." Drew. Not great by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly good.
Pedroia and Napoli are grinders, seeing a lot of pitches, getting on base, providing a little pop. Middlebrooks is the top prospect in the organization and expected to provide middle-of-the-order power. He showed a lot before being injured last year. Drew is an enigma (gee, that phrase sounds familiar to Red Sox fans!). After being injured a good chunk of the last two seasons, but could be a good complement at shortstop to Pedroia. Last we saw him on the field for an extended period, Drew had a good bat, a little pop, lots of doubles, decent glove, and a good fit for a top or bottom of a line-up. He is not going to grind out at bats like his older brother (and drive the WEEIdiots insane: "Why don't he swing da bat more? Walks are for losers!"), but should be a great fit for Fenway Park and pound doubles off the green monster like Pedroia has done.
Outfield is a mess. Gone is the long tradition of great left fielders in Boston (Ted Williams begat Yaz who begat Jim Ed Rice who begat...uhh, forget about Mike Greenwell...who begat Manny Ramirez) and the Sox turn from Carl Crawford to.. Jonny Gomes? I ranted about Gomes previously, as he is not someone who is going to bring a team to the level of contender; however, he may hit better at Fenway (although not facing Sox pitchers brings the stats down a bit). He can fill in at DH, but with David Ortiz already there and more inter-league games leading to less games with a DH (any road game versus an NL team), there is little need for him there.
At least center field has a Scott Boras client in a contract year (Jacoby Ellsbury) which is like holding a 30-30 guarantee. With Shane Victorino set to play a poor man's J.D. Drew in right field (moving to center whenever Ellsbury is dealt/leaves), the Sox also have Ryan Kalish to work into the mix. Kalish has potential to be a Josh Reddick type outfielder (as Bob Lobel would say: How come we don't get players like that) and at least give Sox fans desperately missing Trot Nixon (for whatever reason) a similar player to cheer for in 2013. Expect Ellsbury to be traded in July and Victorino to move to center field if the Sox are out of contention again near the trade deadline.
The starting rotation is set with Ryan Dempster brought in to join fellow mid-thirty-something, overpaid, back of the rotation local hero (SARCASM ALERT) John Lackey. The Sox are hinging the next two years on new manager John Farrell getting young starters Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester back into the 15 win, 200 innings, 150 strike-outs, sub 4.00 ERA range. Anything short of these two being #1A and #1B starters have the Sox looking at a battle for fourth place the next couple of years. Mixed with the hopes for the future and the middling veterans is Felix Doubront, a big lefty with decent stuff who, in a best case scenario, can be a 12 win 3rd starter who matches up against lefty-heavy line-ups (Yankees...cough-cough). Add in Franklin Morales and Alfredo Aceves as long relief/swing starter/depth and the starters, if healthy, have the POTENTIAL to improve.
The bullpen needs Joel Hanrahan (or anyone else with closing experience) if only to not depend on Andrew Bailey again. The real need is for Daniel Bard to get his head on straight and his mechanics back in whack so he can go back to his 6th/7th/8th inning stopper role. Why the Sox took him out of his comfort zone with his history in the minor leagues for having not been able to keep control outside of the bullpen is a mystery to this day. Their best weapon (a reliever coming in to get strike-outs with runners on base is the most valuable relief pitcher, not a closer getting three outs against the bottom of the order with a three run lead) was gone last year and it showed.
The rest of the bullpen is a crap shoot every year. Do you find an Allen Embry, or is it another Jeff Grey? Craig Breslow, Mark Melancon, Andrew Miller, Franklin Morales, and Junichi Tazawa could come in and be light out, or could all have plus 5.00 ERAs. There is no real projection of relievers year to year short of the pitcher being the type to have a consistent record of success with an "out pitch" that bails them out of tough situations. Any of these pitchers could succeed, and all are just as likely to be in AAA by the end of May. The good news is the signing of Koji Uehara who actually is a consistent reliever who should help the bullpen plenty. Uehara, beside being set-up man insurance for Bard, was successful in Japan, was successful in the majors, and is safe, inexpensive pick-up. Mark this down, Uehara is the best free agent pickup by the team this year.
The team is set for 2013 for all intents and purposes. Sure, things will change a bit before Spring Training and there are always unexpected injuries, but the team is basically set for the time being barring a major change. Love them or hate them, these are the 2013 Boston Red Sox.
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