Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Spare Neurons - 03/20/2013

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

I had to bring back my "Spare Neurons" column because it seems to motivate me to write more than "Boston Sports Daily" did, not that I know why, but maybe my brain likes the idea of actually firing off thoughts.  Who knows?  Who cares? Off with the masks; on with the show!

BOSTON CELTICS:
The pain of Monday night's prime-time loss to the Lebron James led Miami Heat still burns in the gullet of Boston sports fans even today.  An out-of-this-world effort by Jeff Green went for naught as the Celtics gave up a lead of 17 points and 13 points as late as the fourth quarter.  The Celtics came out aggressive, hitting the boards and running the ball at Miami so as to limit their stellar half-court defense (and giving the rest of the league a blueprint how to compete or beat the Heat); however, turnovers doomed the Celtics in the end as the Heat got back in the game by converting the numerous turnovers into points and squeaked out the victory.

Any team that puts the ball in forward Paul Pierce's hands as often as the Celtics do, are going to have a lot of turnovers. When Miami forced Boston into half-court sets, they were able to come back under the strength of that defense.  The Celtics ran well without forward/center Kevin Garnett and, considering that there was no Rajon Rondo either, the team acquitted themselves well in the face of a superior opponent.  

That said, going out with KG and losing to New Orleans after blowing a lead, falling down 9 in the fourth and coming all the way back to lose on a tip-in with a second left is painful.  Another loss that should be a win will be felt in the summer when the seeding for the playoffs comes in.  The Celtics, hardly a championship contender this season, continue to frustrate in the win-loss column.  

Without Rajon Rondo due to injury, the Celitcs have a season for rebuilding the other 14 on the roster. Getting guard Avery Bradley back in the game this season has shown what a valuable performer he is keying the running game with his defense and making the team better just being on the court. Jeff Green came out strong building off his huge 43 point performance against Miami, and promptly crashes in the second half against New Orleans, not scoring at all. Having missed all last season after heart surgery, he still has a pass for inconsistency. But not for much longer.

This Celtics team is difficult to figure, as their key transition is still in progress.  The team has building blocks in Green, Rondo, Bradley and hopefully Jared Sullinger when he gets healthy next year.  That is a good core to build around as the end of the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce era is inching closer to its inevitable conclusion.  I think General Manager Danny Ainge has some good pieces in place, and continuing to find hidden gems in the draft and then finding a free agent to come to Boston as a centerpiece of the team when Pierce and Garnett are gone will be the next piece to find.

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BOSTON RED SOX:
I am slowly starting to really like the 2013 Boston Red Sox.  This bullpen is a beast and should be dominant.  Starting pitchers Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz have been lights out this spring giving hope that the rest of the pitching staff can compete and push this team toward 90 wins.  John Farrell has stepped in at manager and completely removed the horror of Bobby Valenitine and 2012, giving spring training a calm, Terry Francona-like vibe that seems to have restored some confidence. 

Even with designated hitter David Ortiz injured, this offense has plenty of pop and the big question is rookie outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr.  Bradley has looked like a star this spring, and with Johnny Gomes sliding to DH in Ortiz's absence, Bradley seems the logical fit for left field. The issue is that the front office wanted him in AAA all season and even if he comes up at some point, they want to follow Tampa's model of mid-season rookie call-ups as to not burn a year of pre-arbitration. That said, he has been fantastic and better than advertised this spring.  This is a tough call for the Red Sox, but the kind of good problem a team likes to have. 

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Sunday, March 10, 2013

Boston Red Sox: Spring Training Season Preview

by Hal Bent, BostonSportPage.com

The Boston Red Sox had what can only be referred to as a “quiet” off-season. Yes, new players, coaches, and a manager were brought in, but compared to past off-seasons, it was downright genteel. This off-season there were no Manny Ramirez free-agent signings; no trades with the General Manager spending Thanksgiving convincing a Cy Young pitcher to agree to the trade; no “best pure hitter in the national league” coming over for a boatload of prospects; no insane bidding for the right to negotiate with a foreign pitching star; and no young superstar hot-shot coming up the system to blow everyone’s expectations. No, this off-season was different--and after last year and the Bobby Valentine debacle, different is welcome.


The Red Sox are an intriguing team, because they went from 90 wins in 2011 to 93 losses in 2012 with minimal turnover on the roster.  The big changes were off the field,  in the front-office--with General Manager Theo Epstein escaping to Chicago-and in the dugout with long-time Manager Terry Francona being unceremoniously shown the door in typical Red Sox fashion, with plenty of back-biting and leaking dirt to the ownership cronies in the press.  The on field changes were minimal, with the Red Sox allowing closer Jonathan Papelbon to leave in free agency (he could have been locked up long-term years before) and right fielder J.D. Drew retiring and Cody Ross brought in to upgrade his lineup spot. 

Returning to the roots of teams from years past,the 2012 Boston Red Sox underachieved in every facet of the game.  From new Manager Bobby Valentine alienating the veteran players early in spring training to the pitching staff underachieving across the board, the Red Sox were so bad that the front office used their “Get Out of Jail Free” card and unloaded three of their highest priced superstars--pitcher Josh Beckett, left fielder Carl Crawford, and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez--to the Los Angeles Dodgers and even got a couple of legitimate pitching prospects back in return.   

With the roster reset, General Manager Ben Cherington went out and spent in free agency bringing in players to bridge the Red Sox to 2015 when their rebuilt minor league system should be able to provide the major league squad with prospects who can take the team back to its previous level of competing in the playoffs each year.  While some moves were questionable, the team’s success in 2013 depends (as usual) on the backs of the starting pitchers.


Starting pitchers Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz never got on track in 2012 and Josh Beckett was terrible before being deported to the Dodgers. It is amazing to think that young lefty Felix Doubront was the best starting pitcher on the team last season.  Starting pitchers Daisuke Matsuzaka and Aaron Cook were barely Frontier League quality, and star relief pitcher Daniel Bard was so messed up being switched to the starting rotation from the bullpen in spring training that by the end of the season he was incapable of throwing a clean inning in AAA.


Former pitching coach John Farrell was brought in at a cost from division rival Toronto specifically to get Lester and Buchholz back to the annual 15 win (each, not combined total) projection the Sox front office had for them as the potential co-aces of the pitching staff.  Behind them, having no Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Aaron Cook will be addition by subtraction as the Sox can roll out a healthy John Lackey (gotta earn some of that money), free agent signee Ryan Dempster, and Felix Doubront and have a (potentially) decent starting rotation.  The key will if Lester and Buchholz bounce back.  With them pitching well, the Red Sox could be on their way back to a 90 win season.


The strength of this staff is the bullpen, however.  With a healthy Andrew Bailey (at least for a little while) and closer Joel Hanrahan on board, the Red Sox will be able to bring back a mentally healthy Daniel Bard and an always mentally unhealthy Alfredo Aceves (not as closer, fortunately).  Adding free agent relief pitcher Koji Uehara gives the Red Sox five quality relief pitchers before they get to the flotsam and jetsam in the bullpen of swingmen leftoes Andrew Miller and Franklin Morales. Throw in some depth with lefty Craig Breslow, surprise contributor in 2012 Junichi Tazawa, and Clayton Mortenson and this bullpen can carry the team through some tough times.


The lineup is relatively intact, as designated hitter David Ortiz, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, second-baseman Dustin Pedroia, and rookie sensation Will Middlebrooks return in the infield.  Stephen Drew replaces Mike Aviles at shortstop, which is a wash.  Mike Napoli takes over at first base for Adrian Gonzalez, which seems like a step down, until you see what Gonzalez did in Boston (hint: it was definitely NOT “hit for power”).


The outfield returns Jacoby Ellsbury in centerfield, and Shane Victorino steps in for Cody Ross (again, a wash). Jonny Gomes appears to be the left fielder, but if you have a Dr. Strangeglove, left field in Fenway is a great spot to play him since he can stand on the warning track in front of the Green Monster and not have much to do with the glove.  


The bench is nothing to get excited about, and any major injury to a regular will throw this team out of whack because Daniel Nava, Ryan Sweeney, Pedro Ciriaco, and Mauro Gomez/Jose Iglesias/Mike Carp/Brock Holt are barely replacement level. These guys can hold things together if there is a two week need, but beyond that is asking too much.  However, the starting pitching staff is improved, the bullpen is a powerhouse, and the lineup can still grind our runs on a nightly basis. This is hardly the best team in the league, but they are good enough to win close to 90 games and at least get to the playoffs, which--after last season’s year-long debacle--is a welcome change.


The best thing that can be said about this Red Sox team is that it gives the fan base hope for competing in the American League East, which is a huge improvement over last season.

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