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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