You may be wondering how with a payroll nearing $178 million (the luxury tax threshold) I can consider the Red Sox underdogs. Well, almost no one is picking them to finish ahead of the Yankees and Rays and absolutely no one is picking them to win it all, and with the way the off-season went – losing manager, losing GM, injuries to pitchers and starting positional players, trading of starting SS and starting RF, free agents turning down contracts, etc. – it’s difficult to imagine this team coming out and playing like a juggernaut. They have the talent, at least offensively, but they are undermanned where it counts (starting rotation) and there are a host of players with something to prove, either in response to their part in the epic collapse of last fall or in maintaining their phenomenal seasons from last year. There is also a new Sheriff in town, one who doesn’t always rub people the right way. Overall, there is potential for World Series greatness and potential for abysmal disaster.
After last season, I had a list of managerial candidates I believed the Sox should consider. My first choice was to bring back Francona, and I had my reasons. He’ll go on to coaching success somewhere else, I’m sure. The Sox thought it was time to move on, and I’ll accept that. Bobby Valentine was 11th on my list of 11 possible candidates, behind the likes of long-shots like Joe Maddon and available guys like Dave Sveum. I gave Valentine a 15% chance of being selected. Now, it’s 100%. He’s the new manager. I’m fine with that. I think he’ll bring a different attitude (and accountability) to the clubhouse, and that’s ok because there are very few veterans remaining from the 2004 and 2007 Championship teams. These Red Sox can use a new attitude and a new leader. I am completely onboard with the Valentine-inspired return to fundamentals. When a team as talented as last season’s Sox underperforms in such a grotesque manner (the players declared the 7-20 September record was due to bad baseball), a return to fundamentals is a great place to begin the rebuilding process – bunting, fielding grounders, pitchers covering first, etc. These are facets of the game that veterans sometimes overlook and that can lead piece by piece to epic collapses. Something ran amiss last season, and my hope is that Valentine can right the ship and get this team playing good, solid baseball once again. If the team as a whole plays good ball they’ll improve their chances of being a factor come September.
First, I’d like to congratulate Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek on their successful careers. Both are first-class individuals and first-rate ballplayers. Each will forever be a member of the 25. I hope their lives after baseball are as fulfilling as their playing careers. For my money, I expect to see Varitek back real soon as an assistant coach of some sort.
Let’s look at the roster position-by-position:
- Adrian Gonzalez – Adrian is the team’s best pickup since Curt Schilling in 2004. He was well worth the value of the pieces traded away. Adrian is as steady as one can get as a hitter and fielder, and he should put up impressive numbers for the remainder of his contract. Each year, he should be a Top-10 MVP candidate. I look for him to put up even better numbers this season than last (healthy shoulder, more comfortable), and I look for him to step up as a leader in the clubhouse.
- Dustin Pedrioa – Lil’ ol’ Pedey is as steady as they come. He’s a Top-20 positional player in baseball and a leader for this team. I expect him to have another solid season.
- Kevin Youkilis – Youk is beloved by Red Sox faithful, but there is no hiding that injuries have partially derailed his effectiveness in the field and at the plate. He probably won’t top 125 games at third base, and with Ortiz at DH there isn’t a feasible option to bat him on days off. But, when Youk is healthy and playing he is one of the top third basemen in the AL. I don’t think he’ll have .850 OPS consistency or 20 home run power, but he plays hard every game and forces the opposing pitcher to work. I like that. His numbers will drop, but he’ll still be effective this season. Will Middlebrooks, the heir apparent to third base, is not ready to step in and play every day. Give Middlebrooks another year in AAA with maybe a late-season call-up. Next year, it may be an entirely different story.
- Mike Aviles / Nick Punto – Valentine decided on Aviles, and I, as a fan, am open to giving him a chance. He’s marginally talented and he seems to have a real lively enjoyment for the game. After trading Scutaro away to clear cap space (which is all they did in that trade) and trading oft-injured Jed Lowrie to Houston for a reliever (possible closer), the team had few clear options. Aviles may not be in the top-8 for AL SS, but he should adequately contribute to a lineup that features a number of All Stars. His defense, on the other hand, is suspect, so he will cough up some innings to Nick Punto and eventual call-up Jose Iglesias. Overall, the position is suspect, but I see no reason to believe it will sink the team entirely. *It seems Lowrie may miss Opening Day in Houston due to another injury. Perhaps trading him was the correct call.
*- Carl Crawford – I was against the Crawford signing from the get-go. I believed then and now that he was a vanity grab by Theo Epstein and was an unnecessary component to an outfield that already had Ellsbury and a lineup that had hitters in the first three slots. He had a year more horrible than anyone could have imagined, almost like he forgot how to hit and catch the ball, and this year begins with him on the DL rehabbing a wrist surgery. What can we expect from him as the season progresses? Well, it will take him to time catch up once he returns from the DL, but I’m optimistic for the second half of the season. Crawford, regardless of last year’s doldrums and his inevitable breakdown after years playing on Tampa’s fake field, is still a multi-talented All Star surrounded by other All Stars. He’ll probably never become the game-changer Theo was hoping for (and he’ll never play up to his contract), but he should be able to carry his own as a LF-er and bottom-of-the-order hitter. Ignoring his enormous salary, that is all we can ask from him because no team would trade for him. *Opening Day fill-in: Ryan Sweeney or Darnell McDonald.
- Jacoby Ellsbury – I expect Ellsbury to regress slightly, but still put up very good numbers on both sides of the ball. However, does anyone here expect that at some point this season his contract status won’t affect the team and his on-field play? I know there is another year of arbitration available, but the Sox either have to lock him up for the long-term or risk him ultimately walking after the 2013 season. If they don’t lock him up in the next 18 months, he’s certainly walking. This will hang over the team from now until either one of those events happens. I’m pessimistic about contract issues affecting team chemistry. Contract issues in baseball aren’t as bad as in basketball, but it’s getting closer each year and I’m certain Scott Boras won’t make it any better.
- Cody Ross / Ryan Sweeney / Darnell McDonald – Another platoon? Yeah. For a team spending so much money (3rd in baseball) they certainly have holes. If platoons were such a great idea, don’t you think winning teams would utilize the strategy more often? A righty/lefty platoon is fine here or there, but to have random platoons in the infield and outfield is cause for concern, and possible disaster. My hope is that Ryan Kalish becomes fully healthy and plays his way into the full-time role, which is highly unlikely for this season. Ross has had a nice spring session and will probably earn the full-time role at some point this season, with Sweeney and McDonald backing up all three outfield positions. I like Ross. He was a fantastic pickup. He’s the kind of guy the team could have used the past few seasons. I hope he stays healthy enough to help the team throughout the entire season.
- Jarrod Saltalamacchia / Kelly Shoppach – They certainly didn’t bring Salty back to be a backup, so I’ll consider him the opening day starter. However, Salty has never played in more than 103 games in a season, so Shoppach (known for defense) and Lavarnway (known for offense) will both be given opportunities during the season to prove their worth. Here’s hoping no one’s feelings are hurt by too many games off. Basically, the catcher position is another platoon, with a glorified starter in Salty. *Lavarnway will apparently begin the season in AAA, which will give him at-bats and additional time to shore up his defensive shortcomings. He’ll be brought up at some point.
- David Ortiz – Big Papi is back and should be relatively happy with his new 1-year contract. From the organization’s perspective, a 1-year deal will likely keep Ortiz focused and on his game. The team needs another big season from Big Papi and I, for one, believe he’ll deliver. Anything around a .290 BA, .890 OPS, and 30 home runs will be extremely helpful.
#1 - Jon Lester – Still the #1 guy in the rotation, though I believe he has something to prove to both teammates and fans. We’ve been talking every year about how Lester should be a Cy Young candidate, but he never is. He always seems to have a month where he performs well below-average. This year, with a thin rotation, a month of poor pitching from Lester could cost this team a playoff spot. Get ready to carry the load, Lester, as the team is going to need you to approach, if not surpass, 20 wins.
#2 - Josh Beckett – A great #2 option, but he also has something to prove after last season’s debacle, beer and chicken notwithstanding. The team will need 15+ wins from him. If he stays focused and healthy he can surpass 15 wins.
#3 - Clay Buchholz – All fans better hope Buccholz returns healthy from last year’s back surgery. The back is not an area in which a pitcher wants problems. If any small change to Buchholz’s delivery or follow-through is created by back issues, then he will not be the same successful pitcher he once was. If he comes back fully healthy, he should be worth 15-17 wins.
#4 - Felix Doubront – Recently appointed the #4 starter, we all hope he’s up to the challenge. He has very little big league experience, so it’s near impossible to hypothesize how he’ll do. He’s put up fine numbers in the minors, during spring training, and in cleanup work as a late-season call-up, but my main concern is this – he has never thrown more than 129 innings in a single season. Starting pitchers are expected to throw more than 129 innings. He’ll have to be on an innings limit, and if he isn’t he’ll hit his physical wall sometime during the summer. Not a good thought.
#5 - Daniel Bard – Count me as one who doesn’t believe this will work. I don’t believe Bard has the mentality or ‘stuff’ to be a successful starter and his minor league starter numbers don’t bode well for success (though, admittedly, those numbers are years-removed from today). The problem I see (same as Doubront) is that even if Bard is successful as a starter this year he’s going to be limited by an overall innings count, eliminating him as a starter come late-summer. He’s never thrown more than 77 innings in a season. Any quality starting pitcher needs to at least reach 150. That is the key reason I’m upset with the team for not strongly pursuing starting pitchers this off-season. The best Bard can be is a first-half success.
- Alfredo Aceves – A possible god-send, again, for this team. Who knows if he can duplicate last year’s success, but what I do know is that the team had to resign him and is going to need him to come close to last year’s success. He is a, no the, key component to this bullpen. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if he finds himself in a starting role by year’s end, with Bard or Doubront moving back to the bullpen.
- Vincente Padilla – There is no guarantee he’ll make the major league roster and stay with the team, but if he does he’ll be used in the bullpen, much in the same way Aceves is used. Who knows how short the leashes will be on Doubront and Bard, and Aceves and Padilla may find themselves in the starting rotation before long. I believe Padilla can help this team, especially if his innings are limited and he stays healthy.
- Matt Albers / Franklin Morales / Michael Bowden / Andrew Miller – Bullpen-by-committee. Valentine is somewhat famous for his unique utilization of his bullpen arms. It will be interesting to see how he uses these four guys (2 lefties, 2 righties). They will all need to step up and perform consistently for the team to have any shot at the post-season.
*- Bobby Jenks – Beginning season on DL, and most likely staying there for the remainder of his career.
*- Daisuke Matsuzaka – Once again, Dice-K will play the role of wild card in the Sox’s organization. When (if) he returns mid-season, he’ll be prepped in the bullpen. I doubt he has anything left in his tank that can help the team, but he is a wild card.
- Mark Melancon – A set-up man with a closer’s mentality and experience? Didn’t the Sox try this with Bobby Jenks? I believe Melancon is in a much better position to succeed than Jenks was, if only for the fact that he hasn’t suffered from massive obesity. If he can lock down the 8th inning and hand the ball to a healthy Bailey it will immensely help this team.
- Andrew Bailey – I am fine with Bailey taking over for the departed Papelbon. Bailey comes at a healthy discount and is a talented, relatively young closer. His numbers should approach an average of what Paps put up during his tenure. Of course, preface everything I wrote with the dreaded ‘if healthy’. *He may already have injured his thumb.
*The roster may change a bit during the first few weeks due to injuries (Crawford/Bailey). It’s very likely Lavarnway, Aaron Cook, Junichi Tazawa and others (Ryan Kalish, Jose Iglesias) will get called up at some point this season, perhaps early on. Dice-K should return mid-season, which is why I have him listed above.
In my humble opinion, this is the Sox’s worst opening day squad since 2009 (or possibly 2003 or 2001). Yes, there is undeniable talent at certain positions (1B, 2B, CF, top of the rotation), but there are many questionable fill-ins at important positions and a terrifying lack of depth in the starting rotation. The starting rotation is what scares me the most. Without proven, capable pitchers at the four and five spots, the pressure is ratcheted up for the top three to win all their games. Buchholz is coming off a serious injury while Lester and Beckett have to atone for last season’s (perceived) mistakes (and Lester has to avoid his yearly month-long slumber). Moving Doubront and Bard to the rotation (and possibly promoting Aceves during the season) weakens the overall staff. I cannot believe the Sox didn’t work harder to bring in another capable starter. They scoured the scrap heap and not one guy stuck (though Padilla seems to have a spot in the bullpen). Going into the season with two question marks in the starting rotation is terrifying. An injury to one of the top-3 starters would be disastrous and may force the team into a panic trade, potentially resulting in Youk (age/contract) or Ellsbury (talent/contract) being traded for a front-line starter. Now, there will be unbridled optimists who will say that everything will work out and guys will step up and the Sox will bring in guys (Oswalt?) before the season is through, yada, yada, yada… That’s all well and good, but let’s look at this without the blinders on. Every year it is said again and again, “You can never have too much starting pitching.” Well, the Sox are two players short of a full rotation. They have three starting pitchers and a grab bag of miscellaneous parts. With the way the AL is built this year there is no room for error (or a prolonged learning curve for Doubront and Bard), and the Sox are starting off behind the eight ball.
With their entire pitching staff in relative disarray, the Red Sox are not sitting pretty. A lot will have to break their way for this season not to be an unmitigated disaster. Understanding that it’s a long season and predicting anything at this time is beyond illogical, I don’t believe the Sox will make the playoffs this season. They’re going to finish behind both the Yankees (improved staff, and they always seem to finish with 95+ wins) and Rays (improved overall team, upside is dangerously high), and they’ll find themselves fighting for third place with an increasingly improved Toronto club (90+ wins is possible). They’ll also find themselves fighting for that new final wild card spot against teams like the Indians, White Sox, and Rangers (I see the Yankees, Tigers, and Angels winning their respective Divisions). With the way the new playoff system is orchestrated (two wild card teams face off in a one game playoff to advance to the ALDS), I see the Sox facing off against the Rays in a one-game playoff. I see the Sox losing. But, it’s a long season and anything can happen.
The psyche of this team is on the precipice of fragility after last season’s meltdown and an off-season of change. We’ll learn a lot about the character of not only the players but the coaches and front office staff if this team hits an early-season skid. Is Bobby V. the guy you want leading a fragile team? He throws stones in his own glass house. He may rub a few long-tenured players the wrong way. Then again, guys may respond terrifically to Valentine’s prodding and Bobby V. may lead the team away from disaster and toward the promised land.
I cannot deny that I fear the past two seasons have been the awakening dawn of another era of 1990s Red Sox baseball, when the team topped 88 wins only twice and made the playoffs only four times (w/o truly ever sniffing a World Series). They’re a 90-win team, don’t get me wrong, but 90 wins no longer guarantees a playoff spot. They have vastly overpaid the wrong free agents and traded away a majority of their talented youngsters. They have adopted the old Yankees formula which rarely worked. There is talent in the Red Sox clubhouse, but there is also inconsistency and a lack of organizational depth, especially in the pitching staff. I can see this season going either way, but it’s a more logical prognostication that the team will falter a bit and miss the playoffs in a very tough American League.
Their best chance to make the playoffs and make a run is to fight and claw and scrap for everything all season long. It'll take a lot of grit and character to do so, and luckily there are high-grit (Youk) and high-character (Pedey) guys on this team to lead the charge. If there is any sense of entitlement left with any of these guys after last season then the team is doomed. This season needs to be a 'rise of the underdogs' season for the Sox.