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What Might Have Been 3: The Ben Knight Rises

In early February, I made two posts, found here and here. That detailed two alternate offseasons, one at the end of the 2009 season, and one after 2010. With the 2012 season winding down, and the Sox emotionally, if not mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, I think now is as good a time as any to revisit that team, and to guess how they would have fared in the 2012 season.

The 2011 Red Sox suffered a rather disappointing season, the rotation lost a key member when number three starter Clay Buchholz went down with a back injury, and the offense, headlined by newcomer Adrian Gonzalez, Sox Sophomore left fielder Matt Holliday, and old hand David Ortiz, was not enough to overcome a CJ Wilson lead Ranger's team in the ALDS. General Manager Theo Epstein left for Chicago, so that he could re-establish himself as the greatest baseball mind of this generation, leaving Ben Cherington to fill his role. Incumbent manager Terry Francona also departed the team, citing health issues. Despite this shock, Cherington and Red Sox fans wished Francona farewell, with an invitation to Fenway Park's Centennial Celebration.

To replace Francona, the Red Sox interviewed a myriad of candidates, finally settling on Mike Maddux. Maddux originally turned the Red Sox down, saying that he would rather remain with the Rangers, who had just hired his brother Greg to their front office. The Red Sox flexed their financial muscles though, and Maddux relented, signing on with the Boston club.

The pitching-first manager, after introducing himself to bench coach Tim Bogar and hitting instructor Dave Magadan, approached former Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek about returning to the Sox as a pitching coach instead of a player. The Sox captain refused, as he wanted to spend more time with his family. Eventually, Maddux brought over his counterpart Andy Hawkins, the Texas Rangers bullpen coach, promoting him and giving the task of working with a star studded Red Sox rotation.

With the matter of Manager and pitching coach sorted, Ben turned to the matter of compensation for his predecessor Theo Epstein, finally settling on minor league pitcher Robert Whitenack, leading many Red Sox fans to scratch their heads in confusion, but with the situation resolved, Cherington turned to more important matters.

Jed Lowrie had been the starting third baseman for the Sox to start the 2011 season, but injuries derailed and ended his year yet again. The third base situation would need to be resolved for the future, and neither Mike Aviles, nor Jed Lowrie could be counted on to fill that role. With no attractive third base free agents aside from Aramis Ramirez, Cherington called San Diego Padres general manager Josh Byrnes. Top 10 prospects Jose Iglesias and Anthony Ranaudo were soon on their way to California, and budding star third baseman Chase Headley was the return. Cherington made some other minor moves, signing the only bright spot of the Giants' failed 2010 World Series run, Cody Ross, as the Red Sox fourth outfielder, as well as defensive wizard Kelly Shoppach and bullpenners Rich Hill and Juan Cruz. Cherington established Daniel Bard as the replacement for former closer Jonathan Papelbon, and the team was soon at Spring Training.

With only relievers Daisuke Matsuzaka and Rich Hill on the disabled list to start the year, the Sox still stumbled out of the gate, a sweep from the Tigers to start the year hurt, but the emergence of Jordan Zimmermann as a near-ace, as well as Max Scherzer's sudden strikeout potential kept the Sox from falling too far off to start the year. Maddux and Hawkins quickly identified mechanical flaws in the approaches of Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, and the rotation soon returned to it's near-elite status, with only the disappointing Josh Beckett holding the pitching staff back from being truly elite.

The Red Sox offense was also a mixture of feast and famine. Matt Holliday and Adrian Gonzalez disappointed in April, and disaster struck when center fielder and MVP candidate Jacoby Ellsbury was rudely sat on by Rays no-namer Reid Birgnac. Soon after, Dustin Pedroia suffered a thumb injury, and both stars were on the disabled list. To their credit, replacements Jed Lowrie and Cody Ross played well filling in, and combined with breakout years from Josh Reddick and Chase Headley, the Sox finished June several games over .500. As July rolled around the Red Sox flipped Beckett to a surprising Orioles team in need of a veteran presence in their rotation. To fill that void the Sox moved swingman Franklin Morales to the rotation full-time.

With Buchholz and Lester pitching like their former selves, Zimmermann gaining attention as a young ace, and Max Scherzer in a strikeout race with Detroit's Justin Verlander, the Sox pulled away from the competition in the AL, trailing only the surprising Washington Nationals, who had replaced Zimmermann with Ross Detwiler, and were enjoying their first fully healthy year of Kevin Youkilis. Those same Nationals would meet the Sox in the World Series, emerging victorious in game seven, when Stephen Strasburg, held on the playoff roster but not allowed to start a game until the World Series, pitched nine innings of one-run ball against the Sox.

The Sox fans were crushed after this defeat, but a young pitching staff as well as a controllable lineup helped console them, they would return to the World Series, and next time they would win again.

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