The Red Sox have two new infielders and two coming off injury. Will they be better than last season?
In trying to come up with an angle for this piece, I found myself wondering, are the Red Sox done? I'm sure they'll explore the odd trade, if the Marlins are dumb enough to dump Giancarlo Stanton (PLEASEPLEASEPLEASE) certainly they'll look into it, but for the most part the finalizing of the contract with Mike Napoli means the end of the part of the off-season where the Red Sox acquire players. There are still arbitration agreements to work out, but none of that is likely to impact the Red Sox' roster. Mostly what we've got here is a finished product, a team if you will. Or even if you won't.
Since we've hit this point of finalization, maybe it would be instructive to compare the prospective 2013 Red Sox roster with their predecessors. The problem with that is it's now midnight and I have children who will come into my room and yell at seven AM so instead, let's just look at the infield. The outfield will be different (Shane Victorino for Cody Ross) but the catching and pitching will mostly be the same. It'll be the infield where most of the changes are manifest. So, infield it is. Let's do this!
Gonzalez had a mediocre year last year and Loney managed to be worse than even James Loney usually is, which is still pretty bad. As a group, Red Sox first basemen managed a .289/.337/.459 line last year, not shockingly different than baseball's average first baseman who hit .257/.330/.436. Last year Napoli hit .227/.343/.469, more or less what the Red Sox got last season. But, the year before (2011) he hit .320/.414/.631 which is leaps and bounds better than the Red Sox got last season or even the year before that.
The question to me is, can Mike Napoli improve on what Adrian Gonzalez and James Loney combined to do last season? On that, I'm skeptical. There's a real possibility he can better it by a significant margin, but the possibility also exists, with his problematic hip, that this isn't just Mike Napoli at first base for the Red Sox in 2013 but Mike Napoli and Mauro Gomez or Casey Kotchman or whomever, and that's going to kill the productivity. If Napoli is healthy I like Boston's chances for improvement here, at least offensively. If not, and considering the contract Napoli just signed you have to think those chances are if not high then at least high enough, the Red Sox might be below average at first base next season.
Dustin Pedroia wasn't bad last season but injuries eventually took their toll on his productivity. If things go according to plan Pedroia will post his usual season, roughly a mid-.800s OPS with outstanding defense while only missing a few games. The chances for a Pedroia bounce-back are strong. Its not like he's too old to play well (he'll be 29 in 2013). If Pedroia is healthy second base should represent an improvement over last season.
I can't and won't get into the Red Sox shortstops since Nomar left town, but I'll say that last season Mike Aviles did a better job than most of us expected. And yet he was still pretty bad. I mean, his defense was fine, but dude had a sub-.290 on-base percentage. I know in this era shortstops aren't prized for their bats but still, that was pretty poor. In 2012 shortstops as a whole hit .256/.310/.375. To Aviles credit he met the batting average and slugging percentage portions of that line but he missed the on-base percentage part by about .30 points.
Will Stephen Drew be any better? He'd better be. There are reasons to think Drew will be a productive shortstop next season. He was still recovering from his horrific ankle injury last season, so his stats may not be indicative of what he can be. Still, looking them over, he's been an above average hitter (that's major league, not shortstop, so a tougher standard) three times in his career. Next year could represent the fourth for sure, but the guess here is he's a better hitter than Aviles, probably approaching or slightly exceeding the average shortstop, but a step back defensively. The net result should be a slight improvement, though I think the possibility that the improvement is huge does exist (Drew could post an .800 OPS while Aviles will never ever do that). Overall though a half a letter grade's worth of improvement seems reasonable.
The issue with Middlebrooks isn't whether or not he will hit. We know, as well as we can know this kind of thing, that Middlebrooks can hit. The issue is his health. Is he fully recovered from the fractured wrist he suffered towards the end of last season? Only time will tell, though the fact that there has been little noise about this from the Red Sox indicates that either he's fine or he's stepped on a bear trap and fallen into a well. Hopefully it isn't the second one.
He may not be able to hit .288/.325/.509 coming off a wrist injury or even at all (though I think he can), but if healthy he should be productive and able to best the weak average slash line for third basemen throughout baseball last season (.262/.323/.415). If healthy Middlebrooks is probably the best third baseman in the division (well, non-Longoria division, anyway) and one of the few spots where Boston has a clear advantage over their AL East foes.
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Overall, if Pedroia fouls balls off his feet and Middlebrooks takes one off the wrist again and Drew has a piano fall on his ankle the Sox are in trouble. The less of that that happens the better off the infield will be. Boston's success in 2013 will be inversely proportional to the number of ABs Pedro Cirico sees in a Red Sox uniform.
The talent level is comparable to last season. There's even upside, but the back-ups (Gomez, Ciriaco, Brock Holt?) aren't going to get this team close to the playoffs in anything other than a deep reserve role. Looking at this infield, the talent is there. It's going to come down to health. With health all things are possible.