Planning for the Worst

Greg M. Cooper-US PRESSWIRE

2013 doesn't look too bad. Unless the raptors figure out how to open doors.

It's easy to forget in retrospect, but when the Titanic first set sail, it wasn't yet a metaphor for man's hubris. It was, in fact, a triumph of contemporary engineering, a ship nearly as long as the Empire State Building was tall, with enormous engines that would send it flying across the Atlantic in a matter of days. Was she, as the famous claim went, unsinkable? Clearly, from a hundred years later, no, but the claim wasn't as silly as it seems. The ship was rather well-prepared to take and survive damage, and its system of watertight compartments was fairly innovative. What wasn't expected was the worst-case scenario.

Designed to float with four of these below-decks compartments breached and flooded, the ship suffered damage to five. In addition, the engineers forgot the basic fact that water is heavy, and would drag the ship down, causing spillover into compartments further back. And thus did we get our object lesson in humility, and a story that bumped the opening of Fenway Park onto page two. Some people for years actually thought of Fenway as cursed because of this coincidence, because some people believe in curses, and are idiots.

2012 was, for the Red Sox, the worst-case scenario. A team recovering from a mystifying late-season swoon, it still looked pretty solid on paper. A lineup anchored by two big sluggers (David Ortiz and Adrian Gonzalez) and two immensely talented homegrown stars (Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury). A rotation fronted by co-aces Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, with Clay Buchholz as an intriguing possible third ace. It was a team expressly built around a talented core, and as such was more reliable than the classic mid-00's stars-and-scrubs Cardinals squads (Step 1: Give bat to Albert Pujols. Step 2: Don't need a step 2, it's the NL Central. Step 3: Profit.) The team had enough talent that one or two injuries or down years wouldn't destroy their hopes.

And so it happened that Ellsbury went down for the season two weeks in, Pedroia struggled with a thumb injury for the whole first half, Gonzalez turned into a doubles hitter, and Ortiz got hurt halfway through the year. Worse still, the pitching staff, while mostly healthy, was just lousy. Unimaginably lousy. So lousy, in fact, that the team co-leaders in pitching WAR were... (ready? this is going to sting) Scott Atchison and Junichi Tazawa, at 1.7 apiece. Their combined 3.4 was greater than the total for the entire starting rotation. (We pause here, for a morning cocktail.)

So with that in mind, how does the 2013 squad look in terms of preparation for the worst-case scenario? Honestly, a bit better. Now, admittedly, part of this is that our expectations are so low after the last two seasons. Coming off a 69-win campaign, it's hard to imagine things going worse. But there are at least some redundancies in place. The pitching staff, for example, has five guys in it capable of throwing 180 innings. That, frankly, wasn't the case heading into last season. I, like the rest of you, am not overly thrilled at the thought of seeing John Lackey out there every fifth day again, partly because he's been terrible for a few years now and partly because I want to throw a hot dog at him every time he shows up his fielders. But he'll most likely eat innings, and that makes things easier on the bullpen. Just having five vaguely reliable (innings-wise, we'll worry about quality later) starters is an amazing difference from last year.

Even the depth is a bit better. Pedro Ciriaco ready to caddy all year for the middle infield, a dozen catchers on the roster, bullpen arms stacked in a pile out back... Is it a great team? Probably not. But it seems like a roster that can take a hit or two. Redundancies and fallback options aren't exactly sexy, but they ought to be a major focus of any competent GM. Last year, Ben Cherington got to watch as Plan A went up in flames, and took Plans B-F with it. I suspect he doesn't want that to happen again. That's why the high-character guys, to get rid of that possible weakness. (Along those same lines, welcome back, John Farrell, you calm, quiet, lovable guy, you.) That's why all the bullpen arms, in case Lackey and Doubront fall apart and the pen starts to work too much. And that's why Lyle Overbay, who is, yes, not very good as a first baseman. On the other hand, think about last year. It wouldn't have made much difference in the standings, true, had it been Overbay rather than Mauro Gomez at first after the Gonzalez trade. But I think it would've kept all of us a little saner.

Something weird is going to happen this year. It's the Red Sox, after all. Will Middlebrooks could re-injure his wrist. Felix Doubront could blow out his arm. Ryan Dempster could be eaten by a grue. Hell, they might finally figure out that Dustin Pedroia was Steve Sax's accomplice in all those unsolved murders down in New York. I suspect, though, that this team's a bit better equipped to handle it than last year's. Either way, less than two months until we find out.

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