For the third straight season, the Red Sox were bitten by the injury bug. Not in the way that any team might expect to deal with, no, but in a cursed "what have we done to deserve this?" sort of way. Even ignoring the never-really-there seasons of Carl Crawford, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and John Lackey--it's easy enough to argue they weren't real losses to begin with--the Sox suffered from an unreasonable number of injuries.
What's worse, it was the players they needed most who were bitten.
Jacoby Ellsbury - 74 Games Played
The big one, clearly. One falling Reid Brignac to the shoulder was all it took to put the Red Sox on the wrong path from the get go, knocking their best player of 2011 out for the first half of the season.
Really, though, it was more than that, because even when Ellsbury came back he was clearly not the same. The center fielder continued to struggle as he played out the string with an often half-built team, leaving him with a paltry .271/.313/.370 line at the end of the season.
Even Ellsbury's biggest critics know that he is far better than that. His 1.5 WAR in 2012 just barely exceeded the amount he put up in less than 130 plate appearances as a rookie all the way back in 2007. The Sox may not be able to count on Ellsbury the MVP again--if they could, it's hard to imagine folks would be quite so skeptical about this team's chances in 2013--but they can expect a good deal more out of their center fielder so long as he avoids crazy collisions on the basepaths and in the field.
David Ortiz - 90 Games Played
The straw that broke the camel's back, when David Ortiz' heel took him out for the season (even if we had hopes of a quick recovery at first), Boston's hopes to make something of 2012 were snuffed out once and for all.
In recent years 90 games from Ortiz wouldn't have been quite so large a drop in playing time. As Ortiz struggled with his wrist and against lefties, the Sox started letting him ride the bench in interleague games and occasionally shifted things up to get a right-handed DH into the lineup against tough lefties. Not so this year, though. So invaluable was Ortiz' contribution with the bat that he would not see a day off until June 24, starting almost every single one of the team's games to that point and only twice making a lone pinch-hitting appearance. He would play the next 18 games, and then down he went.
Unlike with Ellsbury, the Sox can have some hope that Ortiz will be as dominant as ever when he returns in 2013. Hell, even his one game back in the midst of injury saw him grab a single and a double. The possibility is there that this injury will continue to persist in one way or another, and that this might even be the beginning of the end for Ortiz, but for every terrible scenario there is a fantastic one to match it. As a 36-year-old, Ortiz provided the best season the Sox had seen out of him in five years, and his second best ever by wRC+. If something does keep him down, it will be that heel, and not the slow, gradual decline of age.
Dustin Pedroia - 141 Games Played
With all the players limited to half a season, it's easy to forget just how much injuries effected Dustin Pedroia this year. Pedey may have finished the season with 141 games to his name, but really that should read just 115 or so. From June 5th to July 3rd, Pedroia played 26 games as he tried to tough out an injury to his thumb. The result was a .538 OPS in 26 games, and 17 games bookending that period when he was actually missing games and getting healthy.
The fact is that outside of that, Dustin Pedroia was the same player he always has been, but with injuries mixed in 2012 comes off looking like a down year. In a season where the number of players who can bounce back should determine whether the Red Sox are contenders or cellar dwellers, Dustin Pedroia at the very least should be one we don't have to worry about too much.
Will Middlebrooks - 75 Games Played
Some of this is, of course, due to starting the year at Triple-A, but games missed are games missed all the same.
The first wave of the new youth movement, Will Middlebrooks seems to be the real deal. Power, defense, and a constantly improving approach at the plate. An .834 OPS from a rookie who has traditionally struggled in his first exposure to a new level of competition. 2.1 fWAR in half a season of games. There is plenty of reason to be very optimistic that Middlebrooks--specifically a full season of him--will be a difference maker in 2013.
Unfortunately, Middlebrooks also comes with the most concerning injury. A wrist injury is the sort of thing that can linger--just ask David Ortiz. Hopefully Middlebrooks' youth will help him to a full recovery without any sort of downturn in production, but until we see him raking in Fenway once again there will be reason for worry.
Clay Buchholz - 29 Starts (But really 20)
Clay Buchholz started one of the first games of the season and one of the last, and aside from a scary bit of gastrointestinal bleeding in the middle of the season, did not miss significant time.
So why is he here? Because those first nine starts really shouldn't count.
Coming off his back injury from 2011, Clay just clearly was not the same pitcher. Really, in those first nine games, he wasn't a pitcher at all. 43 earned runs in 49 innings, a 1:1 K:BB, a .954 OPS against...Clay made the average hitter look like Prince Fielder at the plate. Better, even.
Frankly, it's amazing Clay managed to bounce back from that like he did. Most pitchers would not be expected to be able to just shake that sort of thing off, but especially for a guy who has all-too-often suffered the "head case" rap, Buchholz simply moved on to the next game, and after May 27, didn't do much in the way of looking back. Even with an eight-run disaster that ended in the second inning of his last outing, Buchholz pitched to a 3.41 ERA the rest of the way, holding opposing batters to a .676 OPS and striking out 102 while allowing 37 walks.
Some would call this cherrypicking and say it's wrong to just cut nine games out of a player's season, that anyone can be made to look good like this. But this wasn't a matter of Buchholz just having a bad spell, or some sort of second-half regression to the mean where Buchholz pitched the same and just had different results. He was a completely different man from June onward in every possible way. The swing is too massive to be one of chance, and for those of us watching it was clear there was much more to it than that.
Every team deals with injuries. The 2013 Sox will, barring an incredible stroke of luck, have to make due without some of their most important players for some stretch of the season. This level of madness, though, is not to be expected unless the team has come under some sort of curse.
As much as the team needs players like Jon Lester to, quite simply, stop sucking, they stand to gain plenty through health alone. It's not enough, on it's own, to turn a 69-win team into a contender. But, these five players were only worth a total of 13 fWAR last season. Ellsbury and Pedroia alone were worth more than 17 between them the year before. It would hardly be surprising to see this crew double their total production in 2013, which gives the Sox a much more reasonable base to build a contender with their free agent acquisitions, settled bullpen, and hopefully bounce back years.