Pitchers and Catchers are here, everyone! "Here" being Fort Myers, Florida, a place you no doubt are not, though maybe you are. I don't know. I'm not there either.
This is now officially Spring Training, the time of year where expectations bound about unfettered. Had you been listening to just the right frequency on the radio yesterday you might have heard the announcement, "All expectations, please report to your happy place!" This is traditional for expectations this time of year, yet I fear these fuzzy little Red Sox expectations won't be reporting anywhere. It could be that, like everyone else, they're snowed in and they'll get there as soon as they can so just hold your damn horses. But more likely they're sitting on the couch, bag of Doritos in hand, mostly through a sixer of their least favorite macro-brew, wondering when that wrestling re-run will be on again and ignoring this whole Spring Training thing because bunch of choking dogs who cares buuuuuurp.
I fear these expectations are missing the boat on the 2013 team. Sure, they're far from World Series favorites, but there are certain aspects of the team that will absolutely be worth watching. So, to get those expectations off their fuzzy little duffs, here are five things we Red Sox fans can get excited about.
1. Will Middlebrooks
It's been a long time since the Red Sox developed a power hitting regular. If you count Dustin Pedroia, it's been six years. If not, and as fabulous as The Laser Show is I don't think I'd call him a power hitter, it's been longer. Perhaps one of the most exciting storylines this season will be watching Middlebrooks plant his flag in the Fenway dirt just to the right of third base. Oh sure, some of the projection systems are a bit down on him, but considering his season-ending injury and lack of walks that's to be expected. Middlebrooks will have to make some adjustments to the league, but with his minor league track record, age, elite athleticism, and sweet sole patch, well, let's just say the Gods of Baseball and Facial Hair are on his side. Having gods on your side is never a bad thing.
Unlike last year when he had to wrestle the job out of Kevin Youkilis's cold, hard, kinda dead hands, this season the job belongs to Middlebrooks. How he handles that and the expectations that come with it will be one of the most exciting storylines of the new season. Watching a potential star grow up in front of you, game by game, is one of the baseball season's most profound joys.
2. John Farrell's effect on the starting pitching
After the season, when the Red Sox put on their camouflage hats, grabbed their (paint!) guns, and headed out to hunt for another manager, they had one guy in their sights the whole time: John Farrell. There are many reasons Farrell was the front office's choice from the beginning. He was a known quantity in the clubhouse. Many of the players know him. The front office trusts him. He's the no-nonsense guy that He Who Won't Be Named Here was supposed to be. But perhaps the most striking reason was Farrell's work with the pitching staff.
In the years since Farrell decamped to Toronto for the Blue Jays managerial job, the heart of the Red Sox starting staff and, to be fair, the rest of it as well, fell apart. Jon Lester in particular went from one of the best young left-handed starters in baseball to an average at best middle aged pitcher who used to be someone special. When Lester's name was floated in trade rumors for a minor leaguer (a stud, to be sure, but still, a minor leaguer) during the off-season most people didn't grab pitchforks and head for Yawkey Way. Instead, many if not most supported the idea. The point isn't to rehash that non-deal, but that Lester's value even within the group that should over-value him (us) had fallen precipitously.
Farrell was brought in to change that. Make no mistake, there were other reasons Farrell got the job, but fixing Jon Lester and to a smaller extent Clay Buchholz and company was if not the reason, then at least a co-primary reason. How will Farrell do? The answer to that question likely holds the answer to the larger question of how will the 2013 Red Sox do?
This is a list of things to be excited about and so far I haven't mentioned why you should be excited about this one. To that I'd say, because there isn't anyone out there more likely to fix Lester than Farrell. The Red Sox have brought in the best doctor in the world for their sick patient. Nobody knows Lester as a pitcher better than Farrell and nobody understands the importance of getting Lester back to being the old Lester better than Farrell. Of course I don't know if he can do it or not. I don't know because nobody knows. But watching it will sure be interesting theater.
I guess this one accidentally equates fear and excitement. Sorry about that.
3. John Lackey
Wait! Hear me out!
The reports out of camp not to mention the pictures of a svelte pitcher looking somewhat like John Lackey have been beyond encouraging. And really, there isn't much Lackey could do outside of consuming a human baby on the Fenway mound to make himself more unpopular than he already is. But on the plus side, there's no where to go but up.
The truth is, as much as Lackey might not be the most popular guy in the room, he was brought to Boston because at one point in his life, before personal issues and constant arm pain interfered, he was a very good pitcher. Can he do it again? His arm is cleaned up and it seems, for now at least, so is his attitude. It could be fun to watch. Like most things around this time, I'm optimistic. And like I said, short of cannibalism, how could he be worse?
4. Watching the new guys
Shane Victorino, David Ross, Mike Napoli, Ryan Dempster, and on and on. The Red Sox pulled in a ton of new players this off-season. Getting to know the new guys is often the best part of the season. I can't wait to see Napoli hit some bombs over the Monster, to see Ross display competence behind the plate, to see Dempster bring some B-B-Q sauce to the mound for extra flavor while inning munching, and on and on. There will probably a be a priceless Victorino GIF opportunity sandwiched in there somewhere as well. Can't wait.
5. The Bullpen
This has been covered here at OTM before, but the positive reports on Daniel Bard's velocity and mental state have me in full drool mode. Do you know how crazy good Koji Uehara can be? He can be crazy good, that's how crazy good. Uehara, Bard, Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Bailey (until he loses his fingernails in a merry-go-round accident), Junichi Tazawa, and on and on. This group could be good. I remember the ungodly bullpens of the late 90's Yankees and how if the score was 3-2 after the sixth inning, the Red Sox were done. This could be that. It really could be.
So here's to the excitement of a new season, of new players, and of old players looking like new again. It's Spring Training, so get your expectations off the couch and down to Florida. It should be a happy place.