Five questions: Boston Red Sox

Red Sox fans surely crave a mulligan after their team’s abysmal last year. The squad suffered its first losing season since 1997, and its first last place finish in the AL East since 1992. But worse, surely, was the constant publicity bombing.

Bobby Valentine was far from a unifying clubhouse force, but a force he was: in a matter of a month, beer was banned, Kevin Youkilis’ passion for the game was publically questioned, and team captain Dustin Pedroia called right back out, at his newly-minted manager, something along the lines of (and I’m paraphrasing): “Guy, you’re not welcome here.” A few key offseason acquisitions and a new clubhouse regime—led by John Farrell, formerly of the Blue Jays—spell hope for the Red Sox, but they face stiff competition from all four divisional foes.

Will 2013 come with another last-place finish?

Let’s start by listing off some of the key positional changes—whether they stem from trade, injury replacement, or free agent signing—for the upcoming season.

Right field: Cody Ross replaced by Shane Victorino
Shortstop: Mike Aviles replaced by Stephen Drew
First base: Adrian Gonzalez replaced by Mike Napoli
Left field: Daniel Nava and his band of horses replaced by Jonny Gomes
Center field: Unhealthy Jacoby Ellsbury replaced by healthy Jacoby Ellsbury
Pitcher: Josh Beckett replaced by Ryan Dempster
Pitcher: Aaron Cook and his crew of nobodies replaced by John Lackey
Closer: Alfredo Aceves replaced by Joel Hanrahan
Bullpen: Vicente Padilla replaced by Koji Uehara.

GM Ben Cherington’s front office deserves some credit for a clearly upgraded roster: they made a series of moves that simultaneously gave them hope in 2013 while freeing their financial shackles beyond that. The above list—save for the possible wash in the Napoli v. Gonzalez comparison—represents general improvement in this year’s squad.

What the Sox were in 2012 was not an awful team, but an underachieving one. Injuries tore through their roster—best represented by no other nugget of information than this: a combined 158 games were played by Mauro Gomez, James Loney, Marlon Byrd and Ryan Kalish—and the script for the season was all but written by the All-Star break.

PETCOA seems to think the Sox will vie for a Wild Card berth. With the drove of talent on the cusp of major league readiness and the excited new faces wearing red on their feet, I wouldn’t be shocked.

Speaking of young talent: who’s on the cusp?

Forget, for a moment, the “new” faces that’ll grace the field at Fenway in April. Keep in mind that they aren’t really new. Shane Victorino? An All-Star, everyone more or less knows what to expect from him. Joel Hanrahan and Mike Napoli are somewhere in between household names and gritty fan favorites, and Stephen Drew is a Billy Beane-certified talent.

But the real excitement stirs in Double-A Portland, mostly, where four top 100 prospects could reside at the beginning of the year, and where—more importantly—upside meets the imagination. Xander Boegarts is a consensus top-10 prospect, with less than a quarter-century worth of games played at the Double-A level. With his developmental pace and raw talent, though, it’s not too farfetched to speculate on a next-season debut if Stephen Drew were to go down with injury (as he’s been known to do).

Beyond that is a the group led by speedyJackie Bradley (seen by many as Jacoby Ellsbury’s eventual replacement). Matt Barnes (who has a consistent 94-mph fastball), Allen Webster and flamethrowing Rubby de la Rosa (the last two acquired in the contract-unloading deal with the Dodgers), make up the rest of the top tier in an exciting system filled with eminently watchable talent.

Oh, and Will Middlebrooks, he of less than 300 major league plate appearances? He could certainly blossom into a star this year.

How deep is the crop of starting pitchers?

We can’t quantify the toll that clubhouse sparring and media scrutiny took on the Sox’s rotational performance last year. But we do know that the team’s starters won 16 fewer games than they did the previous season, and slipped to the bottom third in starting pitcher WAR.

Nine pitchers contributed to the ugliness: Jon Lester had his worst full season since his rookie year, Clay Buchholz again gave up too many home runs, Josh Beckett was painfully average, and all of Daisuke Matsuzaka, Aaron Cook, and Daniel Bard made double digit starts (a combined 39 for the three, which produced just nine wins). Only Felix Doubront (league average in pretty much everything) and Franklin Morales (a strikeout master) surpassed almost non-existent expectations.

Seemingly, Farrell will go with the following five-man rotation, until Lackey works his way out of a job or Buchholz injures and re-injures himself:

Lester
Dempster
Lackey
Doubront
Buchholz

Franklin Morales is the obvious fill-in, and the argument could be made for him taking Lackey’s spot—which he might have done if the Sox hadn’t tied so much money up in Lackey. Beyond him, de la Rosa seems like the most obvious seventh man, and Aceves—out of a closing job—could surely spot start.

Are they done wheeling and dealing?

You ask me which holes there were on last year’s roster, and I tell you how they were filled. Backup catcher: how about the best in the game, David Ross. Power off the bench and insurance for David Ortiz and the first baseman: Mike Carp. A weak bullpen: how about four closer candidates?

What the Red Sox did sacrifice in piecing together a fine looking depth chart is outfield contingency. Gomes might not hold up, and Ellsbury seems all too susceptible to freak injury. The question then shifts to Nava: is he a good enough fourth man?

In their suddenly stacked bullpen, the Red Sox brought themselves room to maneuver. If they have injury concerns in the outfield, they have a plan (trade Andrew Bailey for a bat and take care of two birds with one phone call); if they have starting rotation concerns, they have a plan (move Aceves to the rotation); if they slip out of contention, they have a plan (trade Joel Hanrahan to a contender for a bounty of prospects); if their number one struggles, they have a plan (swap Hanrahan out for Uehara).

Does John Farrell spell success?

Two quick facts, as reported by Ron Chimelis of MassLive:

-John Farrell has never managed a major league team to a winning record.
-Terry Francona hadn’t either when he was hired in 2004.

What Farrell brings, one would imagine, is some peace in the Red Sox locker room. To whatever extent the media circus can be avoided in Boston, it will be this season. Gone, one can assume, will be daily headlines about a player tussling with Bobby Valentine, or constant stories and finger-wagging about player-only meetings and demands made to John Henry. Farrell is a tamer personality, no doubt, and surely less a celebrity than his predecessor.

Maybe—just maybe—the move back to Farrell, who brings with him a know-how of the Sox locker room (he experienced a taste of Boston success as their pitching coach from 2007-2010), will keep the train from running off the tracks so early in 2013.

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Comments

  1. SenseOfReason said...

    This is astonishingly optimistic to the point of trolling. The only significant upgrade on this team is Uehara. The only non question mark of the bullpen. Napoli has posted more than 3 fwar in his career once while mostly playing catcher. How is he a wash with Gonzalez who posted 3.6 fwar in a down year. These were all tread water moves by Boston to let prospects develop while showing fans they are trying to “contend”. But have no illusions that this team has a chance of finishing above .500. A new manager will not make up for an injury prone team with weak pitching. Nowhere near enough talent or depth on this team to contend.

  2. SenseOfBias said...

    I think someone is being astonishingly pessimistic to the point of trolling. With health and a basic level of consistency, this team is an 85 win club without a question. Refuting that is simply guessing without looking at any numbers or any facts.

  3. Paul G. said...

    I’d like to know what to expect from Shane Victorino.  He had a perfectly good stick for center field, but he’s coming off a bad offensive season, moving to right, and switching leagues.  This has the real potential to get very ugly.

    The other question is whether the key players can stay healthy.  The track record is not good.

  4. Kevin M said...

    I think the salary dump trade to the Dodgers was a smart move. But Napoli is a wash as a replacement for Gonzalez.  Please.  Defense is a huge downgrade and Gonzalez is an RBI machine. Good long term move to allow them to get rid of Crawford’s contract but a short term significant hit at 1B.

  5. Charlie said...

    Victorino gives the Sox the coverage in a big right field and allows Ellsbury to cheat towards left to cover Gomes ground in left center.  Victorino also adds some speed in the bottom half of the order.  The article’s central point is that the organization has created more flexibility for a host of future decisions…they can eat money and trade short contracts (Victorino, Gomes, Bailey,Napoli, Demptster) and bullpen depth to pick-up more prose\pects. Once they have the chips they can move them to small market teams for arbitration impact players….the strength of their bullpen will keep the Sox in the mix and buy time for top prosepcts Bradley Jr. Boegart, Webster and de la Rosa to develop.

  6. Atreyu Jones said...

    Kevin M: The Napoli/Gonzalez “wash” comment can be justified in terms of 1B production the Sox can expect from 2013 versus 2012. Last year, they got 3/4 of a season of Gonzalez w/ OBP of .343 and SLG of .469, and a 1/4 season of Loney at .264/.310 (blechh). So it is not unrealistic to think that Napoli and others will outperform that total 1B production enough to make up for a drop-off in fielding.

    I think everyone realizes that Gonzales is better than Napoli.

  7. Atreyu Jones said...

    To expand on my other comment, last year Gonzalez and Loney combined for a .329 OBP and a .442 SLG. Why is it so optimistic to think that Napoli could exceed these numbers enough to balance out the worse fielding and render the 2012/2013 comparison a ‘wash’ for the Sox?

  8. Ed Itor said...

    “PETCOA seems to think…”
    Ballparks can think?
    Humans can understand what ballparks think?
    Other humans care what ballparks think?  Actually, I do.

  9. AJ said...

    Yeah, as much as I wish it weren’t so, this team was not as bad as they faired in 2012. To think that that record, and not what they had done the dozen years prior, is the norm is just plain ludicrous. For much of the year they were the top run scoring team in the entire MLB despite a down year from Gonzo and Ellsbury. They may not have done quite enough to replace AGon, but getting 500 ABs from Vic, Middlebrooks, and Ellsbury will keep them putting up enough runs to be highly competitive. And without the poison that is Bobby Valentine, they should have their chemistry back after a lost season. Better pitching =85 wins.

  10. Oriole fan said...

    While Koji is a high quality reliever, he really hasn’t demonstrated the durability needed to be the go-to closer for a contender.  Perhaps for a couple months, and that’s all the Sox should ask of him as a closer.  Asking more is a big risk, IMO.

  11. Kevin said...

    @Oriole fan: If only there were a playoff team last year that used a similarly labelled pitcher as their closer, but I just can’t seem to think of one…maybe you could help me out

  12. Paul Francis Sullivan said...

    I’m as big a Red Sox fan as you will ever meet.
    This is a 90 loss team this year.
    I want to be wrong, but a wretched rotation and mediocre lineup equals lots of series lost

  13. AJ said...

    Paul, you do realize that the term “fanatic” means someone who is irrationally optimistic, right? So therefore the last thing you are is a Red Sox fan. I can’t see them losing more than 80,and even that would surprise me. I don’t think they’ll win the division by any means, but to call a lineup with Peds, ells, Papi, Middlebrooks, Vic & Napoli “mediocre” is a far cry from accurate and obviously not from a fan. They were a terrific offense in 2012 and they’ll be a terrific offense once again. Only this time their starting pitching and bullpen is a hell of a lot more stable.

  14. Paul Francis Sullivan said...

    AJ, we disagree.

    Don’t question my fandom. I’ve been a Red Sox fan despite living in the Bay Area when the A’s and Giants were great, New York in the Joe Torre years and now in LA.

    Pedroia is fine. Ellsbury should be good coming off of injury but will also probably be dealt. Big Papi is nice. We’ll see how Middlebrooks is his second time around, I have confidence.

    Napoli’s stats dropped last year but hopefully he can have a rebound year. Victorino? Eh. Fine.

    I don’t see the big All Star bat and MVP candidate in the bunch.

    The rotation is horrible.
    The bullpen is fine and could be very good. It is one of the few things I have any confidence in.

    Why do you think that my saying the Red Sox are a 90 loss team means I’m not a fan? Is a fan simply supposed to say good things about the team? I want nothing more than to see the Red Sox win the 2013 World Series.

    Instead I see a team whose starting pitching is bad and whose lineup is not strong enough to make up for the bad rotation.

    The Red Sox are rebuilding. And that’s a good thing. They need to rebuild. They were smart to give out short contracts and say no thank you to the free agents.

    2013 is going to be a bad year. BUT as Nick wrote, there is hope.

    Hopefully keeping Pedroia and Lester as links to the 2007 title team and the development of Middlebrooks and eventually Boegarts, Bradley, de la Rosa etc will give the team looking forward a great new look.

    It is a shame that Westmoreland is retired. It would have been great to see a Rhode Island born outfielder.

    But either way, my fandom will be in full force that even though I don’t have high hopes for this season, I will be cheering them on and hoping for the best and being optimistic for 2014 and beyond.

    Do you remember 1987?
    That was a crap year in terms of the win loss record, but it was the emergence of Greenwell, Burks, Reed, Benzinger and other kids. I am hoping for a similar year this year.

  15. Fitzy said...

    There’s no reason this team shouldn’t be able to score plenty of runs. Ellsbury is aching to bounce back. I’m looking for a huge year from him. I do not believe he is injury-prone, just bad luck. He’s healthy now; watch out.

    The starting pitching is a mess though. Lester will bounce back this year under his old pitching coach, maybe even Bucholz can bounce back and finally, finally, finally fulfill some of his long-heard-of potential? Doubrant has potential but has been MLB/Avg.

    John Lackey? Number 3? Really? Can’t see it.

    Hopefully Dempster has another year left. He’s a warrior on the mound and eats innings, but how much gas is left in the tank?

    I actually feel the bull-pen is solid for this team with Bard coming back to his old-self in the back of the ‘pen.

    I see this team with a ceiling of 90 wins but probably more like 83 or 84.

  16. Paul Francis Sullivan said...

    I hope you are right, Fitzy.

    I have given up on Buchholz. Anything we get from him is a bonus.

    Doubront is filed under “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

    Dempster has talent but he didn’t exactly set the world aflame with Texas and he’s on the wrong side of 35 which makes me nervous.

    Lackey? Please.

    Even with assuming that Lester will have a bounce back season (which I think he will, he is a solid pitcher), there are three question marks and an injury risk for 80% of the rotation.

    I think 82 wins is the ceiling.

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