Five questions: Boston Red Soxby Nick Fleder
March 01, 2013
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:
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.
Nick can be reached for questions, comments, or concerns via email: nick.fleder AT gmail DOT com.