For the fifth straight year, Playing Pepper returns to C70 At The Bat. If you aren't aware, this series helps get a feel for the other 29 teams in baseball by asking those that follow them the closest--their bloggers. We've got spring training action going, so it's time to play a little pepper.
Boston Red Sox
69-93, fifth in the AL East
After the drama of the Collapse of 2011, you had to figure that Boston was ready to put that behind them. The change in managers seemed to play into their favor, as Bobby Valentine's reputation (at least the positive part of it) was that he could turn around a team and not wear out his welcome for a few years at least.
Instead, 2012 was a year to forget for Red Sox Nation. Valentine twerked off players and fans before the end of spring training, the team fractured in the clubhouse, half of them were shipped off to the newly free-spending Dodgers at the trade deadline, and Bobby V is now an ex-manager. There's always something up there, isn't there?
To tell us just what kind of drama 2013 has in store, I've brought together a fine array of bloggers to talk about the squad. First up is Steve Peterson, author of BoSox Injection over at the FanSided blog network. You can also find Steve on Twitter @petersonstephen. Next, we have Rebecca Binder of the extremely-well-named Fenway Fatales on the Aerys Sports blog network, who can be found on Twitter @rabinder.
BI: Boston was the most active team in major league baseball. They plugged holes in the lineup, negotiated hard and turned over the entire coaching staff. B+.
FF: A solid B, with potential for a B+. The good news: the Red Sox signed some position players that have something to prove, and that will almost definitely fill the lineup a lot better than last season. Mike Napoli, if he can stay healthy (he has a bad hip, as we all know from his extended, extended contract negotiations), has always been the kind of player that gets it done on offense. His numbers aren't amazing, but as a Ranger and an Angel, he seemed to take the clutch hero role a lot: bottom of the ninth, runners on, and the home team down by one - Napoli's good for a base hit, a walk, something to keep the offense going. Shane Victorino, same story. He's not a Hall of Fame player, but he knows how to hit, he can move runners, and he'll be a clubhouse leader with postseason experience. Johnny Gomes and Stephen Drew, ditto: solid players who want to turn heads and win games.
The bad news is, the Red Sox still lack depth in their starting pitching. Their biggest offseason pitching moves were trading for closer Joel Hanrahan (Alas! Poor Andrew Bailey - I knew him, Horatio!) and signing free agent starter Ryan Dempster. Right now, the rotation looks like Lester, Buchholz, Lackey, Dempster, and Doubront. And, well, I just don't know about this. If the stars align, we have something: if Lester returns to form, AND Lackey makes a 180, AND Buchholz finally makes the career transition we've all been waiting for him to make since 2008, AND Dempster has a good year, AND Doubront proves that he's not a flash in the pan - then, the Red Sox have a good rotation. Any weaknesses, though, will expose this group, and the Sox don't have many good replacement options waiting in the wings.
The bullpen should be solid, though, which will help the rotation through its fits and starts. Hanrahan shows promise as the closer, and if Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves can get it together, we'll usually be able to sit pretty if the Sox have the lead after six innings. IF the Sox have the lead after six innings.
RSN: It's in the B range. Why is it not an A? Well, Josh Hamilton won't be batting cleanup for us and Zack Greinke won't be our Opening Day starter. We also did not trade for RA Dickey, Jose Reyes, Justin Upton, Shin-Soo Choo or any of the other big names who are also changing zip codes this season.
Why is not a C? See above. We did not go out and sign any of the premier free agents and get saddled with long term contracts or give up top prospects in trades.
We have a good crop of prospects almost ready on both sides of the ball. Coming into the offseason we had question marks at first base, shortstop, corner outfield and rotation. Instead of making big splashes we plugged these holes with good players who should give us decent production in the short term until the prospects are ready.
If Mike Napoli was healthy, I would have graded it a solid B+. With question marks around his ability to stay on the field, we do have a potential depth problem at first base, so the final mark is a B-.
BRT: I would give Red Sox Management a B for their efforts in the 2012/2013 Offseason. While there were no big and flashy signings, Ben Cherington managed to sign some competent players, who also have the "right" attitude, and have been clubhouse leaders with other teams. The big reason they did not score higher is that the starting 5 is still suspect. I would have liked for the Sox to go out and get at least a legitimate #2 guy, as I know they probably wouldn't have spent the cash to acquire an ace, figuring that either Clay Buchholz or Jon Lester would step up and assume the role of staff ace. Right now, the projected rotation is: Lester, Buchholz, Lackey, Dempster and Doubront. A LOT of things have to fall into place exactly right for this group to contend: John Lackey needs to get right--in performance AND attitude, Dempster has to figure out a way to be successful in the AL, and Doubront (who threw a career high number of innings in 2012) needs to at least maintain, if not improve his performance from last year.
C70: What are the expectations for this club throughout the fan base, besides much less drama than the last couple of years?
BI: Largely, the first step has already been taken; don't make dumb moves by paying for huge, high-risk, long-term contracts and get rid of malcontents and prima donnas. Done and done. Boston fans want an honest, earnest bunch of no-frills guys that can win as a team. If that happens, everything takes care of itself.
FF: I think that the fans expect the club to follow new manager John Farrell's lead. The Red Sox need to get down to business, play smart baseball, and play up to their potential as individuals and as a team. The Farrell for Valentine switch was the front office's signal that the times, they are a changin' (I don't blame Bobby Valentine for the squad's deplorable offense, for example, but I think he had a lot to do with encouraging the circus-like atmosphere of last season. You try hitting a 95-mph baseball with that kind of noise around you).
The fans are not taking this apparent shift in attitude lightly. The post-World Series bandwagon fan era has ended. Larry Lucchino admitted as much last week, when he predicted that the long-touted and overhyped home sellout streak was going to end early this season. The fans expect to see a different breed of baseball, one that doesn't rest on laurels and book deals and favorable Boston media and a jocular Kevin Millar. And, the team had better deliver, because one more year of this will be one year too many for a large contingent of Red Sox fans.
RSN: It depends on what part of the "fan base". From what I hear, the unsophisticated casual fans are pessimistic. They don't understand why we didn't spend more money on better players, or trade some of our prospects whom they don't know for, well, anybody really. The expectation of that part of the fanbase is low. They see a last place team that didn't make any major moves, while the Blue Jays who came in 4th made some big headlines, so they are probably expecting a similar last place finish. The more sophisticated fans can see that we made some smart short term moves, without impacting long term financial flexibility or giving up top prospects who could contribute at a high level soon. I think overall nobody is expecting a division title, but anticipate us to at least be in the playoff race into September.
BRT: Well, we are all HOPING for less drama, and with the exit of Beckett, Gonzales, and Crawford, I think that will certainly help. But unfortunately, with the resurgence of the PED issue, this could cause some drama for David Ortiz. And they there is the billion dollar question that will hang over Jacoby Ellsbury all year: Will he be in a Red Sox uniform? I highly doubt it, but it will be the constant question that the media will harp on for all 162...
C70: Who do you expect to be the most pleasant surprise for the coming year?
BI: What I want it to be: John Lackey bouncing back after two years pitching injured and undergoing Tommy John surgery to show Boston fans the real John Lackey.
What I think it will be: Shane Victorino will be Boston's Flyin' Hawaiian. He'll energize the team, steal bases and along with Jacoby Ellsbury cover so much ground Jonny Gomes will nearly be able to stand still and just catch the balls that come directly at him.
FF: I'm splitting my vote here. I have my eye on two players - third baseman Will Middlebrooks, and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Middlebrooks, who enters his sophomore season, had a great breakout season last year. He made his rookie mistakes in the field, and you could tell he got flustered sometimes at the plate (but, which of the Red Sox didn't muff easy defensive plays or strike out swinging like a rusty gate last year?). He has the tools to be a solid player, and the demeanor to make it in Boston's pressure cooker. If he can turn the corner, he'll be a pivotal piece of the roster.
Saltalamacchia, meanwhile, is a star on the verge. He came to Boston under a cloud of the yips, and had to re-teach himself how to throw the ball back to the pitcher without tanking it into center field. He developed into a pretty good backstop - he's not an amazing defensive catcher a la Jason Varitek, but he controls his pitching staff and knows how to run the defense. Offensively, he started last year on a terrible note: I remember going to a game at Fenway in mid-April where the scoreboard informed me that his batting average was .077. Salty redeemed himself, sort of, and ended the season hitting .222, slightly below his career average. It's time for Saltalamacchia to take his game up a notch - now that he's got himself sorted out defensively and he's adjusted to Boston, he has the chance to focus on his offensive game and start to make some waves.
RSN: The most pleasant surprise HAS to be John Lackey. Why? Well, expectations are abysmally low. I think we've been conditioned to expect the worst from him. Anything short of 20 losses, an ERA north of 7 and a freak collision sidelining Dustin Pedroia for the season will be deemed to be a "pleasant surprise". More seriously, he has had a full season to recover from Tommy John, and should at least be an innings eater that provides league average pitching. That might not be what was expected when he was initially signed but it would go a long way to solidify our rotation.
BRT: I think Stephen Drew will do well. He gets a bad rap for being J.D. Drew's brother, but before this lingering ankle injury, he was healthy, competent player. His ankle issues will finally be the thing of the past, and he will be a good addition to the Boston Red Sox.
C70: What rookie will make the biggest impact in 2013?
BI: This is a toss up and is depends on who gets the call up or any playing time beyond a cup of coffee, Xander Bogaerts or Jackie Bradley. Both of these guys have all the tools to make it sooner rather than later.
FF: So, here's the thing about Jose Iglesias - he has what's been described as the glove of the gods. He's ridiculous on defense, and he has the hands and feet to be one of the best shortstops in the majors. The problem, though, is his bat. Iglesias hit only .118 in major-league action in 2012, and his .264 career average in the minor leagues doesn't help his cause much. He's made it so far on his glove and a prayer, and the Sox front office has admitted as much.
But, imagine this: Iglesias improves offensively, and is now a legitimate shortstop waiting to take the field at Fenway. Stephen Drew, meanwhile struggles - coming off an ankle injury and having the misfortune of being the brother of J.D. Drew, who made being injured a career in itself during his time in Boston. If Drew struggles and Sox fans are in anything other than a state of pure nirvana (which is rare in these parts), expect the sports-radio switchboards to light up in favor of Iglesias.
RSN: We have a lot of promising young players, but I think they are all at least a year away from having a shot at becoming regulars. Ryan Lavarnway, Will Middlebrooks and Jose Iglesias are no longer considered rookies. Rubby De La Rosa is one hangnail away from being called up for a start, but again, he's not technically a rookie either. I am excited for the arrival of Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts and Bryce Brentz, but I suspect we won't see them until September, if at all. Of course if our outfield has the same injury problems that befell them last season where at one point, the top seven outfielders in our depth chart were all sidelined at the same time then Bradley and/or Brentz may get called up early, and if they impress they may stick around.
BRT: Despite the fact that he will start the season in Pawtucket, I think Ryan Lavarnway will get called up at some point in the season, and will assume his rightful role behind the dish. I think Saltalamacchia or David Ross will get traded, and Lavarnway will have his chance--and make good use of it...
C70: What will be the final record of the team and where will they finish in the division?
BI: Boston will finish third in the division with an 83-79 record. They'll be better in the first half of the season but pitching deficiencies will ultimately catch up with them although the team will still score a lot of runs.
FF: I think the Sox have 90 wins in them, if things play out on the field like they do on paper. I see the Yankees winning the division, and the Sox and Rays battling it out for second place. I want to say that Baltimore will be in the hunt, but last year's run was a fluke for the Orioles players without the legitimate long-term statistics to back it up. Toronto will pick up fourth place in the division. This is going to be a tight race, though, and no team will dominate from wire to wire.
RSN: 86-76, 3rd place.
BRT: They will finish 2nd in the Division, with a better than last year record of 85-77. Everything would have to go their way (good performances, minimal injuries, etc etc) for them to do better than that. I do not see a postseason berth for the team this year.
C70: What one thing from your team are you most looking forward to watching?
BI: Seeing a team that was in tatters at the end of last season come together as brothers and compete again. Sox!
FF: Dan Shaughnessy's face turning red each time Larry Lucchino answers "no comment" to his questions, just before turning to a different reporter and answering the exact same question in full. You collaborate on Tito's tell-all, you pay the price.
RSN: There are two things I'm most looking forward to watching. First of all, it's the young guys. For the past several seasons there were no spots on the horizon for any of our promising prospects to aspire to. They were destined to either be bench players or trade bait. If we had a need we would fill it with an established major leaguer rather than risk subpar performance from a rookie. But we have a huge crop of near ready prospects, several of whom will fill a position of current or short term need. I am really looking forward to following them in the minors and anxiously await their arrival at Fenway, expecting some to come up before season's end.
Secondly, as a Canadian, I always root for ballplayers from the North, and am every excited that one of Canada's best arms, Ryan Dempster, will be pitching for Boston and look forward to watching him pitch in the tough AL East and expect him to handle it just fine.
BRT: I am looking forward to seeing what Will Middlebrooks can do with a full season. We caught a glimpse of some great stuff before the wrist injury ended his rookie season. But I am concerned that while the wrist is "healed", it can still takes up to a year to be 100% again--look at Nomar, and David Ortiz. Let's hope that he truly is back to 100%, and can show us some good stuff--because this team is in desperate need of some good stuff...
I appreciate Steve, Rebecca, Ruben and Christine talking a little Red Sox baseball with me. While there's no doubt that no matter what happens under the Green Monster will be well-covered by the media, let's hope there's a little less controversy and more solid baseball up that way this year.
The BBA has, as a secondary aim, the goal of producing year-end
awards in a similar fashion to the Baseball Writers of America. These
awards can be found at the official site in October with links back to the voters,
ensuring transparency and, most likely, the onset of some good baseball