Many Boston Red Sox fans, self included, are still on a World Series championship high. It was an off-season that had a bit of drama as Jacoby Ellsbury left to don pinstripes, Jerrod Saltalamacchia went home to the Marlins, and Stephen Drew entered the nether world after turning down the Red Sox’ qualifying offer. They retained Mike Napoli, took a flyer on Grady Sizemore and signed some more arms for the bullpen.
Spring Training itself was relatively quiet. Ryan Dempster, for whom they overpaid in the previous off season, decided to sit out the season with a variety of injuries and a desire to spend more time with family. It was a bit of a shock that solved one of the Red Sox’ “problems” since they had 6 pro level starters. We should have seen the Big Papi drama coming. He craves security, as well as the spotlight. They ended up signing him to an extension that should result in Ortiz retiring as a member of the Red Sox. I have no problem with the deal since he is still one of the best hitters in the big leagues. The option years have benchmarks that should mean they don’t end up in a Yankee’s like situation of paying a nearly useless player lots of money. The other storyline of importance (Peavy’s injury wasn’t much of a distraction when it was all said and done) was about who would play centerfield: Bradley or Sizemore. This was prompted by Sizemore’s amazing return to health and a level of play reminiscent of his days as an All-Star for the Indians. Bradley’s offensive struggles didn’t help his cause. Proving that he can play 4 days in a row, at a high level, sealed the deal and Sizemore has been named the opening day centerfielder.
The Outfield As a nameless GM said, the Red Sox should ride the Sizemore horse as long as they can. This means that as long as he plays they experience little to no drop off in play after losing Jacoby. He is an experienced lead off man (though he won’t play that role immediately,Nava will play that role) who is probably a better defender than Jacoby (whose speed covered a multitude of sins on his initial reads) and has more power than Jacoby. He won’t steal anywhere near the number of bases as Jacoby, but he can steal a few bags. He has thus far proven more healthy than Jacoby. If he does get hurt, Bradley can more than fill his shoes defensively and hopefully he’ll sort out the offensive issues he had this spring. Victorino can do spot starts in center, but he will mostly patrol right field, assuming he’s healthy. Last year he provided the best right field defense of any Sox player since Dwight Evans. That is saying something. Nava and Gomes will likely platoon in left giving the Red Sox an outfield with 2 excellent, 1 good and 1 mediocre defender but all hitters who help the team. Should the bodies start dropping, in addition to Bradley, they have the revived Brentz to play right field. He displayed the power that could make him a middle of the line up guy at some point. On a different note, former Red Sox prospect Ryan Kalish has made the Cubs roster after 2 years missed due to injury. There wasn’t much hope of him getting the chance he deserves in the Big Leagues with the Red Sox since Victorino has 2 years left on his contract. He is an exciting player, and hopefully will not be hampered by the many surgeries he underwent in the last few years. I’m happy for Ryan.
The Infield The infield has experienced the most change on the Red Sox roster. Stephen Drew’s excellent defense is now in a city yet to be determined. Xander Bogaerts has been given the responsibility of filling those shoes. Reports are that he’s done well defensively (aside from one give filled with miscues by Xander and Middlebrooks). He should be more productive offensively. With Jeter ready to retire, Xander should become a perennial All-Star. There may be a period of adjustment, but big things are expected from him and he has the talent and the disposition to deliver. If he gets hurt this year, there is a possibility that Devon Marrero should provide excellent defense though he still needs to develop offensively.
Middlebrooks had a disappointing sophomore season. Part of that is the result of injuries. Will showed up with a new attitude, improved vision and recommitted to defense. He led the Sox in home runs (Napoli surpassed him in the final game), has cut down on his strikeouts and increased his walks. This new plate discipline bodes well for the Red Sox at a traditional power position. If he continues this the Red Sox should greatly improve their production from third base and could maintain their league leading production from last year. Depth for 3rd beyond the utility infielders, and possibly Mike Carp, would be Garin Cecchinni, a highly productive hitter who has been improving his defense. If Will establishes himself as their long-term 3rd baseman, Garin could be traded or moved to the outfield.
Salty has been replaced by the infamous A.J. Pierzynski. People love to hate him, and team mates just plain love him. He should maintain Salty’s offensive production but be an improvement on defense. He should platoon some with Ross. Both have one year on their deals to potentially make way for Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart. Dan Butler is probably the catcher most likely to be called up in case of injury. A.J. and Ross should provide great game calling and defense while contributing average offense from the position.
The right side of the infield remains unchanged. Pedroia should continue to provide his stellar defense. Now that his thumb ligament has been repaired, we should see a return to his previous power numbers. Now that Cano has banished himself to Seattle for his greed, Dustin may begin to get the recognition he deserves from places outside of Boston.
Napoli struggled in spring training, most likely from inconsistent playing time. He provides protection for Big Papi in the order and showed himself to be a very good defender. I suspect that his hitting will come around soon enough, but we must remember that he is a streaky hitter. Mike Carp, unless he is traded, will be his primary backup though Nava can fill that role too. Just in case, Ryan Lavarnaway has been working out at first (unless he is traded though his current value is miniscule).
Big Papi is the anchor of the batting order. He was quite distracted this spring with all the contract talk. Perhaps now he’ll concentrate on his swing.
The Rotation In September and October Jon Lester finally became the pitcher I’ve been hoping he’d become. He changed part of his approach and now works both sides of the plate. If he maintains this he could get that elusive Cy Young Award. He is their #1 starter and will pitch the season opener as he should. Lackey pitches much better with his surgically repaired elbow. Peavy provides a clear upgrade over Dempster in the rotation. Aside from nearly cutting a finger off, he has felt better than he has in years. The question mark in the rotation is Doubront. He showed up in shape this year, hoping to solidify his spot for the future. He has great potential, but has struggled in last spring training games. He frustrates me like Lester used to. You see the potential, but he isn’t aggressive enough and builds up big pitch counts early. Oddly Buccholz is the 5th starter in order to protect him. His stuff has looked good and he can be dominant. This is a rotation that should only be 2nd to the perennially excellent Rays’ staff. Capuano has looked serviceable for spot starts and long relief. Workman can also make spot starts and waiting in the wins are some top prospects- Ranaudo and Webster (who seems so close to putting it together according to Farrell anyway).
The Pen Last year they witnessed their 2 closer candidates go down with season ending injuries. They were bailed out unexpectedly by Koji who was nearly untouchable. Koji still has it, efficiently dispatching hitters. The question last year and this year will be if he is durable enough. Enter former Cardinals’ closer Edward Mujica who was similarly untouchable before wearing down. The training staff has him feeling better and he should be ready to step in if Koji gets hurt though he might bear some of the load to keep Koji healthy. Andrew Miller is back and working out things after his layoff due to injury. Tazawa returns to his role as primary set up man. They have Cordero, who has looked good, down in the minors as depth.
Depth- that is a big part of how they won the World Series last year. That is their new formula, borrowed from the Patriots, for success. It should be successful enough for them to get into the playoffs. I suspect their main competition in the East will be the Rays (despite having only 2 guys who can hit) and the Orioles. Though they don’t have the spring training results to show it, this should be another good year to be a Red Sox fan.