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For most of my life the New England Patriots just weren’t very good. They somehow managed to get to two Superbowls but I never expected them to win either of those games.  They showed promise in the late 70’s but Oakland and a few horrible calls took care of that.

For the last fifteen years they have been most successful team, making the playoffs every year but two, six Superbowl appearances and 4 Superbowl victories.

Some people want to “blame” it all on cheating, but that is too easy. In the book Patriot Reign, Michael Holley looks at how this franchise that only frustrated its fans became one that frustrated the rest of the league. He wanted to do a book on Bill Belichick, but at his request it also became about the other coaches, players and the owners who built a champion.

After their first Superbowl victory, Holley decided to write the book and took a year shadowing the team. He sat in meetings and was given pretty much unlimited access (they also did not edit the material). He was disappointed when they failed to defend their title, but the returned to championship form the next year. This was a great “plot” twist and added more material as he could examine how Belichick “rebuilt” the Patriots.

Holley begins his account with Belichick. He offers you the side you don’t see. He doesn’t make him out to be a saint, but simply another side. He does have a sense of humor. He considers press conferences as part of the game plan and prepares for them- what he will and will not say.

“Let’s put it this way: when you’re the head coach, you’re the head coach twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. No matter what happens, it’s on your watch and, to a degree, it’s your problem.”

Belichick’s development as a coach took time. In 1989 when he interviewed for the position as Arizona’s head coach he didn’t quite understand all that it took. He learned from his mistakes in Cleveland, and what kind of owner he wanted to work for if he got the chance again. That is why he picked New England over the Jets (and to get out from Parcells shadow). During his time there under Parcells he would talk with Kraft about any number of subjects (something Parcells didn’t do with Kraft). He knew the man he was, and Kraft knew the man he was. He almost offered the job to Bill instead of Carroll when Parcells left. He faxed the request to talk with Belichick to Parcells before Carroll even had his press conference after his last game as head coach. They have successfully collaborated ever since.

Holley then moved into the reconstruction of the Patriots, including the drafting of Tom Brady. The Patriots were a mess: over the cap, filled with fiefdoms in the locker room and offices. They were like the Red Sox under prior owners. The players were spoiled and didn’t know it.

“Rehbein described him as a winner, a leader with a good attitude. The quarterbacks coach told Belichick that if a decision had to be made between the two, he would give the edge to Brady. Belichick had studied the tapes and felt the same way.”

That first draft was key. But since Holley wasn’t hanging out with them then, he focuses on one player. They were looking for a back up for Drew Bledsoe. Bill and Ernie Adams had listed the characteristics of what they considered the perfect quarterback. They had narrowed the search down to two prospects; Tim Rattay and Tom Brady. So Belichick dispatched his QB coach to work them both out. During the 6th round the draft they saw that Brady’s name was still there. “Brady shouldn’t be there. He’s too good.” They didn’t think Brady would be a starter, much less a superstar when they pulled the trigger on pick number 199. Brady fit the characteristics they listed months earlier.

Soon it was a repeat of his years in Cleveland. The established and (sort of) loved starter was being surpassed by the understudy. In Cleveland it was part of  Belichick’s undoing. In New England circumstances forced his hand so that people weren’t enraged. Bledsoe had the big arm, and big contract, but he was making costly errors- something Bill can’t stand.

“Under Belichick, all Patriot jobs could be classified as temporary. They were earned and held by performance, not status or longevity. Belichick didn’t go out of his way to antagonize stars, nor did he do anything special to accommodate them.”

While externally it was an “easy” transition. The fans were not clamoring for Bledsoe because the team just kept winning. Internally it was a different story as Bledsoe was not a happy camper. Since Rehbein had died the previous summer, Bill was serving as the QB coach. Those were often tense meetings.

“I never want to be on that crawl at the bottom of the screen: ‘Patriots quarterback Tom Brady arrested…’ I never want to look like an ass who let down my family, my teammates, and my organization.”

As an aside, the above quote is part of why I don’t believe Brady would cheat, or ask anyone else to cheat. A fierce, driven competitor to be sure, but one who is also driven by honor. Cheating would make him look like an ass, and that just isn’t an acceptable outcome for him.

Holley takes us to the Superbowl against the Rams. He discusses how the coaching staff dissected their offense. They saw how deception functioned in the offense. Belichick identified their 5 passing concepts, and that Faulk was the most important player out there- no Warner. He boiled it down to applicable concepts for the players. In the midst of this Holley briefly discusses the mysterious Ernie Adams, with whom Belichick went to college.

After the victory against the Rams, Holley became a frequent sight in the complex. As a result, he begins to write about how they evaluate the team, players, free agents and draft picks. This is the real strength of the book. Particularly after the 2002-3 season. In some ways they were drunk on success, thinking they could just turn it on again but they couldn’t because they were too old and too slow. They needed to reload one year after winning it all.

“The essence of Belichick is that he is a problem solver.”

In all of this there are small sections on players like Vinatieri and Fauria, and key figures like Pioli. He talks about the Lawyer Milloy situation which led to the silent feud with Tom Jackson.

All in all this is a very interesting read. You can learn, not only about the Patriots, but football through the anecdotes. You find overall commitments to process that work more often than they don’t. I enjoy learning how people approach their work. That is what make the recent Parcells biography so interesting. I am eager to read Holley’s 2012 follow up, War Room, as a result.

This isn’t a book for children. Unless you are Tony Dungy, football culture is quite colorful and crass. As a result there are more than a few curse words, and slang for sexual acts. This is unfortunate. While it adds to the realism, I wouldn’t want to give it to my son for quite some time.

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2014 didn’t go well for the Red Sox. After going from last to first, and the World Series where they beat the Cardinals, they returned to last place.  There were a number of issues. Lester and Lackey were solid, but the rest of the rotation pretty much stunk. Buchholz was still trying to fix the bad mechanics he picked up when he was hurt in the latter part of 2013. Eventually they gave up on Jake Peavy’s streak of futility and Doubrant’s inability to do just about anything.

Their attempts to replace Ellsbury failed. Sizemore couldn’t maintain his hot spring, and Jackie Bradley Jr. couldn’t hit- period. With Victorino on the DL much of the year this resulted in a horribly under-producing outfield for the first half of the season. Relying on Jonny Gomes full-time isn’t a good idea.

Their infield plan of Bogaerts and Middlebrooks just didn’t work as Xander pressed after the Red Sox brought Stephen Drew back when Middlebrooks got hurt- again. Napoli was never the same after an injury, and A.J. was a cancer behind the plate.

The rebuild started mid-season as they traded or cut every starter but Buchholz and traded Gomes away. They took a chance on Allen Craig’s track record, hoping 2014 was an injury-induce aberration. They signed Rusney Castillo for the future. Out of desperation they put Mookie Betts in the outfield where he flourished on his third call up.

In the off season they got the Panda for third, making the perpetually injured Will Middlebrooks unnecessary. They also picked up Hanley Ramirez to play outfield and added Wade Miley, Rick Porcello and Justin Masterson to Clay and Joe Kelly to replace the under-performing Webster, De La Rosa and Ranaudo.

So … they entered Spring Training with a glut of outfielders: Betts, Ramirez, Castillo, Nava, Craig, Bradley and the surgically-repaired Victorino. They also didn’t have a clear cut ace, and a suspect bullpen.

They left Spring Training with projected starting catcher Christian Vazquez in need of Tommy John surgery, their closer Koji Uehara and Joe Kelly on the DL. The excess in the outfield has Castillo and Bradley in AAA at least until there is an injury to either Victorino or Ramirez, or a trade of either Craig or Victorino. Did you get all that?

Much is made about a $72 million dollar player being in AAA. Well, that is over 6 years so $12 million average, just over $10 million this year. Victorino is making $13 million. So the money is not the issue here. Particularly when we realize Betts played his way into center. Castillo is in the big leagues long term. Next year at the very latest, but most likely earlier particularly if Victorino struggles, gets hurt or traded. Victorino has lots of rust and injury echo to shake off. He is historically not very concerned about spring training. Let’s see if Shane can show up and play every night. Unfortunately the only guys with options were Castillo, Betts and Bradley.

They want to go from last to first again. It might happen, largely because of the offense. This could be a devastating offense. Off-season surgery may have enabled Pedroia to return to being the Destroya, and Napoli to stay awake by actually sleeping at night. Napoli has been killing the ball. Betts has been getting on base and while not as dangerous as the Tiger’s line up it should be a gigantic improvement over last year’s anemic offense.

The big question is the pitching. Clay is looking more like the early 2013 Clay, who dominated, than last year’s model. Porcello is looking good. Masterson seems to have regained his arm slot and has improved velocity. Miley isn’t expected to be a 2 or 3 like in Arizona. His job is to throw 200 innings with an ERA around 4. They just need Kelly to get back quickly

Fortunately they are in a division with a bunch of flawed teams. They have a chance to take the division. But there is also a good chance they won’t. This is like a return to the old Red Sox formula: all hitting and decent pitching. It may get them to the playoffs, but I don’t think it will get them a World Series. The good news for them is that Bogaerts, Betts, Castillo and the Panda will be around for awhile. Next winter they can get some of the elite pitchers who look to be heading into free agency. Or bring up some of their top pitching prospects. They have moved in the right direction, but probably not far enough (yet) to add another title.

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The 2014 season seemed promising for the defending World Series champion Red Sox. They returned almost all of their starting rotation. The missing member of the 6 primary starters from the previous season was its weakest link: Dempster. The bullpen was largely intact as well. The pitching seemed to be ready to go. The one mystery was how Buchholz would bounce back from the injuries that hampered him for the 2nd half of the season.

They had a number of new players in key positions. Two were highly touted rookies Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. Ellsbury would be missed in terms of offense but they hoped to make that up with Xander’s estimated production to be far greater the Stephen Drew’s. I was not wild about the signing of Pierzynski but his offense was expected to compensate to the loss of Saltalamacchia (he was go from .273 to a paltry .220 with the Marlins). The hope was for Middlebrooks to bounce back.

The plan was slightly altered when Grady Sizemore had an awesome camp and make the opening day roster. Looked great but then he failed to produce at the same pace. Or nearly any pace.

But I get slightly ahead of myself. All the breaks that went their way in 2013 didn’t in 2014. The new replay system seemed stacked against them in the first month as everyone tried to adjust. Lots of blown calls seemed to go against them. Some of these were game changers, or so it seemed.

Another thing that went right in 2013 is that a high number of players who played above their means. They had above average seasons, often career years. Saltalamacchia, Nava, Carp had career best seasons. Papi hit exceedingly well for his age. He hit for average and power. Napoli bounced back to have a good offensive season as did Victorino. Part of what went wrong was regression to mean for the players still on the roster, and not on the injured list.

The main problems initially were a lack of production from the outfield. Nava was pressing and in a big slump to start the season. Victorino was hurt and the combination of Sizemore and Bradley hit about .220. Middlebrooks continued to struggle. The offense was stagnant. Even Pedroia and Papi got off to a slow start. Seemed like the only guys who didn’t were Napoli and Xander.

Buccholz was just plain horrible. New reliever Mujica was too, and blew some games early. Peavy just couldn’t buy a break.

And then the real problems started. Napoli injured a finger and was never the same. Middlebrooks got hurt, again. This “forced” them to re-sign Drew and shift Xander to 3rd. For the first time in his career, shortly after the switch, Xander entered a big, ugly slump. Unknown to the rest of the world, Pedroia was still hurt and not productive at the plate though he still played stellar defense. But he was the only one. Okay, Bradley was playing fantastic defense. Xander struggled at third, and they couldn’t throw a base runner out.

The changes started to come fast and furious. They gave up on Sizemore and cut him (he was hitting .216 at the time and hit a slightly more respectable .243 for the Phillies). Pierzynki was cut (he hit .254 for the Sox and would go on to the Cards and hit .244 for them on the way to the playoffs). Peavy (1-9, 4.72) was traded to San Francisco where he was 6-4 with a 2.17 ERA helping the Giants make the playoffs. Amid tons of chatter about signing an extension, Lester was traded to the A’s who he helped make the playoffs. Lackey was sent to St. Louis whom he helped make the playoffs. Noticing a theme here? Let’s not forget trading Miller to division champion Baltimore.

One plus was that Christian Vasquez had the opportunity to show he can handle a staff and throw out runners. His production was not great, but he stopped the other teams that ran at will on Boston early in the season. Those runs saved amount to something important.

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With the 2014 Red Sox still under .500, the Boston sports media has a new hobby. They keep talking about who should get traded from these Red Sox since, they think, this team’s season is over.

I can understand some of the push to trade players come July. I am in favor of that if they aren’t in the race. It would potentially give some of the younger players time to get used to life in the Big Leagues.

My problem is the guys they think we should trade. I hear about Lester, Lackey and Uehara. These guys make the least sense when you are talking about trades. Why? There is no one in the system who can replace them.

Jon Lester is a home-grown guy. Apart from his battle with cancer years ago he has been healthy as the workhorse he is. He is a known commodity who gives you 200+ innings every year and most of the time has a sub-.400 ERA. He has proven post-season dominance. Proven in the harsh environment of Boston with the media and demanding fans. Unlike Kirk Minihane, no one knows if Lester is leaving our not after this season. He likes it here. The Red Sox did seem to make a tactical error with a low offer. They do want to continue discussions. I can understand why they didn’t open the money bags for Ellsbury, but he’s not Ellsbury. Jacoby was often hurt and Jon hasn’t been hurt. They had a comparable player in the minors ready to take his place, and the hitting should eventually get there as it has at every other level along the way. But while there are some MLB worthy pitchers in the system, it is doubtful they will be as dominant as Lester in the next 5 years. They should pay him. They can’t control if he chases the money, and would get a compensatory pick. But trading him, unless you get a similar pitcher is crazy. And that pitcher has to fit in Boston. Scherzer is available this off season. But he finally pitched a complete game, and while in a good baseball city hasn’t had to pitch in Boston for a whole season. In other words, he is far more of a gamble than Lester’s health!

Lackey is also a top of rotation pitcher. He has no immediate replacement in the system. You don’t need replacements for Ortiz, Napoli, Pedroia, Bogaerts or Bradley. Nava has regained his swing and should produce again (is producing again). So what do you get, and is that worth trading a 1/2 starter? Not in my book.

I can’t find the article advocating a trade for Koji, at the peak of his value. Who closes for you? That’s all I ask? Miller and Tazawa have not proven capable of closing when they have had the opportunity. Does anyone remember how hard it was to get a closer after Papelbon left? Yes, he’s at high value right now. So … you have to replace him.

These are players who make up your core moving forward. They are not your problem, and can’t fix your problem. Trading them creates a new problem. In other words, such a trade normally makes a “big splash” (which the media likes) but tends to keep a team non-competitive. You just have new problems.

Most projections I’ve read for guys like Owens, Webster, Ranaudo etc. have been 3/4 in the rotation. Not aces. Hopefully we’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Trades at this point for the Red Sox seem to be more about enabling the future to happen than re-stocking. You want to get rid of guys who open the door for people young pitchers or catchers. The guys you trade are people like Peavy or AJ. They won’t get you a treasure trove of prospects or MLB players, but to a desperate contender you will get more than what they are worth. They allow you to bring up (or keep up) Workman, Vazquez etc. You also have time to wait for Betts and Cecchini (or Middlebrooks).

Media guys don’t have the best interest of the team in mind. Often fans don’t either. Let’s leave it to the professionals to figure all that out.

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You can’t visit my blog very often without realizing that I am a Boston Red Sox fan. A rabid Red Sox fan who grew up watching the “close but no cigar” in 1975, the horrible collapse of ’78 culminating in Bucky Bleepin’ Dent’s home run that broke the hearts of millions of us in New England. I watched all those heartbreaks and more. And I wept with rare joy when they defeated Leviathan, I mean the Yankees, in the improbable comeback in ’04 and then the Cards to win the World Series.

But I am also a baseball fan. When I lived in central Florida I watched the Rays. I would cheer for them unless they played the Red Sox. But having gone to games in the Trop, I find many Rays fans to be …. really obnoxious. And this before Joe Madden’s “smartest guy in baseball” act that has really worn thin. He is a very good manager but so stinkin’ condescending. Living in AZ now, I cheer for the D’Backs except for the rare occasions they play the Red Sox. I like the D’Backs (and Goldy) a whole lot more than the Rays.

I will confess that I actually cheered for the Yankees to win the first year of their run with Jeter & company. It was about friendship, plain and simple. I’ve read books on Yankees stars: Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle. So, I’m not a complete homer.

There is no denying Mariano Rivera’s place in baseball. He was the best closer in baseball for nearly 20 years. He was a one pitch wonder who still got guys out. He was nearly automatic in his prime. Additionally, for me, Mariano is a professing Christian who is using some of what baseball has afforded him to talk about Jesus. My curiosity arose and I wanted to read his autobiography, The Closer (written with Wayne Coffey).

Part of what is interesting is that they left some of Mariano’s imperfect English in the book. As he notes, in the book he didn’t know word one of English when he boarded the flight to Miami as a young man. He credits Tim Cooper for teaching him English on those long rides on the bus in the minors. The book, therefore, feels authentic with talk about eating iguanas and other things. There is a sense of humor to the book because Mariano doesn’t take himself to seriously. His humility shows throughout the book. There was one place where I was a bit surprised, when he mentioned Whitey Bulger. He may keep up on current affairs, but I thought only people in Boston really cared or thought about Bulger.

This book is mostly about baseball. He does devote a few chapters to life before baseball. He is the son of a Panamanian fisherman who was out to sea 6 days a week. It was not an easy life for his family and Mariano seemed destined for a similar life. After dropping out of school he was working on his father’s boat to save money to go to mechanic’s school. He wasn’t a 16 year-old free agent signing who lived in a baseball camp. At this stage in his life he barely played baseball because he was only on dry land one day a week.

Then the improbable happened. A bad pump with a full load of fish meant the boat sank. He now had some time to play baseball. He was an outfielder. One day the starter struggled and the manager inextricably pointed to Riveria in the outfield. He hadn’t pitched in years. He was confused but jogged in and threw strikes allowing his team to get back into the game and win. Destiny isn’t really the issue. Providence is: God working out His purposes and plans in creation. All of these improbable things need to happen for Mariano to go from guy on a fishing boat to signing a contract with the Yankees. Two teammates, wanting the $200 if he was signed, recommend him to a scout who’d previously seen Riveria as an outfielder to no avail. His control, since he still didn’t throw in the 90’s, encouraged the Yankees to take a chance on the skinny fisherman’s kid.

Riveria sees God’s hand at work in his life. This is one theme that runs through the book. There are also plenty of lessons about baseball and the choices that change a life forever. He provides the cautionary tale of Brien Taylor who was a #1 draft pick on his first minor league team. He admired Taylor’s smooth delivery and amazing results. He looked like he was going to deliver. But one night in the off season he came to his brother’s aid in a fight. His injured shoulder needed surgery and he was never the same. The player with tons of talent and expectations was out of baseball and eventually in prison but the guy no one expected to matter would become the greatest closer in history.

At times he shares this thoughts on guys like Jeter, Cano and Alex. You can see his fondness for Jeter (which is well deserved on the field) and frustration with Cano and Rodriguez. Both of them have amazing amounts of talent. But, in Rivera’s opinion, Cano isn’t driven like Jeter to harness it all. He makes the controversial statement that if he had one game to win he’d want Dustin Pedroia as his second baseman. Pedrioa, like Jeter, is driven and engaged on every play. Alex, well, as he says a few times Alex just makes life harder on himself with decisions that don’t make sense.

When he talks about his faith, a few pages at a time, I’m not sure how the ordinary fan will feel. It doesn’t put me off, and it seems to fit what he’s talking about, but I’m in the same boat as him. He doesn’t get bogged down in the distinctive beliefs of his particular church, but sticks to the common beliefs of Christians. That shifts in the epilogue a bit as he talks about the church that he and his wife, Clara who was his high school sweetheart, founded. But I don’t turn to athletes for theology or exegesis, and neither should you.

So you see a portrait of a man who is humble and loves His God. You see a man who enjoyed a life he never envisioned who did not get greedy but shares from the abundance with others. It is not a book to discover dirt but to learn something about his life and circumstances as well as his perspective. He has some life lessons drawn out from those things. It was a good read, particularly when you think of all the different players mentioned. One fact he related is interesting in light of the rash of Tommy John surgeries was that in the 5th game of a series against Seattle, David Cone threw 147 pitches. Not close to Tiant’s 225 in the ’75 World Series, but still amazing in light of the strict pitch counts which would soon enter baseball.

[I received a complimentary copy of this book for the purposes of review.]

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2012 was a nightmare year for the Red Sox. They were mediocre until the Nick Punto Trade. After the trade that freed up all that money for the future, they were downright horrible.

2013 was in incredible surprise. I thought they would be good, but not World Series Champion good until about August. The hopes of Red Sox Nation were restored. The new model seemed to pay off: no long term contracts, overpay if you need to to do it.

Then came the off season. I will admit, I thought they would be better than they have been. But it seems that Ben over-played his hand. There was too much change. I saw recently that most World Series Champions experience about 20% roster change. The question is, what 20% should change. In 2004 they lost Pedro and Damon. Those were very big pieces to lose. In 2005 they were good but were quickly dumped from the playoffs from the eventual World Series Champion White Sox.

They seemed to learn the lesson. After the 2007 championship, they held on to Mike Lowell who was their primary free agent. It would be a mistake as his hips betrayed him. It nearly paid off as they got all the way to game 7 of the ALCS. All they needed was either a healthy Lowell or Beckett to return to the World Series.

After the victory in 2013 they had some difficult decisions to make as Ellsbury, Napoli, Drew and Saltalamacchia were free agents. All of them were key starters. They made reasonable attempts to retain Napoli and Drew. They made a feeble attempt to retain Ellsbury. Who knows, if they made a real offer during the exclusive negotiation period he might not have gone to the Yankees. I would not pay him what they paid him, but I certainly would have offered him more than they did. They decided to move on from Salty.

The reasons for both were the development of prospects at short (Bogaerts), center (Bradley) and catcher (Vazquez and Swihart). The result was that they had a new catcher to buy time for the prospects, an inexperienced left side of the infield in Middlebrooks and Bogaerts and an inexperienced centerfielder. They also took a gamble on a rebuilt Grady Sizemore who looked very promising in Spring Training but created a log jam in the outfield.

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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. (more…)

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