You can’t just forget the worst collapse in baseball history. Memory doesn’t work that way.
The adage holds that those who do not learn from their past are doomed to repeat it, and if the Boston Red Sox can’t avoid the pitfalls that ruined their 2011 then another disappointment could be in store. But at the same time, dwelling on the negative is of little use; this club made numerous changes in the offseason designed to alter its focus and direction.
The winter makeover was not without its casualties. There were shameful moments when the team, its city, and the media attempted an ill-advised smear campaign against outgoing manager Terry Francona. There was the shock over losing former wunderkind Theo Epstein. There was a division of opinion as to whether Bobby Valentine is the right man to take the reins in the dugout.
Yet for all the turmoil and tumult of the past seven months, some constants remain. Spring training arrived, as it always does, with optimism. Players reported looking ahead, not back. And come the end of March, the season will begin with a clean slate.
Lost in the recent roller-coast ride is the simple fact that the Sox still boast one of the game’s most dominating lineups. And barring injury and unexpected flops, the offense should be prodigious. Looking around the diamond, Boston has strength at numerous positions; first, second, and third are handled. David Ortiz is still one of the best designated hitters around, and the outfield should be much improved over last year. J.D. Drew is gone at long last, and it’s tough to imagine Carl Crawford struggling as mightily as he did in 2011.
Remember that for the bulk of last year, this team was averaging better than five runs per game. For stretches, that average jumped to better than six. That kind of production should carry over, and the Sox should once again be among the highest scoring clubs in the majors.
But if offense is a “pro”, the team certainly has its share of “cons”. These problems and question marks must be addressed and answered if Boston expects to return to the postseason out of the game’s toughest division.
1. What will Bobby V. do for (or to) team chemistry?
Already we’ve seen significant changes in the club’s public demeanor. Valentine has banned beer in the clubhouse following offseason allegations that pitchers were imbibing on team property. Overall, he should be a stricter skipper than was Francona– the question is will that bring the team together or pull it apart?
Managing a collection of big egos is no easy task, and it may be made harder because Valentine brings one of his own to the table. If this year devolves into a power struggle between coach and players, things could get ugly. It’s important not to underestimate the role that team chemistry plays in any sport, but it’s even more critical in a superstitious game like baseball.
2. What do the Sox have on the mound?
While Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and company have made waves with their alleged beer drinking, they really aren’t the problem in terms of Boston’s pitching. Those two and Clay Buchholz are steady enough and should form a very good front three in the rotation. After that, however, everything is up in the air.
Can Daniel Bard really become a starter? He has little experience to draw on, and his attempt at starting in the minors didn’t go over very well. Let’s assume for a moment that Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon can handle the late innings, effectively replacing Bard and Jonathan Papelbon in the bullpen. The loss of Bard’s relief presence may not be so bad, but that doesn’t mean he’ll add value in his new role. If he can’t make the switch, then the Sox have three set-up and closer types, but a big problem among starters.
Other than Bard, the Sox are likely to try out some combination of Felix Doubront, Andrew Miller, Alfredo Aceves, and (unfortunately) veteran retreads like Aaron Cook and Vincente Padilla. New GM Ben Cherington went hunting for washouts this winter, signing a string of duds to minor-league deals. The team even inked Carlos Silva, though reports indicate that he won’t be part of this year’s rotation. It took a bum shoulder to make that happen, which is both lucky and depressing.
With Tim Wakefield finally retired, long relief becomes an issue as well. Whichever name in the pool above fails to secure a spot as a starter will probably head to the pen.
It’s worth pointing out that Doubront, Miller, and Aceves all have considerable upside, though this might be Miller’s last chance at living up to his potential. if the team is forced to turn to Cook or Padilla, don’t expect much.
John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka are sidelined, recovering from Tommy John surgeries. Dice-K could return this year, but fans should hope he’s pitched his last inning for the Sox.
A good bet, assuming that Miller’s recent elbow stiffness is a minor hiccup and nothing more, would be a rotation of Lester, Beckett, Buchholz, Miller, and Bard. Miller would be the nominal fifth starter, but as he and Lester are the only lefties, Valentine might look to break them up in the order.
3. What is the front office thinking with regard to the shortstop position?
Let’s say that Carl Crawford’s horrific season was a fluke. Let’s say that he bounces back and has, at the very least, a serviceable 2012. And let’s say that the funky platoon of Ryan Sweeney- Cody Ross- Darnell McDonald can hold out until Ryan Kalish returns around June. And let’s say that Jarrod Saltalamacchia builds on his decent campaign from last year, backed up by a fairly effective Kelly Shoppach and, possibly, an emerging Ryan Lavarnway.
Side note– Boston has a glut of Ryans this year.
If all of those things happen, then the only real worry among position players is at short. With the departure of Marco Scutaro, the Red Sox are content to ride into the season with Mike Aviles and Nick Punto manning one of the most critical spots on the diamond. One couldn’t secure a starting spot in Kansas City. The other has posted OPS totals languishing near .600 in each of the past two seasons as a backup in Minnesota.
If you’re confused and terrified, you aren’t alone.
The team is clearly hoping for good things from prospect Jose Iglesias, but it’s time to face the likely reality that he won’t be much of a hitter. Even if the mighty duo of Aviles and Punto is just a stopgap measure until Iglesias is MLB-ready, it presents a real problem.
The issue is exacerbated by the fact that Aviles would have been a fill-in if Kevin Youkilis’ health becomes an issue; with Aviles the likely starter at short, that puts prospect Will Middlebrooks awfully high on the depth chart.
For more on the Red Sox, check out 3 Up and 3 Down and watch for the continuing 2012 Preview series.