As Opening Day nears, the Boston Red Sox have answered some outstanding questions– at least for the time being– and have solidified the rotation, bullpen, and lineup. Some of these choices happened out of necessity while others were matters of preference, but what fans want to know now is how these decisions will impact the start of the season.
Relieved of Duty
Beginning in the ‘pen, Boston lost its purported closer when Andrew Bailey was slated for thumb surgery. Bailey suffered an injury to his ulnar collateral ligament in a spring game against Pittsburgh; the reconstructive procedure will keep him shelved until the All-Star Break. Though he was a known injury risk coming in, this setback was both unexpected and unfortunate. The Sox can only hope it’s not an omen of things to come in 2012.
General Manager Ben Cherington quickly squelched rumors that Daniel Bard would assume closing duties. Instead, the club will likely turn to Mark Melancon, who earned 20 saves with Houston last year. Should he falter, Alfredo Aceves would be next in line. Boston is an organization rooted in Moneyball philosophy– if any team can break away from baseball’s curious need to identify “proven closers”, it’s the Sox. That being said, there’s no reason to think Melancon won’t be a successful fireman.
Bailey is the third Boston reliever to be sidelined with a significant injury, joining Bobby Jenks (back) and Rich Hill (arm). Jenks is out for at least the first half, while Hill is working his way back from Tommy John surgery and has an indeterminate timetable.
That means that behind Melancon and Aceves, the bullpen will feature Michael Bowden, Franklin Morales, Matt Albers along with a cadre of former starters that likely includes Vincente Padilla, Aaron Cook, and Andrew Miller.
Arms Set, Fingers Crossed
Daniel Bard is sticking in the rotation, where he won the final spot behind Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Felix Doubront. Assuming they can avoid the injuries that stymied them last year, Lester and Buchholz should be fairly reliable, and Beckett has revitalized his career in ace-like fashion. Beckett is, however, working through a minor thumb injury of his own that bears watching.
Doubront and Bard should have fairly long leashes, though both Aceves and Miller will be lurking in the wings should either suffer prolonged slumps. Bard has excellent stuff, but his consistency will be a major issue; prior to this spring the guy hadn’t thrown more than a couple of consecutive innings in years. It’s hard to predict how he’ll adjust to the new role, but odds are that he’ll have at least a few very ugly starts.
Doubront needs to take a step forward in his development after working his way through Boston’s farm system in recent years. Though he’s about to enter his eighth professional season, Doubront is just 24 years old. While he’s been shuttled among Portland, Pawtucket, and Boston since 2010, this season could feature his first extended big league contribution.
The rotation is hardly a sure thing with so many injury concerns and doubts about effectiveness. But all five guys have real upside.
Like the rotation, the lineup is now set for the beginning of the season. Carl Crawford is out until late April with a wrist injury, which moves Cody Ross up the depth chart in the early going. Ross should play everyday, at least until Crawford returns. Jacoby Ellsbury is a lock in center, and while Ryan Sweeney will probably assume right field duties, his sore left quad could mean some spot starts for Jason Repko or Darnell McDonald.
It’s not exactly an outfield that inspires confidence. Once Crawford returns it will look a bit better, and if Ryan Kalish ultimately bounces back from injury and proves to be the kind of talent that the Sox believe he is, then the club should be in good shape down the stretch.
Around the infield, management was fairly predictable. Youngsters Ryan Lavarnway (C/ DH), Lars Anderson (1B), Jose Iglesias (SS), and Will Middlebrooks (3B) were all sent down to Pawtucket where they’ll play every day and further improve their skills. However, it’s possible that at least some of them will see substantial time this year, given the big club’s lack of offensive depth.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia enters the season without Jason Varitek as a safety net; instead, he’ll be backed up by Kelly Shoppach. Shoppach has returned home, in a manner of speaking. He was drafted by the Sox in 2001 and hung with the organization until 2005 when he was sent to Cleveland. After stints with the Indians and Rays, he’s back in a Boston uniform.
First, second, and third are taken care of, as is the DH position with David Ortiz back for another year. Shortstop is a bit frightening, with Mike Aviles getting the official nod as the starter with Nick Punto and Pedro Ciriaco serving as reserves. Skipper Bobby Valentine even suggested that he might bat Aviles leadoff. According to Bobby V, Aviles ”strike fear into a pitcher’s heart.” That might be an overly optimistic assessment, but Aviles does boast a career .924 OPS against lefties, so there could be some sense in giving him a limited leadoff role.
Order from Chaos
Boston still has the obvious problem of crafting a batting order. Though there’s plenty of talent throughout the lineup, making sense of what to do with it will be tricky. Last year, Crawford primarily hit sixth, seventh, and eighth. But that was due to his extended slump and would be a poor solution going forward. Crawford is a tailor-made two-hole hitter, but if he’s there, where does Pedroia go? And if Valentine is in any way serious about Aviles, where will Ellsbury hit?
If we assume that age and some minor skill attrition have knocked Kevin Youkilis down into the middle of the lineup for good, then having a first three of Ellsbury-Crawford-Pedroia probably makes sense. Adrian Gonzalez has to hit cleanup, leaving Ortiz and Youkilis to work out the five and six spots. Salty, Sweeney, and Aviles would likely wrap things up.
In the short term when Ross will fill in for Crawford, the order will be totally different.
Regardless of injury, accommodating the skills of his various players will be an ongoing challenge for Valentine.
The regular season begins on Thursday, April 5th in Detroit. Jon Lester will square off against reigning MVP Justin Verlander.