After enduring one of the worst seasons in recent memory, the Boston Red Sox went to work during the offseason. Unfortunately, all that labor hasn’t led to much discernible improvement. It’s been a confusing winter, to say the least, and the team seems to have take a significant step backward in terms of both its strategy and its philosophy.
For decades the Red Sox were also-rans with a few standout seasons highlighting a fairly drab overall resume. But when GM Theo Epstein came to town in 2002, it looked like the organization had made a fundamental shift for the better. With a Moneyball-style approach, the Sox made smart, affordable acquisitions while putting most of their focus on building from within. Home grown talent like Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Jonathan Papelbon, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Clay Buchholz were augmented by judicious grabs like David Ortiz, Kevin Millar, Dave Roberts, and Curt Schilling.
The method helped win titles in 2004 and 2007, but as the success grew so too did the team’s (and the fans’) expectations. The signings became bigger and more high-profile. Daisuke Matsuzaka. Victor Martinez. Jason Bay. Adrian Beltre. John Lackey. Adrian Gonzalez. Carl Crawford.
The perceived need to bring in top-tier names was trumping the franchise’s common sense. The build-from-within mentality got lost in the glamour of inking superstars. After all, Pedroia, Youkilis, Ellsbury, Jon Lester, Papelbon…all had worked out so well, surely there was no end to the farm system’s pipeline. That was a given, taken for granted as the team brought in more game-changers.
But along the way, something happened. The team’s attitude changed. The atmosphere changed. The Dirt Dawgs from 2004 and 2007 were gone. No more Mike Lowell or Trot Nixon. Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek aged out of effectiveness. And the club became something that fans barely recognized. Boston had all but abandoned the approach that won it a pair of World Series’ in favor of shopping like the Yankees, and the moves began to backfire.
John Lackey was a predictable disaster, both on and off the field. Matsuzaka never even came close to justifying the exorbitant and foolhardy posting fee, much less his actual contract. Carl Crawford was constantly hurt. The huge expenditures didn’t leave much financial wiggle room for acquiring depth, and when stars went down, the replacement options were ugly. Injuries befell the team in bunches, and young players were rushed to the majors who simply weren’t ready. In fact, they may never have been ready; Boston couldn’t seem to duplicate its minor league triumphs from a decade ago.
As things unraveled, panic moves came. Reliever Daniel Bard was shuttled into the rotation. The steady and popular Terry Francona was unceremoniously trashed and exiled in a “mutual” split. And finally, Theo himself bowed out, escaping the sinking ship and heading for Chicago. Boston is now a club struggling to regain its identity. A club with grim prospects in 2013. A 93-loss 2012 season led to a fire-sale as Josh Beckett, Gonzalez, and Crawford were sent west. Kevin Youkilis was traded for, essentially, nothing. Not even salary relief. The steady if unspectacular Cody Ross and Mike Aviles are gone, given off to free agency and the Blue Jays, respectively. In exchange, Toronto sent former pitching coach and current manager John Farrell home to Fenway, but what kind of situation is he stepping into?
This winter has been a string of questionable decisions, excessive salaries, and stopgap measures. The result? Only time will tell, but it’s hard to see how the 2013 edition will be better off than last year’s Red Sox.
Best Case Scenario for 2013
It’s important for fans to be realistic heading into the season. The Red Sox are unlikely to compete for a division title, or even a Wild Card spot. Through its own series of maneuvers, Toronto has established itself as an early favorite to capture the A.L. East, and that must be music to the ears of long-suffering Jays’ fans. Tampa comes in stacked again; not only do the Rays boast a powerful rotation led by David Price and Matt Moore, but they acquired top prospect Wil Meyers this winter from Kansas City. The Baltimore Orioles are fresh off a playoff appearance and should be in the mix this year. The Yankees are old and infirm, but they’re still the Yankees. Nine times out of ten, that fact alone has been enough to get them past the Red Sox.
[Find the links to all 30 MLB team previews here: 2013 MLB Team Previews]
Given the competitive landscape and the makeup of the team, it’s hard to imagine Boston finishing higher than third. Even that would be a major stretch. Another last-place ending is perhaps more realistic, but if things go well and players like John Lackey can return to form (that’s Angels form, not previous Red Sox form), then the club has a shot at hanging with Baltimore and New York.
In order to get there, the Sox will need strong campaigns from its stars; Ellsbury, Lester, Pedroia, Buchholz, and Ortiz will be anchors this year.
Most Important Red Sox
A quick look at the depth chart makes it clear that the team’s leaders must carry a heavy load in 2013. That leadership starts with veteran Dustin Pedroia. It’s difficult to rank-order his importance against that of players like Ellsbury and Ortiz, since each plays a different role. But Pedroia is a catalyst for the team, both on and off the field. Hitting in the top third of the order, he’ll once again help set the table for the power hitters while also getting plenty of opportunities (we hope) to move Ellsbury into scoring position. Pedroia also serves as veteran leadership in an infield full of new faces. Will Middlebrooks could be a budding star at third, but health concerns and a lack of experience mean he’s hardly a sure thing. Stephen Drew will man short, and as a brand new addition he’s bound to have an adjustment period. Ditto for first baseman Mike Napoli, whose balky hip nixed the original multi-year deal he had in place. Now with an incentive-laden one-year contract, Napoli has plenty of motivation to impress. Jarrod Saltalamacchia still sits behind home plate, but the one-time uber-prospect is clearly a role player, not a star. The infield still revolves around Pedroia; he may not be elite in terms of any one skill, but few players have put it all together as he has. Boston will need him to step up once again.
On the pitching side, the most important arm is arguably Clay Buchholz. Why him? As the ace of the staff, Jon Lester simply has to be great. There is no other option. Lester needs to prove that 2012 and its 4.82 ERA was an aberration rather than the start of a trend. If he falters, the team’s not going anywhere anyway. Buchholz plays the critical role of the number two starter, and behind him the rotation is nothing but question marks. Will Felix Doubront take the next step in his development, or is he doomed to remain a mid-fours ERA type? Can John Lackey possibly be effective upon his return from Tommy John surgery, or will that monster contract continue to haunt the club for another year? Can Ryan Dempster, who turns 36 in May, hope to compete in baseball’s toughest division? (hint: don’t count on it.) And what if (baseball gods forbid) one of those pitchers goes down with an injury? Buchholz is 28 years old. He’s no longer a prospect with upside. This is his prime, right here, right now. While his career has had some outstanding high points, he’s been inconsistent overall. The 2013 Red Sox can’t afford that. Without a reliable number two, the rotation could be in serious trouble.
Potential Breakout Players
The obvious choice here is Will Middlebrooks. The second year man is coming off a nice rookie campaign that was cut short by injury. In 75 games (286 plate appearances) Middlebrooks amassed a .325 on-base percentage and an impressive .509 slugging percentage. His 15 home runs and 54 RBI hint at his production, and his defense at third is solid. A 30/100 season with an OPS in the mid-.800s is well within reach, and the final numbers could actually be much better if things break the right way. Only 24 years old, Middlebrooks is the centerpiece of the next generation of Red Sox.
After Middlebrooks, the brekaout players are tough to find. The roster is filled with a mix of proven veterans, journeymen like Jonny Gomes, and youngsters who just aren’t there yet. No matter how much fans want Jose Iglesias to develop some prowess at the plate, it hasn’t happened. It was interesting to hear Farrell’s opinion on this topic, however. The new skipper named knuckleballer Steven Wright as a potential sleeper in 2013. Is breakout too strong a term? Perhaps. But it’s hard to ignore Farrell’s take, given the role that Tim Wakefield played over the years. A reliable knuckleballer can do great things for a team, particularly in long relief. And, as mentioned, the Boston rotation is, well, shaky. Wright has a lot of work left to do before he’d be considered a good option, but if last year’s numbers is Pawtucket (20 IP, 3.15 ERA/ 1.20 WHIP/ 3.20 K:BB) and Portland (2 stints- 121.2 IP, 2.44 ERA/ 1.27 WHIP/ 1.61 K:BB) are any indication, he could be about to take a big step forward. Remember that knuckleballers often develop later in their careers, so at 28, Wright needs to be watched. And Farrell knows a thing or two about good pitching.
Worst Case Scenario
This hardly needs to be voiced, but Boston has a very good chance of remaining in the cellar this year. 2012 ended at 69-93; that .426 winning percentage could be an unfortunately familiar number come the end of September. This team has a lot of hurdles ahead of it, and in fact, things could get worse before they get better.
If the Red Sox are scuffling near the trade deadline, don’t be surprised to see Ellsbury shipped out of town. A Scott Boras client, the talented centerfielder is in the final year of his contract. Despite his history of injuries, Ellsbury is one of the most dynamic players in the game, and could command quite a haul.
Even if no blockbuster happens, the team will need to deal with a host of guys on the wrong side of 30, led by an aging David Ortiz (37), Ryan Dempster (36 in May), and John Lackey (34). No strangers to critical injuries, the Sox lack the depth to make up for a major loss.
Areas of Concern
Health. The outfield. The rotation. The bullpen. Clubhouse chemistry. There are plenty of areas of concern in 2013, based both on recent performance and probable outcomes. The offense needs to avoid the crippling injuries that have played deciding roles in each of the past few seasons, and with age and frailty both prominent factors, that could be tricky. Mike Napoli’s hip is already big news, and he has yet to take the field at Fenway. Ellsbury has wasted two of the last three years. Ryan Kalish can’t seem to shake his shoulder problems, and his window of development is closing.
Injuries aside, the biggest worry has to be the starting rotation. Back to front, Boston has a mediocre journeyman with no history of A.L. success, a Tommy John patient looking to overwrite a grim history in Beantown, a 25-year old who may or may not emerge as an MLB-ready option, and a pair of Red Sox fixtures coming off of abysmal 2012′s. ERA-wise, Lester and Buchholz need to be (at least) a full run better than they were last year. Doubront needs to take a giant leap forward and John Lackey needs to, well, not be John Lackey. Dempster was a foolish signing; pitching in the N.L. Central is nothing at all like pitching in the A.L. East. If he can post anything under a .450 ERA it should be considered a win, but don’t think he’ll be better than a league-average arm.
Bad decisions plague the bullpen as well. The team jettisoned Mark Melancon after his ugly Boston debut, snatching up Joel Hanrahan to replace him…at ten times the cost. Stat-wise, the two aren’t all that different when you look at their comparable resumes from the N.L. Central. Hanrahan’s arrival bumps Andrew Bailey out of the fireman role, which can’t make the former closer very happy. At least Daniel Bard is back where he belongs, and the ‘pen does have more quality options than in recent years.
On the offensive side, Boston is rolling with a declining Shane Victorino, who still has decent speed and a good glove, but may not add much at the plate. Jonny Gomes is the left fielder, and the less said about that, the better. Stephen Drew is yet another temporary solution at shortstop (how tired are fans of hearing that?). Salty is warming a spot for catcher of the future Ryan Lavarnway (we hope). Bottom line, this year’s studs-and-duds lineup could be ghastly.
Who Needs to Bounce Back From a Down 2012
The Red Sox need Jon Lester to get back to his old self. Last year’s numbers were uncharacteristically awful, generated by far too many baserunners. His 1.38 WHIP was far above his usual stats. The good news is that his walk rate was pretty consistent with previous years. The bad news is that he was hit harder than usual and saw his strikeout rate drop substantially. Lester needs to regain his power arm and be the ace that Boston expects.
Now that Beckett and Crawford are gone, Sox fans can stop caring about whether or not they rebound. Instead, the focus shifts to John Lackey. The $85 million man has been a major disappointment since coming over from Anaheim, and if anyone has ever needed a convincing bounce-back campaign, it’s him. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem particularly likely. An ERA in the fours and a WHIP exceeding 1.30 is far more probable.
Finally, there’s Jacoby Ellsbury. After missing virtually all of 2010 with multiple injuries, Ells roared back in 2011. He was the MVP runner-up, posted a .964 OPS, swiped 39 bases and popped 32 homers. In short, he made the leap from potential to actual superstardom. But 2012 brought more injuries and major regression. Which Ellsbury will we see in 2013? In a contract year, he needs to play well and stay on the field. That could mean good things for the top of the batting order. On the other hand, the better he plays, the more trade value he amasses in advance of his impending free agency, so it’s a bit of a double-edged sword.
All in all, the Red Sox will have a rough go of it this year. But fans have to hope that GM Ben Cherington has a long-term vision that will lead to better times. Recent decisions suggest that may not be the case, but perhaps we all just need to be patient. Cross your fingers, Red Sox Nation.