2013 Baseball Preview: Boston Red Sox

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<p> Grab your hard hats and watch your step, Red Sox fans, because Fenway Park’s going to be a construction zone. After hitting rock bottom in 2012, the Sox aren’t beginning a remodel so much as a teardown. The return to respectability won’t happen overnight, not in the rugged American League East, but at least the Red Sox shouldn’t embarrass themselves, which would be a refreshing development.</p>

Grab your hard hats and watch your step, Red Sox fans, because Fenway Park’s going to be a construction zone. After hitting rock bottom in 2012, the Sox aren’t beginning a remodel so much as a teardown. The return to respectability won’t happen overnight, not in the rugged American League East, but at least the Red Sox shouldn’t embarrass themselves, which would be a refreshing development. They spent the winter patching the roster with veterans like Ryan Dempster, Shane Victorino and Stephen Drew in the hopes that augmenting a nucleus featuring Dustin Pedroia, Will Middlebrooks and David Ortiz will keep the Sox in the hunt for the second Wild Card while the farm system prepares the next generation. We’ll see if that scenario unfolds. In the meantime, beware of falling concrete.

Rotation
Here’s where the season will be made or broken. If Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz return to the form that made them All-Stars in 2010, John Lackey rebounds from Tommy John surgery to win his customary 13-to-15 games, and a youngster takes the fifth spot and runs with it, the Red Sox could contend for the division title. Unfortunately, that’s a lot of ifs, especially since the alternatives — Lester and Buchholz struggle for a second straight season, Lackey struggles with reentry, the fifth starter stumbles — are just as likely. It all starts with Lester. Now that Josh Beckett is gone, Lester is the leader of the rotation, and if he can rejoin that upper echelon of AL starters, he gives the Red Sox a bona fide ace. There are some worrisome signs, though. His strikeout rate has dipped in each of the last four seasons (from 10.0 in 2009 to 7.3 last year), along with his velocity. That’s why it’s so important that Buchholz returns to form and stays healthy. One name to watch is Rubby De La Rosa, a flamethrower coming off Tommy John surgery who was acquired from the Dodgers.

Bullpen
Whatever doubts exist about the rotation, they’re not shared in the bullpen. Taking a page from the 2012 Orioles, the Red Sox have tried to build a deep stable of power arms in the hopes of winning enough close games to stay in contention. The Red Sox have the arms to do it, particularly after acquiring two-time All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan from the Pirates. That shifts fellow two-time All-Star Andrew Bailey to the eighth. From there the Sox have their pick of arms like Koji Uehara, hard-throwing Junichi Tazawa, lefty Craig Breslow, lefty Andrew Miller, and the rubber-armed Alfredo Aceves. Plus, whichever of Felix Doubront and Franklin Morales loses the fifth starter’s battle should end up in relief, too. Breslow’s shoulder has been balky in the spring and will likely delay his season. But this is as deep a group as you’ll find in the majors.

Middle Infield
If everyone stays healthy, the Red Sox have a chance to field one of the best all-around double-play combos in the game. Pedroia’s résumé speaks for itself at second. He’s a former MVP and Gold Glover whose tenacity sets the tone on the field and off. And don’t discount the underrated Drew, who has 20-homer power and an ability to work the count. If something happens to the latter, then slick-fielding youngster Jose Iglesias would get the call from Pawtucket, though there are real concerns about his bat. The utilityman should be speedy Pedro Ciriaco, who was a jack-of-all-trades in 2012.

Corners
The Red Sox figured they had their hole at first base plugged when they signed Mike Napoli to a three-year, $39 million deal as their first big move of the offseason in early December. More than a month later, the sides still hadn’t agreed on language to protect the Red Sox in case Napoli suffered a hip injury. But on Jan. 17. The sides agreed on language for a one-year deal for $5 million guaranteed. But staying clear of the DL and answering the call every day, the former catcher can earn as much as $8 million. His bat is a plus, but his glove, not so much. The other side of the diamond is far less murky thanks to Middlebrooks, who’s a 25-homer hitter in waiting. Middlebrooks is fully healed from the freak broken wrist (hit by pitch) that ended his rookie season in August.

Outfield
The Red Sox had once hoped to just pencil in the names Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford in center and left, respectively, and watch them wreak havoc. Instead, Crawford was a colossal disappointment before being dumped on the Dodgers, while Ellsbury has only been able to stay on the field once in the last three seasons. With Ellsbury due to enter free agency, he could be traded at any point before the July 31 deadline, particularly if the Sox struggle to remain in contention. Otherwise, he’ll be flanked by Victorino, a former Gold Glover with the Phillies, in right field and Jonny Gomes in left. Gomes struggles in the field, but his right-handed power and clubhouse leadership make him an intriguing acquisition. Gomes has murdered left-handed pitching but will need a platoon partner against righties, with Daniel Nava and Mike Carp possibilities.

Catching
From the moment the Red Sox signed respected backup David Ross in November, it seemed inevitable that the other shoe would drop in the form of a trade of either incumbent starter Jarrod Saltalamacchia or promising youngster Ryan Lavarnway. But the Red Sox believed they could find room for all three catchers, even if it meant returning Lavarnway to Triple-A for further seasoning. In any event, the Sox could employ some intriguing permutations. The switch-hitting Saltalamacchia became an all-or-nothing proposition in the second half after a borderline All-Star first half. He’ll need to improve his selectivity or he won’t be playing anywhere. Lavarnway was likewise hideous down the stretch (.157-2-12 in 46 games). Ross is probably the most talented of the bunch, but he’s purely a backup at age 36 and is unlikely to play more than 70 games.
 
DH/Bench
The man they call Big Papi is officially the last link to the glory of 2004, when the Red Sox ended their 86-year-old curse. Signed to a two-year deal over the winter that finally should provide some peace of mind, Ortiz is nonetheless as motivated as ever to prove to the doubters that (a) he’s worth the $13 million he’ll receive in each of the next two years, and (b) that he can stay healthy. In many respects, he was in the midst of his best season last year before an Achilles injury basically ended his season in July, so proving the first part seems easy enough. However, pain lingers in his Achilles making his availability for Opening Day doubtful. As for the bench, the Sox have put a premium on versatility. Ciriaco can play all over the infield and debuted in center last year. With Victorino able to play center, the Sox are covered behind Ellsbury. Nava and Carp can back up the corner spots and/or platoon with Gomes in left. The final order of business as spring training beckoned was adding Carp as a reserve left-handed first baseman.

Management
Bobby Valentine divided and conquered the clubhouse through passive-aggression last year, and his tenure goes down as one of the biggest mistakes in franchise history. The Red Sox believe they’ve found the anti-Bobby V. in John Farrell, the team’s former pitching coach, who commands respect throughout the organization. Farrell dealt with the Hanrahan and Bailey situation immediately, naming the former his closer in December. In the GM’s office, Ben Cherington has learned from the mistakes of his first season — when he didn’t do enough to change the clubhouse culture — by striking aggressively late last summer (Dodgers blockbuster) and then all winter, securing a number of solid veterans on contracts of three years and fewer. Farrell and Cherington see the game similarly (they’re both former farm directors) and work well together.

Final Analysis
The Red Sox need so much to break right to contend in the AL East. Most of their free-agent acquisitions are coming off down years. Vital cogs like Ortiz, Pedroia, and Ellsbury must stay healthy, something none of them managed in 2012. They need the starters to rebound and the bullpen to remain stout. It also wouldn’t hurt if some of the other teams in the East underachieved. In reality, this is Year 1 of a lengthy rebuild, and even though the Red Sox hope and expect to remain competitive, it’s probably going to be another season or two before they restore their status as legitimate contenders.

Lineup
CF    Jacoby Ellsbury (L)    
With free agency looming, Ellsbury would like nothing better than to prove his breakout 2011 the rule, not the exception.
SS    Stephen Drew (L)    
Drew knows how to work himself into a hitter’s count, and then he’s hacking.
2B     Dustin Pedroia (R)    
Pedroia and Drew are both better suited to hit second, but one of them must bat in the 3-hole where Pedroia owns a lifetime .840 OPS.
DH     David Ortiz (L)    
Baseball’s best DH by a wide margin, Ortiz hit .320 with a .985 OPS against lefties last year. But Achilles problems continue to plague him and make him doubtful to be ready by Opening Day.
1B    Mike Napoli (R)    
Napoli’s problem isn’t his production; it’s his health. He has averaged only 379 plate appearances per season.
RF    Shane Victorino (S)    
Victorino hits lefties (.881 career OPS) far better than righties (.727).
3B    Will Middlebrooks (R)    
Free swinger struck out 70 times and walked only 13 in 286 plate appearances as a rookie.
LF    Jonny Gomes (R)    
Gomes may never be a full-time player, but he has reached 20 homers in fewer than 400 at-bats three times.
C     Jarrod Saltalamacchia (S)    
Needs to add more discipline to his approach, or he’ll be taking a seat in favor of David Ross or Ryan Lavarnway.

Bench
INF    Pedro Ciriaco (R)    
Opened eyes last year as a speedy pest who can play pretty much anywhere.
C     David Ross (R)    
Ross was universally adored in Atlanta, where pitchers loved throwing to him. Probably the game’s best backup.
1B/OF    Mike Carp (L)
Acquired from Settle to potentially platoon with Gomes in left and as insurance for Napoli at first.
OF    Daniel Nava (S)    
A .317 hitter over six seasons in the minors, the Red Sox expect his bat to come around at the major league level as well.

Rotation
LH     Jon Lester     
Let’s not forget that until his terrible 2012, Lester was pretty much a guaranteed 16 wins.
RH     Clay Buchholz    
There may not be a more diverse arsenal in the game, with Buchholz throwing everything but a knuckleball.
RH     John Lackey    
The man in the middle is Johnny on the spot. If he’s his Angels self, the Sox could be in business.
RH     Ryan Dempster    
The Red Sox suspect Dempster will struggle with good lineups, but they want him to feast on bad ones.
LH     Felix Doubront    
With legit swing-and-miss stuff and a 96 mph fastball, Doubront needs to harness his command.

Bullpen
RH     Joel Hanrahan (Closer)    
Hanrahan brings the 98 mph heat and buries with a slider that ranks among the game’s most unhittable pitches.
RH     Andrew Bailey    
Former All-Star closer says he’s okay with move to set up Hanrahan. If he takes to it, it’s difficult to imagine anyone better.
RH     Junichi Tazawa    
On another team in another season, the hard-throwing Tazawa could be considered a closer candidate.
RH     Koji Uehara    
Like Tazawa, Uehara strikes out more than a batter an inning with impeccable control.
LH    Craig Breslow    
After kicking around the game’s margins for nearly a decade, Breslow owns a 3.15 ERA since 2010. A sore shoulder has shelved him for a few weeks.
LH     Andrew Miller    
A bust as a starter, the 6'7" Miller has been reborn as a junior Randy Johnson in relief, abusing lefthanders.
LH     Franklin Morales    
Morales was a revelation as a starter last year, and may beat out Doubront for the fifth spot.

MLB Teams: 

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