Boston Red Sox
If you navigated last September without shaming yourself, your family, your employers and the city you call home, congratulations! You had a better month than the Red Sox. When September began, they led the AL East and owned the best record in baseball. When it ended, they owned the greatest collapse in baseball history, and the fallout swiftly claimed their manager, GM and training staff — not to mention their good standing with Boston sports fans. The task in 2012 will be rebuilding their image and reclaiming the postseason berth that has eluded them for the past two seasons. They’ll do so with a new manager, Bobby Valentine, who’s no stranger to controversy, and a new GM, Ben Cherington, who wants the team to get younger and more dynamic. They have the talent to win it all, but there are holes, too. About all we can say with certainty is that any beer and fried chicken will be consumed on the players’ own time.
If there’s a group to blame for last year’s clubhouse shenanigans, it’s the starters. Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, John Lackey and Clay Buchholz were the ones drinking beer during games, and they collectively have something to prove. Lester is the ace and pretty close to a sure thing, though he’s coming off a 2011 that saw his innings and strikeout totals decrease by about 10 percent each. Beckett was an All-Star last year, but he was considered the ringleader of wrongdoing, so he’ll have a target on his chest. Lackey is out for the year following offseason Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. Buchholz is an outstanding No. 3 — provided the stress fractures in his back that limited him 82.2 innings last year are healed. Reliever Daniel Bard is hoping to make the leap to the rotation after two dominant seasons as a setup man, and the fifth spot is up for grabs, with winter pickups like Carlos Silva, Aaron Cook and Vicente Padilla fighting it out.
Eighties hair rockers Cinderella warned us, “Don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” The Red Sox will soon discover whether they’re living those words after watching closer Jonathan Papelbon sign with the Phillies. They replaced him by acquiring righthander Andrew Bailey from the A’s. Bailey may not be Papelbon, but he’s a two-time All-Star and former Rookie of the Year who has been taking the ball in the ninth practically from Day 1 in the big leagues. With Bard shifting to the rotation, another acquisition — former Astros closer Mark Melancon — becomes the primary setup man. Jack-of-all-trades Alfredo Aceves returns to provide an invaluable multi-inning power arm with the added ability to make the occasional spot start. From there, one player to keep an eye on is rehabbing (Tommy John) left-handed specialist Rich Hill, who hasn’t allowed a run since 2009.
Dustin Pedroia will continue to battle New York’s Robinson Cano for the title of game’s best second baseman. He’s coming off a Gold Glove season that saw him set career-highs in homers (21) and RBIs (91). He’s also coming into his own as the heart and soul of the team and a true leader with veteran Jason Varitek now retired. Mike Aviles played just 14 games at shortstop last season, but will get the first crack at playing everyday this season. That is until the 22-year-old Jose Iglesias can prove he can hit big league pitching. He’s shown he can play Gold Glove defense, but his bat isn’t ready yet. Newcomer Nick Punto is Plan C at short.
Where once there was Manny and Big Papi, the Red Sox hope to have A-Gon and Youk. Few 3-4 punches in the game are as potent as first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and third baseman Kevin Youkilis — provided Youkilis stays healthy. Gonzalez nearly won the batting title in his Red Sox debut, and another year removed from shoulder surgery, he should have the power to top 40 homers again. Youkilis has steadfastly refused to alter the all-out way he plays — “I’d rather retire,” he says — and as a result, he hasn’t topped 136 games since 2008. When healthy, both he and Gonzalez are guaranteed .950 OPS types with the ability to grind at-bats and leave the park.
The Red Sox are pretty much guaranteed to receive above-average production from their outfield — because Jacoby Ellsbury is in it. The game’s newest superstar returns for an encore as one of the most dynamic players alive. The Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winner did everything en route to a second-place finish in the MVP voting, and matching his 30-30 totals will be a challenge. The challenge is entirely of a different sort for left fielder Carl Crawford. The $142 million man is out to show that last year’s woeful season was an aberration born of acclimating himself to Boston. While it can’t help his confidence that owner John Henry admits he opposed the signing, Crawford is a man on a mission. That mission, however, might be delayed a bit; Crawford underwent surgery on his left wrist in the offseason and is not expected to be ready for Opening Day. As for right field, newcomers Ryan Sweeney and Cody Ross should form a nice platoon.
Among the victims of September’s collapse was the second-longest-tenured member of the Red Sox — catcher Jason Varitek, who retired this winter. The Sox seemed ready to move on after signing Kelly Shoppach to back up starter Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and with young masher Ryan Lavarnway waiting in the wings. Saltalamacchia is looking to build on a fine 2011 season, his first as a full-time starter and one that saw him hit 16 homers and slug .450. Those numbers would look even better, but he withered in September, hitting just .162. Shoppach is here to hit lefties (.909 lifetime OPS) and throw out base-runners (league-leading 41 percent caught stealing last year).
In an organization that aims to rate as far above the league average as possible at every position, Ortiz represented the greatest single advantage in the game. He hit 29 homers (28 as the DH). No other DH reached 20. His OPS of .964 ranked more than 100 points higher than No. 2 Victor Martinez. He made his seventh All-Star team and won his fifth Silver Slugger. The 36-year-old is supposed to be on the downside, but outside of a brief interleague slump and a mediocre September (.769 OPS), he was a beast. He accepted arbitration rather than test the market, and the Red Sox will happily return him to the heart of their order. As for the bench, the Sox will have Punto and right-handed outfielder Darnell McDonald, as well as Shoppach, and possibly Lavarnway, who can serve as a right-handed DH.
Theo Epstein’s departure for the Cubs marked the end of an era in Boston. Over his nine seasons, the Red Sox won a pair of World Series and became one of the model franchises in the game, last September notwithstanding. Epstein’s replacement, Cherington, brings a similar intellect to the position, but with a slightly different focus. Whereas Epstein eventually became seduced by the idea of flexing the team’s formidable financial muscle, Cherington is a player development guy at heart. That approach was reflected in his first two major deals, acquiring young arms Melancon and Bailey. Valentine will make for good copy, and though it remains to be seen how his approach will play in Boston, he’s universally regarded as a brilliant strategist. The Cherington-Bobby V. partnership could be the perfect marriage — or end in a War of the Roses divorce. But it will not be blah.
If the leaders in that clubhouse have any pride whatsoever, the Red Sox will bounce back in a big way. Outside of Ellsbury, every player on the roster has room to improve, and all of New England — not to mention the rest of baseball — will be watching hawkishly to see how they respond. In a tough-as-nails American League that now includes Albert Pujols, the Red Sox will not skate to the postseason. The key will be the health and conditioning of the starting rotation, with all eyes on Beckett and Buchholz. The Sox have circled the wagons and proclaimed that they’re not the freak show everyone thinks. Now comes their chance to prove it.
CF Jacoby Ellsbury (L)
Talk about options. Ellsbury could bat third, too, after his monster 2011. But why mess with a good thing?
2B Dustin Pedroia (R)
With the pin out of his foot, Pedroia is poised to follow up a bounce-back 2011 with an even better 2012.
1B Adrian Gonzalez (L)
With his shoulder fully healed a year after labrum surgery, ready to challenge for the Triple Crown.
3B Kevin Youkilis (R)
If Youk could stay healthy, the Red Sox would be in a lot better shape.
DH David Ortiz (L)
Ortiz was far and away the best DH in baseball last year, and even at age 36, that trend should continue.
RF Ryan Sweeney (L)
Is battling with Cody Ross for at-bats.
LF Carl Crawford (L)
Prefers to bat second; Sox could drop Ellsbury to third and hit Pedroia leadoff if Crawford regains form. Slow coming back from wrist surgery.
C Jarrod Saltalamacchia (S)
The man they call Salty hit for surprising power last year (16 HRs).
SS Mike Aviles (R)
Phenom Jose Iglesias is still not ready for major league pitching, so Aviles will keep this job for now.
C Kelly Shoppach (R)
He can still pound lefties and throw, which is what the Sox need.
OF Darnell McDonald (R)
Will have to fight to win his job in spring training. A strong September helps his cause.
OF Cody Ross (R)
Most likely will be part of a platoon in right field. But if Crawford continues to heal slowly, Ross will be ready to play in left.
C Ryan Lavarnway (R)
Even if he opens the season in Triple-A, he’ll end it in the big leagues.
INF Nick Punto (S)
The Sox acquired the former Twin and Cardinal for his leadership and solid defense.
LH Jon Lester
Ace hasn’t quite put together a Cy Young-caliber season yet. Maybe 2012 will be his year.
RH Josh Beckett
Talk about a man with something to prove after being at the center of the beer and fried chicken controversy.
RH Clay Buchholz
He has something to prove, too, after a back injury ended his season in June.
RH Daniel Bard
One of the X-factors will be Bard’s ability to transition to the rotation.
RH Aaron Cook
The Rockies’ all-time wins leader gets a chance with a new organization.
RH Andrew Bailey (Closer)
The New Jersey native is East Coast through and through, which should help his transition.
RH Mark Melancon
He closed in Houston, but if he can set up in Boston, the Sox could be in business.
RH Alfredo Aceves
Also a candidate to start, the rubber-armed Aceves is a huge weapon as a multi-inning reliever.
LH Felix Doubront
The Sox expected big things out of Doubront last year, and he fizzled. It’s make-or-break time.
RH Matt Albers
The 95 mph-throwing Albers was a revelation in the sixth and seventh.
LH Franklin Morales
A second lefty never hurts, which gives Morales an edge to get the last roster spot.
Other teams' 2012 Previews:
Los Angeles Angels
Los Angeles Dodgers
New York Mets
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
St. Louis Cardinals