Can the Red Sox move past last seasons collapse?
The end of the Boston Red Sox's 2011 season was something that even now is difficult to comprehend. Blowing a nine-game lead in the wild card standings in the final month and missing the playoffs brought the Red Sox's season to a stunning end.
The offseason thus far has brought widespread changes in both player and front office personnel, as the Red Sox move towards the 2012 season. While the team looks primed once again to compete for a deep October run, the Red Sox aren’t without their share of question marks.
Jon Lester is a legitimate ace, and Josh Beckett had a nice bounce-back year in 2011; but behind them it gets a bit dicey. Third starter Clay Bucholz has shown the ability to be a front-line starter but is returning from a stress fracture in his back that sidelined him for the majority of last season. If Bucholz can return to his 2010 form, it would greatly improve the rotation's outlook.
Behind Bucholz in the rotation is last year's set-up man, Daniel Bard. No one will argue that Bard has dominant stuff, but it remains to be seen how he will handle the transition from a reliever to a starting pitcher. As the season progresses, the Red Sox will have to monitor Bard closely, since his previous career-high in innings pitched is only 74.2 for a season.
Currently manning the fifth spot in the rotation is Alfredo Aceves, who, like Bard, will be switching over from the bullpen. While Aceves does have some starting experience, he spot-started four games for the Red Sox last year, it will be interesting to see how he handles the responsibilities of taking the mound every fifth day.
Replacing Terry Francona will certainly be a steep task for former ESPN analyst Bobby Valentine, who hasn’t managed an MLB team since 2002.
Valentine had success in leading the New York Mets in the early 2000s, but his hiring in Boston was not well received. Former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling questioned the hire statingin an interview with Boston Radio Station WEEI, “I was surprised to say the least.”
Later in the interview, Schilling gave his thoughts as to why Valentine might be a poor fit in Boston, “I didn't see the fit personality-wise.”
How Valentine manages the Red Sox and how well the players respond to him will undoubtedly be a crucial factor in the 2012 season.
The American League got stronger this offseason
While the Red Sox were for the most part making minor moves, the rest of the American League was seemingly improving by leaps and bounds.
The archrival Yankees bolstered their rotation by adding Michael Pineda without sacrificing from their lineup. The Detroit Tigers added thump to their lineup with the addition of Prince Fielder. The Texas Rangers kept their lethal offense intact and added Japanese pitching sensation Yu Darvish to the rotation. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim added Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson.
Another team with dreams of a World Series are the Tampa Bay Rays, who stayed out of the bidding wars and let their homegrown talent develop. The bottom line is the Red Sox will face steep competition from the rest of the American League for a playoff berth.
The back end of the Red Sox bullpen is brand new, with the departure of Jonathon Papelbon to the Philadelphia Phillies and Bard to the starting rotation. Replacing Papelbon and Bard will be the newly acquired duo of Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon.
Bailey will become the Red Sox’s ninth-inning man, after spending the previous three years closing games for the Oakland Athletics. While the Red Sox did well to snag an established closer after Papelbon left, it is worth mentioning that Bailey had his worst season as a professional last year, as his ERA in 2011 nearly doubled his career ERA up to that point. It also should be noted that pitching in Boston is a completely different animal than closing out games in Oakland.
With the recent trade of Marco Scutaro to the Colorado Rockies, the Red Sox look prepared to trot out either Mike Aviles or Nick Punto as their Opening Day starting shortstop. For a team with a payroll in excess of $175 million, you would expect that they could manage to do a little better than Punto or Aviles.
Both Punto and Aviles profile better as utility guys that get the occasional start rather than the everyday shortstop. Aviles is a better hitter than Punto—that’s not saying much—but is a below-average defensive infielder.
The Red Sox hope guys like Youkilis stay healthy
As with any team, the Red Sox will have to get lucky in avoiding the injury bug throughout the course of the season. This isn’t something that the Red Sox can control, but it is something that could derail a potentially promising season.
The Red Sox have one of the older rosters in the majors, and many of their key players have spent lengthy stints on the disabled list in past seasons. Unlike previous years, the Red Sox don’t look to have the depth needed to overcome a potential significant injury to a starter.