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Boston Red Sox: 22 Biggest Question Marks Heading into Spring Training

Frank LennonCorrespondent IFebruary 22, 2012

Boston Red Sox: 22 Biggest Question Marks Heading into Spring Training

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    The tumult of the September collapse; the chicken and beer fiasco; the departure of both the GM and the field manager; the loss of Jonathan Papelbon; the controversial hiring of Bobby Valentine—this has certainly been an offseason to remember.

    And it hasn't even ended yet for new GM Ben Cherington and his team. There is still speculation that the Red Sox may make a last-minute deal for a proven, veteran starter. Roy Oswalt and Edwin Jackson are still available, and Gavin Floyd could be had in a trade.

    However, other than re-signing David Ortiz (which is a great move, in my opinion), many of the questions that were unanswered at the end of the 2011season are still not answered.

    In some cases, that is not necessarily bad. I, for one, totally agree with Cherington's approach of avoiding the highest-priced free agents this year. I agree with his tactic of waiting for the feeding frenzy to die down, then picking up some very serviceable parts to supplement a very good team (which many forget was the best team in MLB for a good part of last summer).

    The biggest question mark still revolves around the question the media wants to ask, and the players want to avoid: "What happened last September, and how do we know it won't happen again?"

    For weeks in the fall, there was a steady flow of rumor, innuendo and criticism in New England media (especially sports-talk radio). 

    I wrote at the time,

    Not until that is done will the Red Sox actually be able to move on to resolve team (and eventually on-field) issues. This issue is so big it totally overwhelms all the others. This is still a PR disaster, and without being effectively blunted or refuted, it will fester for months like a dead critter under your porch.

    I also added that the team must address this problem before players report to Florida. If not, the launch of spring training will become a media circus, with the focus being on the end of 2011 instead of the beginning of 2012.

    That's not the environment you want to have going into a new season.

    For a while there, things seemed to die down a bit.

    Maybe it was just a case of media exhaustion, and also the fact that the well of juicy tidbits seemed to dry up. And of course the Patriots run to the Super Bowl kept the spotlight off the Red Sox for a while…

    Now, reporters are getting their first crack at most of the players since the 2011 collapse. And the sticky questions about the end of last season are being asked again—because they were never answered the first time around.

    As Saul Wisnia so effectively put it, "If you listened to sports radio over the past couple weeks, it was easy to pick up: Fans are angry and want a change. Enough 'Sweet Caroline' and waxing poetic about 2004 and '07; it's time for these underachievers to get serious."

    But it is human nature to fret, so to give you nail-biters out there a scorecard, I'm providing this list of 22 questions which still need to be answered.

1. Will Bobby Valentine Win Over the Clubhouse?

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    Unlike Terry Francona, Bobby Valentine shoots from the hip, and has no qualms about letting everyone know exactly how he feels.

    At the time of the hiring, former Red Sox pitcher Dick Drago was concerned that Valentine’s reputation for criticizing players could make it more difficult for him to accomplish what he needs to in that clubhouse.

    "Tony La Russa, Lou Piniella and others were tough managers, but you didn't see them ripping their ballplayers in public the way Valentine has," Drago told me. "Whether it's deserved or not, Valentine has a reputation for being publicly critical of his players. If that does not change, he will not succeed in Boston."

    As George Vecsey wrote in the New York Times recently, “Bobby V…was never shy about critiquing his own players.”

    We're going to guess that Red Sox ownership hired Valentine because (a) he's a relatively "big name"; and (b) because he has a reputation as a hard-ass who can come in and grab an allegedly dysfunctional clubhouse by the throat and turn it in a new direction.

    Tim Britton of the Providence Journal hit the nail on the head when he wrote that the more important aspect of managing in the 21st century is "how one handles his clubhouse—a talent that is subtler, more difficult to gauge and, as we discovered at the end of this Red Sox season, not necessarily consistent over time."

    Subtle? Bobby Valentine? Hmm. That could be a problem.

    Ian Browne of MLB.com writes, "Valentine is bright, inquisitive and assertive. His global interests go well beyond baseball, which he analyzes with aplomb. He is part Tony La Russa, part Howard Baker, the former senator and U.S. ambassador to Japan. He doesn't suffer fools well."

    I readily admit it—I was one of those who questioned the hiring Bobby Valentine, believing it was an application of lipstick to a pig.

    I thought one of the reasons he was hired was so that his high-profile, volatile personality and relative accessibility would distract the media during the hot stove winter. I also thought he would make highly visible statements to reinforce his standing as the “new sheriff in town”.

    The exact opposite seems to have happened. Valentine has maintained a relatively low (but accessible) profile, and he has not made himself the center of attention. He seems to be saying and doing the right things, building good communication and rapport with most of his players for the coming season.

    He quietly reached out to all his players, meeting many of them face-to-face and speaking with others on the phone. Clay Buchholz described one such meeting in Arizona last month; he, Jacoby Ellsbury, Darnell McDonald and Dustin Pedroia had dinner with Valentine, and Buchholz for one "came away impressed with his new manager."

    Valentine has also bent over backwards not to criticize the two most likely confrontation candidates in his new clubhouse: Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford.

    As an ESPN analyst, Valentine took both to task. While it took some time for Valentine and Crawford to connect (see next slide), they now seem to be on the same page.

    He has also been impressed by what he's seen from Beckett and Jon Lester in the early days of camp.

    "Attitude filters down," Valentine told Ian Browne of MLB.com. "When you see Josh Beckett and Jon Lester here [early], they are at the top of the pyramid here as far as the pitchers are concerned. They came early and they've been showing fantastic attitude."

2. Will Carl Crawford Return to His Pre-2011 Performance Level?

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    The one player who can have the greatest impact on Valentine's success or failure as a manager in 2012 is Carl Crawford. Even the best starting pitcher can only win every fifth day; a multi-tool star like Crawford can help a team win every day.

    Yes, there has been a setback due to the surgery on his wrist, but if the wrist had anything to do with his poor 2011 performance, then the repair can only help long-term.

    If Valentine can get Crawford's head on straight for spring training, the former Tampa star can end up being the new skipper's biggest ally in the clubhouse. If managed properly, Crawford can become a conduit to reaching the rest of the team.

    Early in the winter, news reports indicated that Crawford had not responded to Valentine's initial outreach. Crawford may have been still smarting from Valentine's 2010 on-air criticism of Crawford's outfield play.

    "Bobby Valentine is being dissed by one of his key players." wrote Ian Browne of MLB.com. "Carl Crawford…has ignored all of Valentine's attempts to contact him this offseason...and Valentine himself doesn't seem sure Crawford would talk to him even if he showed up on the left fielder's doorstep."

    Art Martone of Comcast Sportsnet New England writes, "Crawford's not looking very good in all this; he appears petty and small, overreacting to the sort of thing a professional athlete is supposed to be able to handle. Valentine, after all, was just doing his job at the time."

    At that time I wrote, "Whether Crawford is being unreasonable or not, Valentine must be relentless in mending that fence."

    Apparently, he has been. When Crawford reported to camp, he told Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe, "It’s just stuff you have to say when you’re on TV so me and Bobby have no hard feelings. We share a common goal to help the Red Sox win."

    Crawford added that he thought Valentine to be an "Upbeat guy. Real smart guy. Actually looking forward to learning as much as I can from him. "I’m looking for Bobby to have a real good impact on us.”

    Unlike some other players whose long track records of injury and/or mediocrity can reasonably be expected to predict future performance, Crawford’s 2011 results were a stunner.

    I’m not going to rehash here the oft-repeated litany of his underperformance. I think it’s more important to focus on the monster seasons he had in Tampa, because they are more likely to be repeated than 2011 will.

    Former Red Sox pitcher Dick Drago and I were discussing Crawford’s unexpectedly bad year. Drago, who now lives in Tampa, said that Crawford in Boston did not look like the same player he was in Florida.

    Drago believes the attitude in the clubhouse may have had more to do with Crawford’s difficulties than most people think. In Tampa, Crawford was one of the leaders on the team. Crawford had once confronted Pat Burrell about his lack of professionalism and poor attitude and threw Burrell up against a locker to make his point.

    Crawford’s opinion was so well thought of that management got rid of Burrell shortly thereafter. 

    When he came to Boston, however, he was the new guy—an outsider in someone else’s clubhouse, and was apparently unable to affect the existing culture.

    Mike Giardi of ComcastSportsNE did an excellent story about Crawford. He wrote, “Finally, late in the season but before the team entered its death spiral, Crawford had had enough. He launched into an impassioned speech, imploring teammates to get it together. It fell on deaf ears.”

    Valentine is the one person who can most affect the clubhouse culture going forward. If he does, chances are the Red Sox will get their superstar back.

    Crawford also told Cafardo, that he was “definitely excited" to show fans the Carl Crawford that Red Sox Nation had hoped to see last season. "Like I said, I put a lot of pressure on myself last year. I just need to stay relaxed and stay focused."

    Crawford also acknowledged that the seven-year, $142 million contract may have had more of an impact than he thought. "You never know until you sit back and think about it. It probably had its effect on me. You want to show you’re worth the money. The pressure builds up on playing in Boston. This year I have to find ways to get over that and play my game.”

    If he does, that will be better than any off-season acquisition the Red Sox could have made for 2012.

3. Can Clay Buchholz Regain His 2010 Form?

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    First, a disclaimer. I happen to be a Clay Buchholz fan. I was in the stands on September 1, 2007 when he no-hit the Orioles as a rookie; it was the only Red Sox game I went to that year.

    Can Buchholz make it through an entire season without injury? If he can stay healthy and pitch 200 innings for the first time, a lot of questions about the Red Sox starters go away.

    While Beckett and Lester lead the staff, Buchholz is the key to the rest of the rotation. Some believe he has the best pure stuff on the entire staff. When he first came up there were questions about his ability to perform in the pressure cooker that is Fenway Park. "That is no longer an issue," writes Scott Cordischi, GoLocalProv Sports Editor. "Health is the key for Clay."

    In 2010 he went 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA. But he missed most of the season in 2011 with a back strain, later diagnosed as a stress fracture. He was shut down in June after 14 starts. 

    After the red Sox were eliminated from the playoffs, Clay Buchholz still had work to do, according to Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe. "Buchholz was assigned to the Instructional League in Florida to determine whether the stress fracture in his back had properly healed. Instead of going home, he had to start three games against minor league prospects on windswept practice fields."

    Although he was not excited about this requirement, he recently told Abraham, "“It was definitely a good thing for me to know that going into the offseason, I wasn’t injured anymore and was able to throw without any pain.’’ 

    He has since pursued a strenuous offseason training regimen. “I haven’t had a problem,’’ Buchholz said. “As of right now, I feel good.’’

    Early reports from Fort Myers are positive. Bobby Valentine told Ian Browne of mlb.com,  "First impressions of Clay Buchholz have been very impressive impressions," Valentine said. "When he stood on the mound and propelled the ball forward, every time he's done it has been outstanding. His health and the training room reports are excellent. He has a great look in his eye."


4. Will Daniel Bard Be Effective as a Starter?

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    If Bard can succeed in the rotation, the Red Sox may have dodged a depth-of-rotation bullet.

    To say nothing of saving a bundle on the free agent market. 

    The Red Sox and Bard avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year contract. MLB.com's Ian Browne says (on Twitter) that they settled at  $1.6 million plus. Even with that bump from the $505,000 he earned in 2011, the Red Sox are not going to be able to find many starters with Bard’s stuff available at that price.

    "What you've allowed yourself to do is . . . acquire a high-upside starter in Daniel Bard for nothing," said ex-Red Sox infielder Lou Merloni on Comcast SportsNet New England.

    I've been beating the "Bard as a starter"drum since the season ended.

    Point one: It's a lot harder to develop (or find) good starting pitchers than it is to find relievers.

    Point two: I doubt Daniel Bard has the makeup to be a closer.

    After all, he was 2-9 for the year, and his eighth-inning appearances (56 of them) are not as overpowering as many think. Yes, he had that lights-out midsummer stretch, and for the year, batters hit only .205 against him.

    However, Bard allowed 22 runners to score, in addition to giving up 25 runs of his own, with a very average eighth-inning ERA of 4.38. 

    His disastrous September (ERA of 10.64 with nine walks in 11 innings pitched) adds to the concern.

    What many forget is that the Red Sox drafted Bard as a starter, and he made 44 starts (with admittedly terrible results) in 2007.

    Bard himself has said that starting wasn't the problem; he just was not pitching well that year, and the results would have been the same no matter what inning he pitched. At the start of the 2011 season, he expressed an interest in returning to a starting role. He reiterated that request this year, and the Red Sox have taken him up on it.

    To those who suggested that Boston should have pursued C.J. Wilson, I remind you that Wilson was a reliever for five years before transitioning to a starting role in 2010.

    The Rangers  signed Joe Nathan so they could convert their closer, Neftali Feliz, into the starting rotation—so there are two recent precedents for you.

    One of the perceptions of Bard is that he is a one- (or at most two-) pitch pitcher. That's not true. If you go back to Bard's scouting report at redsoxprospects.com, it says:

    Bard also mixes in an 80-82 mph slider with some nice bite. His slider really keeps hitters off balance. It can also dip down to about 76-78 mph with more slurve action. He also has a few other pitches in his arsenal that aren't used very often, including a high-80s cutter, a low-90s two-seamer, and a circle change.

    One guy who should know is fully supportive of Bard's move to the rotation. “I’m excited to see what he can do,” Papelbon said to Providence Journal reporter Brian MacPherson. “I think Daniel has a phenomenal career ahead of him, and, in my opinion, there’s no reason why he can’t start. I think Daniel can do whatever he wants to do. He’s that good. He’s matured into a phenomenal pitcher and is only going to get better, and I think the sky’s the limit for him.”

    Let's face it, a top-four rotation of Beckett-Lester-Buchholz-Bard would not be bad.

    The low-risk, high-reward potential seems to fit right in to GM Ben Cherington's plan.

5. Can Aaron Cook Become an Impact Starter Again?

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    The first of the new-to-Boston arms, and in my opinion the most likely one to succeed, is former Colorado Rockies ace right-hander Aaron CookThe Red Sox signed him to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. Should he make the big league roster,  Cook stands to earn a prorated $1.5 million, according to WEEI.com. Cook will be given the chance to join a gaggle of other low-risk signees in competing for the fourth or fifth starter role.

    Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine told Ian Browne of mlb.com that the training staff is considering putting Aaron Cook, who is competing for a rotation spot, on a more conservative program then the other pitchers. "Aaron Cook has had shoulder issues in the past where, when he's come back, he's come back too soon and he's done a step forward and two back," Valentine said. "We're trying to prevent that from happening again. We're trying to get him so he can cruise on through. He's not hurt. He's just trying to learn from the past." 

    According to FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthalnew Red Sox pitching coach Bob McClure knows Cook. McClure was a minor league pitching coach for Colorado for six years (1999 to 2005).  Cook was theRockies’ second-round draft pick in 1997, and made the major league team in 2002. He spent parts of 10 seasons with the Rockies, and he is the only Colorado hurler to have pitched more than 1,000 innings. Cook also holds the team record for victories with 72.

    During that span, he posted an ERA of 4.53 in some 1,300 innings. From 2006 through 2009, he averaged 187 innings per season and recorded a 4.11 ERA.

    Boston fans may recall that Cook was the losing pitcher in the decisive Game 4 of the 2007 World Series. Cook allowed just one run through the first six innings, but World Series MVP Mike Lowell hit a two-run home run off him in the seventh, and Boston went on to win, 4-3.

    Cook signed a $30 million deal covering the 2009-2011 seasons, but injuries plagued him for the duration of that contract. He lost a month in 2009 with a strained right shoulder, and the following year he suffered a broken leg when he was hit by a line drive off the bat of the Reds' Joey Votto.

    In 2011, he battled shoulder issues again early in the season and later broke a bone in his fingertip when he slammed it in a door. His 97 innings in 2011 were his fewest since 2005, and it was no surprise when the Rockies chose not to pick up an $11 million team option for 2012, making him a free agent.

    Cook had comparatively brutal numbers in 2010 and 2011, which undoubtedly made many teams leery of signing him. He posted a 5.08 ERA and a 1.19 strikeout to walk ratio in 2010, walking 52 batters in 127.2 innings. He followed that up with a 6.03 ERA and a 1.69 WHIP in 2011, walking 37 and only striking out 48 batters in 97 innings. 

    So, why should Red Sox fans be optimistic about Cook's chances? 

    First of all, he has one of the best sinkers in the game, and has produced a career ground-ball rate of 57.4 percent—one of the highest in MLB over the past ten years. The average MLB pitcher induces grounders about 44 percent of the time.

    That would certainly be useful at Fenway Park. Remember Derek Lowe, another ground ball pitcher who excelled in Boston? 

    More importantly, his deteriorating stats may not be a good prediction of his future performance.

    There is pretty good evidence showing that pitching in Colorado produces more wear and tear on hurlers due to the altitude. Marc Normandin wrote an excellent analysis of that phenomenon for SBNation.com when he covered the Ubaldo Jiminez trade last year.

    Normandin quoted former Baseball Prospectus writer Rany Jazayerli: "…one thing the Rockies have figured out--a finding backed up by medical science--in their decade in the mountains: as a result of the thin air, the body recovers from physical exertion slower than it does at sea level."

    In 2004, when the Rockies briefly moved to a four-man rotation, Jazayerli wrote:

    Mike Hampton threw eight shutout innings in his first start at Coors Field after signing with the Rockies, throwing only 98 pitches. The next day, he said, "I felt like I had been hit by a truck when I got up." The difficulty in recovering from each start was so debilitating that, before he was traded to the Braves, Hampton was planning to outfit his bedroom in Colorado with a pressure chamber so that his muscles might heal faster between starts.

    Although Cook pitched more than 200 innings in 2006 and 2008, no Rockies pitcher has thrown three 200-plus inning seasons in a row in the history of the franchise.

    The point is, getting Cook out of Colorado could be the best thing for his health. If he stays healthy, he could be a pleasant surprise to the Red Sox—at very little financial risk.

6. Will the Real Josh Beckett Please Stand Up?

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    Beckett has been the lightning rod for much of the criticism leveled at the Red Sox pitching staff for the September collapse, and he has done little to change that so far this year with his relatively unapologetic response to the media and fans.

    While he has acknowledged "mistakes", he made it clear that he thought the crime was the fact that the problems were publicly aired—not that they existed in the first place.

    His point is, "Just win, baby," and all the negatives will go away.

    At the end of the 2011 season there were a few knee-jerk suggestions that, as part of their housecleaning, the Red Sox needed to part ways with Josh, the alleged “ringleader” of the clubhouse morals offenders.

    You don't jettison a season-long 2.89 ERA because of a few beers and some fried chicken. As many people pointed out during the offseason, Babe Ruth fueled up with whiskey, cigars and loose women. The Red Sox traded Ruth; how did that work out? 

    You do not trade a pitcher of Beckett’s caliber unless you can get a future or current No. 1 or 2 in return. At best, it’s a lateral move—so the team probably gains nothing in the long run.

    Beckett was one of only 11 pitchers last year who won at least 13 games with an ERA of under 2.90.

    Beckett has shown he can pitch, and pitch well, in this market. He is signed through 2014, and is due to be paid $15.75 million for each of the next three years. That’s reasonable money for a top-of-the-rotation horse.

    He started 30 games and threw 193.0 innings, both above his career average.  His 2.89 ERA was the best of his career and is almost a full point below his career average of 3.89. 

    His opponents batting average and WHIP were both career bests at .211 and 1.03 respectively.  Beckett had a 13-7 record and if it weren’t for a lack of run support in many of his starts, he could have made a push for 20 wins.  

    He has a point: the fans will support him again so long as he goes out on the mound and dominates to start next season. People have short memories, and good performance will erase a lot of angst. 

    The guess here is that he feels he has something more to prove, and that he will let his pitching do his talking.

7. Will Daisuke Come Back and Be Effective After the All-Star Break?

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    Daisuke Matsuzaka underwent Tommy John surgery in June. He began playing catch at the beginning of October, and his recovery seems to be on schedule. Boston manager Bobby Valentine told Ian Browne of MLB.com, " "His arm feels good. He thinks his mechanics are away off. He's healthy and he's on that recovery pace that all rehab guys are on. He's on a very good pace."

    Despite this rosy assessment, it is unlikely that he will pitch in Spring Training.

    Browne added that Daisuke wouldn't reveal the target date trainers have set for him, but he did say that it's probably sooner than Red Sox Nation expects.

    New manager Bobby Valentine managed against Matsuzaka numerous times in Japan, and his experience with Japanese pitchers might well rejuvenate Daisuke's game.

    Ian Browne of MLB.com reports that the two spoke with each other during the offseason; Valentine in Japanese, and Matsuzaka in English. Valentine said,

    When I saw him on TV, he was nothing like the pitcher I saw when he was being one of the best pitchers in Japan. I'm going to try to get him to pitch the way he understands he can be successful, and not the way either guys on the TV, on the radio, guys in the clubhouse or even maybe some guys on the coaching staff might envision him to be.

    As an ESPN commentator, Valentine said Matsuzaka was relying too much on his fastball and cutter instead of pitching the way he had been so successful in Japan. "I saw him pitch in Japan, and he had a very good changeup," said Valentine.

    Matsuzaka acknowledged he has already had that conversation with Valentine, explaining that when he first came over here, he had trouble adjusting to the ball used in MLB.

    Valentine told Daisuke that he should be used to the ball by now, which means he should be able to employ his full repertoire of pitches when he returns.

    He could be back by the middle of 2012, and if he can overcome his frustrating inconsistency (brilliant one start, shaky for the next two) he could be an internal solution to the problem of starting pitching depth.

    Granted, in the “What have you done for me lately?” category, Matsuzaka falls short. Over the past three seasons, he has compiled a 16-15 record with a 5.03 ERA. In 2011, he posted a 3-3 record and a 5.30 ERA before his surgery.

    However, let’s not forget his 2008 season, when he went 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA. While there’s no way to tell if he can ever regain that form, the Red Sox have invested so much in him already that it’s silly not to try to find out.

    Despite his frustrating tendency to nibble, thus elevating his pitch count, he has averaged almost six innings per start during his Red Sox career, with an above-league-average ERA.

    He is entering the final season of his six year, $52 million contract. His salary is already on the books, and he’ll get it whether he returns to the Red Sox rotation, so it makes sense to hang on to him.

    Wouldn’t you have preferred to see Dice-K pitching every fifth day down the stretch this past year, instead of the likes of Weiland or even Bedard?  

    His salary is already on the books, and he’ll get it whether or not he returns to the Red Sox rotation, so it makes sense to try to get the most out of him.

    At the same time, I'm pretty sure that he would like to save face by coming back and proving his detractors wrong. 

8. Will Any of the "Low-Risk, High Reward" Starting Pitcher Signings Bear Fruit?

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    Over the past several weeks, GM Ben Cherington added to the gaggle of arms competing for roster spots by signing a number of pitchers who were not with the Red Sox organization last year to minor league free agent contracts with invitations to spring training. In addition to Aaron Cooke, these starting pitchers include Carlos Silva, Vicente Padilla, Justin Germano and Ross Ohlendorf.

    Carlos Silva is the highest-profile member of this group. He has pitched in 316 major-league games. He is also the most controversial; many (me included) question whether or not he can change his reputation of being an out-of-condition malcontent. The bad Carlos Silva has a reputation for a poor attitude and work ethic and is a shadow of the good Carlos Silva performance-wise. 

    One of the reasons the Red Sox are giving him a chance is because he throws strikes. His rate of walks per nine innings (1.725) is the lowest among all active pitchers who have thrown at least 750 innings in their career. In fact, in the last 30 years (thanks, FanGraphs), only five pitchers have hurled as many innings as Silva with a better BB/9 rate: Bob Tewksbury, Dennis Eckersley, Brad Radke, Bret Saberhagen and Rick Reed.

    In 2005, while pitching for the Twins, he walked only nine batters in 188.1 innings, setting the modern era MLB record for fewest walks allowed per nine innings (0.43). That same year, he led the majors in double-play balls induced with 34. On May 20, 2005, Silva threw only 74 pitches in a nine-inning complete game, which was the lowest number since 1957.

    After the 2007 season (13-14 with a 4.19 ERA in 33 starts), the star-crossed Bill Bavasi made on of the biggest mistakes of his tenure as Seattle GM when he signed Silva to a four-year, $48 million contract. 

    Signing Silva is a risky move for the Red Sox, not just because of the injury issues (he's also a heavy 280 pounds), but because of his reputation of being a clubhouse problem. Just what the Bosox need…

    Silva will earn up to $1 million if he makes the big league club. According to Jon Morosi of Fox Sports, Silva has an opt-out in his contract that would allow him to walk away if he is not on the big league roster by mid-April. 

    Vicente Padilla, 34, is another injury waiting to happen, but he can get people out. He had several reasonably successful seasons with the Phillies and Rangers, but has pitched only 251 innings over the last three years. Last year, he only made nine appearances for the Dodgers with a 4.15 ERA before he was shut down due to injury. He has undergone two surgeries recently, one to fix a nerve problem in his elbow and the second to repair a disc problem in his neck.

    Padilla is an experienced starter as well who has had an average career in his 13 seasons in the Big Leagues. At age 34 with a lot of miles on that right arm of his, who knows what to expect from the veteran? Word is that the Sox view him more as a bullpen option than anything else.

    However, he was reportedly throwing 95 in Nicaragua this offseason, and the Red Sox thought he might be worth a look. 

    There is no question Justin Germano can be a good pitcher when he is focused: on July 26 of last year, he pitched a perfect game for the Columbus Clippers, Cleveland's Triple-A farm team. He struck out seven Syracuse Chiefs in facing the minimum of 27 batters. 

    However, he has been maddeningly inconsistent in major league stints accumulated over parts of six seasons with the Padres, Reds and Indians. He owns a 5.02 ERA in 253 career big league innings. His best season was 2007 with the Padres: He finished that year 7-10 with a 4.46 ERA and 78 strikeouts.

    One reason for his past inconsistency is the fact that he has been shuffled back and forth between starting and relieving. Columbus Clippers broadcaster Scott Leo wrote, "Germano has always seen himself as a starter, it fits him better because of the routine involved between outings."

    His low ground ball rate gives him an edge; perhaps the chance to compete for the fifth starter slot for the Red Sox will settle him down enough to produce.

    Despite Ross Ohlendorf's 2010 numbers that looked pretty bad on the surface (1-11 record), he won a $2.025 million arbitration case before the 2011 season. He argued that he was the best pitcher in the Pirates' rotation in 2009, having posted an 11-10 record with 3.92 ERA and 1.23 WHIP. And despite the horrific 1-11 record in 2010, he incurred all those losses with a respectable ERA of 4.07. Over his last 10 starts before he hurt his shoulder, he was lights out: 2.35 ERA with a 1.15 WHIP, numbers better than No. 1 starter on many other teams.

    Early reports out of Fort Myers indicate that Ohlendorf is still not ready to pitch, although his problem appears to be a back strain, unrelated to the shoulder issues which plagued him in the past.

    Also in the starter mix (although decided longshots) are former top San Diego Padres  prospect Will Inman and former Mets starter John Maine, although Maine did not get an invitation to major league camp.

    Chorye SpoonJustin Thomas, and Doug Mathis have also had starting experience.

9. Will Boston Get Any Starting Help from Pitchers Within the Organization?

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    I'm not going to address up-and-coming youngsters such as Alex Wilson here, although some believe he may find his way to Fenway before the season ends.

    While Alfredo Aceves has started 9 games in his career (5 for the Yankees and 4 with Boston), he is clearly a far superior pitcher as a reliever. As a starter, his ERA is 4.18; relieving, it is 2.62. His strikeout-to-walk ratio as a starter is almost even, while as a reliever he punches out almost three times as many as he walks. 

    Like Bard, developing command of multiple pitches will be the key for Aceves if he hopes to make the successful transition from reliever to full time starter. Also like Bard, don’t rule out a return to the bullpen should circumstances require such a move.

    At the start of 2011, 25-year-old Venezuelan native Felix Doubront was considered to have the best chance of any Red Sox minor-league pitcher to make the major-league roster.

    Unfortunately, he showed up to Spring Training out of shape, tweaked his elbow and then strained his groin in Pawtucket. This injury may be related to nagging hamstring problems he has had dating back to 2010.

    Signed as an international free agent in 2004, Doubront has been in Boston’s system since 2005. The Red Sox drafted him as a starter; in fact, his first three major-league appearances in 2010 were starts.

    He has not developed as hoped. Even though he has shown an ability (in an admittedly small sample size of 25 innings) to strike out major league hitters, he has also been wild, walking almost as many as he has fanned.

    When he loses command, he tends to groove pitches, leaving too many high in the strike zone, making him a very hittable pitcher at this point in his development.

    The best thing for Doubront would be to work as a starter in Triple-A, but he is out of minor league options. That means he will have to start the season in the Red Sox bullpen, which is not necessarily where they want him.

    That makes him eminently tradeable, and quite frankly I expected that he would have been dealt during the offseason as part of a package for a more established pitcher or a right-handed bat.

    Junichi Tazawa (see slide 15) made three appearances in Boston (three innings) after a September call-up, giving up two runs.

    The big question is how to use him going forward. Some consider him as the only potential starter at the top of the minor league system. The relief work in 2011 could have been a way to limit his innings while he regained his arm strength, or it could be an organizational decision that he be converted to a reliever.

    Bottom line: it is unlikely that any of these pitchers will crack (or even contribute to) the starting rotation in 2012.

10. Who Will Replace Jonathan Papelbon?

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    The Red Sox should still not be in a hurry to come up with a final answer that question. The acquisition of both Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon gives the Red Sox multiple bullpen options that they did not have with Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon.

    Papelbon was rarely used for multiple innings, unless it was an extra inning game. Bard seldom closed, and also seldom went more than one inning. They never reversed roles.

    However, new manager Bobby Valentine will have options that Terry Francona did not have. Bailey has had success as a closer; so has Melancon. So has Bobby Jenks, for that matter. All can set up as well as close. All three can pitch multiple innings.

    The 26-year-old Melancon racked up 20 saves in 25 chances for the struggling Astros in 2011. He ended up 8-4 with a 2.78 ERA in 71 appearances. He held opponents to a .234 batting average and struck out 66 batters while walking 26.

    The operative word in that sentence, however, is "Astros" (as in the 106-loss Astros).

    He saved more than 35% of his team's wins last year even though he did not become the closer until mid-May. The problem is, contending teams devalue saves made on behalf of a cellar-dwelling ballclub. They don't believe that such saves constitute pitching under pressure.

    So, the big question is, "Can Melancon make the transition from the laid-back, sparsely attended, meaningless games played by the bottom feeders of the NL Central to the pressure-cooker known as Fenway Park during a pennant race?"

    To be fair, Melancon did appear in 16 games for the Yankees before being traded to Houston in the Lance Berkman deal in 2010—so he is not totally unfamiliar with the AL East.

    At the same time, a period of readjustment won't hurt, and having Bailey around makes that so much easier. With Bard moving to the rotation, Melancon can be expected to fill the set-up role that Bard excelled in last year. 

11. Can Alfredo Aceves Keep Up the Pace?

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    Red Sox Nation loves this guy, and with good reason. He takes the ball. He produces, as a reliever and as a spot starter.

    The 30-year old avoided arbitration with the club during the offseason by agreeing to a 1-year deal worth about $1.2 million, a good raise from his 2011 salary of $675,000—but he’s still very affordable.His versatility alone makes him well worth that investment.

    At Ben Cherington’s October 25 press conference, he specifically pointed out the acquisition of Aceves as the model of the type of “buy low” deal the Red Sox would like to do for 2012.

    In his four year career with the Red Sox and Yankees, Aceves has an incredible record of 24-3 with an ERA of 2.93. In late and close situations, in tie games or with a one run lead he is lights out–batters hit less than .200 against him. Also, Aceves can and does eat a lot of innings; he had seven games in which he came out of the bullpen for at least three innings and didn’t allow a run, and four more in which he allowed just one run.

    The problem was that down the stretch he was the only one who was getting people out, and as a result he was overworked. 

    With Bailey and Melancon in the fold, and a gaggle of other relievers fighting for jobs, Aceves should feel more comfortable about his supporting cast for 2012. Manager Bobby Valentine will have the luxury to tinker a bit with this staff as it is shaping up; should Bard falter as a starter, he could also try Aceves in the rotation.

    To me, however, Aceves’ role as a middle reliever is more valuable than keeping Bard as an eighth inning specialist. Alfredo's ability to pitch almost every day (within reason) is the best way to maximize his value. 

    Keeping him in the groove will go a long way toward an AL East championship.

12. Will Andrew Miller Finally Live Up to His Enormous Potential?

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    Miller, the sixth overall pick in the 2006 draft (Tigers) has frustrated every manager and pitching coach he has worked with since. Despite enormous potential, the hard-throwing left-hander has had problems with his mechanics and command at every level.

    In six seasons, he has walked 215 batters, or about one of every eight he has faced.

    In 2007, the Tigers traded him to the Marlins as part of the Miguel Cabrera/Dontrelle Willis deal.

    The Red Sox acquired him as a reclamation project in December 2010. He was arbitration eligible after the 2011 season, and likely would have been non-tendered by Boston had he not agreed to a deal before the deadline before the deadline, according to Matthew Pouliot of HardballTalk.com. As it was, Miller took a 20 percent haircut (the max for an arbitration-eligible player) from the $1.3 million he made last season.

    He went 6-3 with a 5.54 ERA in 17 appearances (12 starts) for the Red Sox in 2011, and the Red Sox apparently made it clear that they were not giving him a raise after another disappointing season.

    WEEI’s Rob Bradford reports that Miller will make $1.04 million next season. Pouliot adds, "Since this contract won’t be guaranteed — one-year contracts for arbitration-eligible players almost never are — he could well find himself off the roster if he struggles during March."

    Lurking in the back of everyone’s minds, however, is the belief that he has the potential to be a lights-out reliever if he could throw strikes.

13. And What About Bobby Jenks?

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    OK, so I really went out on a limb in my offseason projections by saying that  Bobby Jenks could be a sleeper who stars in the Red Sox bullpen this year.

    I optimistically predicted that he could become the team's Comeback Player of the Year in 2012, even despite the report that Jenks underwent a second back surgery on December 30. 

    Now that Jenks has been added to the 60-day DL, with his return indefinite, my limb looks pretty precarious.

    However, I'm not giving up on Jenks just yet, primarily because of the addition of Andrew Bailey to the Boston bullpen.

    Here's the thought process.

    With Bailey and Melancon added to a group of arms with great potential, there is less pressure for Jenks to be throwing hard when he does come back. He will have the luxury of working his way slowly back into the mix as he rehabs from his back surgeries and a pulmonary embolism.

    Eyebrows were raised around MLB when the Red Sox signed the former White Sox closer to a two-year, $12 million contract at the end of 2010. The impression at the time was that GM Theo Epstein had acquired both insurance and leverage with reference to Jonathan Papelbon's upcoming free agency.

    I also seem to recall that Jenks was promised the opportunity to compete for the closer’s role when and if Papelbon departed; this is borne out by the fact that his contract includes incentives for games finished.

    Although several teams had shown interest in Jenks, he jumped at the opportunity to join the Red Sox. “It wasn’t a matter of money or years. I wanted to play baseball for the Red Sox. I got that opportunity and I jumped on it,” he told Alex Speier of WEEI last April.

    Jenks' signing was immediately followed by a well-publicized feud with former Chi-Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. According to Scott Merkin of MLB.com, Jenks said: "Why would I come back to that negativity? I'm looking forward to playing for a manager who knows how to run a bullpen."

    Both Guillen and his son Oney responded in kind, and the resultant feud was well-described by David Brown of Yahoo.com: "The soap opera divorce between Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen and right-hander Bobby Jenks—in which there seem to be only children and no parents—keeps deteriorating."

    If for no other reason than to prove the White Sox made a mistake by non-tendering him, Jenks wanted to do well in Boston.

    All those plans blew up, however. After being crucified by the fans and local media for his performance (15.2 innings, ERA of 6.32), Jenks went on the DL in July with an undisclosed back problem.

    He was advised to have surgery, and in the process of being evaluated for that surgery in mid-September, he was diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism. This is a potentially very serious; it involves a sudden blockage of an artery in the lung.

    The treatment starts with blood thinners, and no surgeon will operate on his back while he is taking that medication.

    Fortunately, the blood thinners worked, and Jenks was cleared for back surgery.

    Even though his status for the first part of the 2012 season is very much up in the air, I have a hunch he will be a pleasant surprise when he does return.

    Jenks is still relatively young, and assuming he comes through his medical issues without complications, there is every reason to hope that he could surprise everyone. 

    The 30-year-old right-hander still has a good arm and good stuff (Baseball Almanacreports that his fastball was clocked at 102 mph in Seattle in 2005). His career ERA of 3.53 with 173 saves is not too shabby, and there is one other intriguing possibility.

    At the end of 2010, the Texas Rangers considered signing him as a starting pitcher. He started 142 games in the Angels minor league system between 2000 and 2004; it was not until the White Sox picked him up just prior to the 2005 season that he became a reliever.

    This potential flexibility may be an ace in the hole for his future.

14. Will Rich Hill Comes Back from Surgery and Excel?

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    Lefty Rich Hill underwent Tommy John surgery at almost the same time as Matsuzaka last season. Because he is a reliever, Hill will likely be able to return before Matsuzaka. Bobby Valentine told Ian Browne of mlb.com, "He's very well recovered and on the way to pitching in games," although he is not expected pitch in any Grapefruit league contests.

    According to  Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal, the Red Sox added Hill to their 40-man roster this week, shifting John Lackey to the 60-day disabled list to make room. This is a strong indication that he is making good progress in his rehab.

    Earlier this winter, Alex Speier of WEEI.com reported that Hill "is progressing well in his rehab from surgery that took place a week after he suffered his injury." He was "guardedly optimistic" that he will be ready to pitch by Opening Day, although that seems to be pushing it. Pitchers normally need a full year to recover from that operation.

    “Health-wise, I couldn’t feel any better,” Hill told Speier. “I’m trying to get as strong as I can for the start of the season."

    Hill showed signs of great promise after having been signed as a free agent and converted to relief work at AAA Pawtucket in 2010. He came up to the Red Sox at the end of that season and was not scored upon in six appearances.

    Even though he was a little older than most of his PawSox teammates and had had some success in the big leagues, he approached the offseason with the right attitude. The Pawtucket Times described his appearance at McCoy Stadium for the team's annual Christmas party for local kids.

    In 2011 spring training, he developed a new sidearm delivery, and as Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe reported, he worked on his arsenal to make sure he was not viewed as "just another LOOGY" (lefty one-out guy). He concentrated on throwing his fastball inside to right-handers and also worked to improve his change-up. 

    Hill started the 2011 season with a bang, giving up only two runs in 16 innings at AAA Pawtucket. He was then called up to Boston, where he racked up nine more scoreless appearances before injuring his elbow in late May. Just as encouragingly, right-handers hit only .167 off him (one hit in 12 AB).

    Just think about it: 15 Red Sox appearances, no runs allowed and a WHIP of less than 1.00. As Abraham wrote, "Hill could be an interesting weapon. Imagine the trouble a hitter would have after facing Jon Lester for seven innings and then have to deal with Hill coming in from a sidearm angle.

    Hill is a local boy who was born in Boston and starred at Milton High School. He was drafted by the Cubsout of Michigan as a starter in 2002 and helped them win the NL Central in 2007.

    Of his 78 major league games, 70 have been as a starter.

    His 2008 season was an almost total write-off: back and shoulder problems limited him to only five appearances. The Cubs sold him to the Orioles early in 2009, and after a struggling year, he signed with the Cardinalsjust prior to spring training of 2010. He pitched at AAA Memphis before the Red Sox picked him up and converted him to reliever.

    Faced with a glut of southpaws who were out of options (Franklin Morales, Andrew Miller, Felix Doubront) it is understandable from a numbers perspective that Hill was non-tendered at the end of the 2011 season. 

    Hill was obviously disappointed that the Red Sox did not offer him a new contract, but he did agree to agree to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training. His split contract last season called for a prorated $580,000 salary while in the majors, so he would certainly fit GM Ben Cherington's mold of low-cost, low-risk signings.

    There's every chance that Hill will come back stronger than ever. If so, the Red Sox could end up with a lights-out bullpen, especially in the second half.

15. And What About the Other Red Sox Pitcher from Japan?

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    Junichi Tazawa, Boston's "other Japanese pitcher", has flown well beneath the radar since the Red Sox signed him as an international free agent in 2008. Tazawa came directly out of the amateur Japanese industrial leagues, and asked his country’s pro teams not to draft him so that he could come directly to the US.

    He pitched well in his first year with the organization, moving rapidly through the minors while compiling a 9-7 record in 20 starts at Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket with a 2.55 ERA in 2009. He also appeared in six major league games (four starts) that year with a 7.46 ERA.

    Interestingly enough, Tazawa had pitched exclusively out of the stretch as an amateur, and he had to learn to pitch from the wind-up.

    That, combined with an unorthodox throwing motion which places extra stress on his elbow, proved to be too much for his arm to handle, and he underwent Tommy John surgery in April 2010.

    He came back as a starter in 2011, but averaged less than three innings per game in seven games. He was then limited to bullpen work for the rest of the year, logging 14 relatively effective relief appearances. Overall, he struck out 56 batters while walking 19, with an ERA of 4.61.

    Tazawa made three appearances in Boston (three innings) after a September call-up, giving up two runs.

    The big question is how to use him going forward. Some consider him as the only potential starter at the top of the minor league system. The relief work in 2011 could have been a way to limit his innings while he regained his arm strength, or it could be an organizational decision that he be converted to a reliever.

    Nathaniel Stoltz of Seedlings to Stars believes it's the latter, and he has ranked Tazawa as the top reliever in the Red Sox farm system coming into the 2012 season.

    "He’s going to give up some homers," writes Stoltz, "But his control of a fastball/curve/splitter mix should allow him to succeed in relief."

16. What Will the Bullpen Look Like on Opening Day?

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    Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe quotes Bobby Valentine a saying that "bullpens win pennants."

    Perhaps it would have been more accurate to say, "The right bullpens win pennants."

    Every Fantasy owner knows the old adage, "Don't pay for saves"—because they end up coming from the most unexpected sources.

    As far as bullpen options go, Alfredo Aceves, Bobby Jenks, Andrew Miller, Junichi Tazawa, and Rich Hill have been discussed on separate slides. Felix Doubront has been covered under starter options (slide 9).

    Over the past several weeks, GM Ben Cherington added to the gaggle of arms competing for roster spots by signing a number of pitchers who were not with the Red Sox organization last year to minor league free agent contracts with invitations to spring training. They include Jesse Carlson, Will Inman, Justin Germano, Doug Mathis, Chorye Spoone, Tony Pena, Jr.,  Justin Thomas and Sean White.

    One consideration that will weigh heavily in final roster decisions is the fact that Franklin Morales, Miller, and Doubront are out of options, meaning the Red Sox must keep them on the major league team or risk losing them. 

    A last-minute—but not unpleasant—complication is the addition of Cubs reliever Chris Carpenter to the mix, as compensation from the Cubs for the signing of Theo Epstein. To make room for Carpenter on the 40-man roster, the team placed relief pitcher Bobby Jenks on the 60-day disabled list.

    According to ESPNBoston.com, Carpenter's fastball topped out at 100.2 MPH last season. He was one of only 13 MLB pitchers to crack 100. 

    The 6-foot-4, 26-year-old right-hander was a third round draft pick of the Cubs in 2008. According to former ESPN.com Insider Jason Grey, Carpenter would have gone higher based on talent, but medical concerns caused some teams to back off. He had Tommy John surgery in 2005, followed by a second procedure to clean up the elbow in 2006. Gray added that he dropped out of the Cape Cod League in 2007 due to a tired arm.

    He supposedly has a good slider and a decent changeup, but control is his biggest problem; in 

    Carpenter hasn't had any medical problems since. He started 27 games in 2009 and 26 in 2010. He was converted to a reliever in 2011 and made 42 relief appearances combined at Double-A, Triple-A and for the Cubs. With Chicago, he had a 2.79 ERA in 10 relief outings in his first major league action. He is 21-19 with a 3.62 ERA in 96 outings (60 starts) in four minor league seasons.

    Other relievers already on the 40-man roster include Michael Bowden, Franklin Morales and Matt Albers.

    Michael Bowden was drafted as a starter in 2005, as a sandwich-round selection (47th overall pick). Following a promotion from Double-A Portland in July 2008, he was rated the top pitching prospect in the Red Sox organization. In his four years at the AAA level, he has posted a respectable ERA of 3.27.

    He was exclusively a starter through the 2009 season, then entered some 2010 games in relief. 

    His coaches and managers noted that he just loved to pitch, and chafed at the five off days between starts. They thought relief work—where he could pitch more often–might better suit his makeup.

    He pitched in the bullpen in the Venezuela winter league, then reported to spring training in 2011 prepared to be a full-time reliever.

    At Pawtucket, Bowden overpowered right-handed hitters, holding them to a 5-for-55 mark (.091) with one walk and 23 strikeouts. On the other hand, lefties hit him at a .370 clip, a trend that could be of some concern at the major league level.

    After compiling a 2.73 ERA in 41 relief appearances at AAA with 61 strikeouts and only 18 walks, he earned a September call-up.

    In 20 major league innings, however, he walked 11 while striking out 17. He also gave up 19 hits, and some observers suggested that the way he throws the ball gives major league hitters too good a look at what’s coming.

    PawSox broadcaster Dan Hoard wrote, “Bowden is the type of kid we all root for.  He’s friendly, polite, and totally dedicated to becoming the best pitcher he can possibly be.”

    Some believe Bowden has done all he can at Triple-A, and it’s now time to show that he’s major league material.

    Franklin Morales provided one of the enduring memories for me of the last month of the season when he ended a game by picking Josh Hamilton off first base.

    Doing a little digging, I learned that only John Lester had as many pickoffs in 2011 as Morales (5), and he did it in six times the number of innings.

    The quality of his pickoff move is an example of the tantalizing ability this 25-year-old Venezuelan has. Unfortunately, he has never lived up to the potential the Rockies saw in him when they signed him in 2002.

    Morales has the arm and the skill set to be a top big-league reliever, but he has never thrown enough strikes to get there. While Morales has held left-handed hitters to a .201 average during his career, he has always struggled with command. He has walked 97 men in 179 2/3 innings.

    He went 7-11 with a 4.83 ERA in parts of five seasons in Colorado before being traded to the Red Sox on May 19 of 2011.

    For the season he had a reasonable 3.62 ERA in 36 games, but seemed to pitch well only every other month. For example, in 13 appearances in August, Morales struck out 13 and walked only two with a 1.86 ERA.

    As the 2011 season wore down, Morales was the last left-hander still standing in the bullpen, and the results were less than spectacular. He gave up eight hits, including two HR and walked four in nine innings in the last month. 

    The Red Sox avoid arbitration with reliever Franklin Morales last month, agreeing to a one-year, $850,000 contract, according to the Boston Globe’s Peter Abraham

    Matt Albers was drafted in the 23rd round of the 2001 draft by Houston, went to Baltimore in 2007 as part of the Miguel Tejada trade. He entered the season with a career earned run average over 5.00, but for the first half of the season he was lights out, with an ERA of 2.55. 

    That hot streak continued through July; he appeared in 10 games that month and did not give up a single run. Between the third week in May and the end of July, Albers allowed just two runs and 17 hits in 25.2 innings. He gave up zero earned runs in 10 July appearances, then inexplicably blew up to a 12.34 ERA in 11 August appearances. 

    Which Matt Albers will show up for 2012? Was conditioning an issue for the heavy-looking pitcher?

    Scott Atchison is not on the 40-man roster, but he has proven himself to be a valuable commodity for the Red Sox. He has also fought against the odds in his baseball career, and I for one feel he has the ability to become a full-time middle reliever for the Red Sox. I am rooting for him to make the 2012 team.

    Drafted way down in the 49th round by Seattle in 1998, he toiled in minor-league obscurity for the better part of seven years...the first four exclusively as a starter.

    Atchison signed with the Red Sox as a minor league free agent in December 2007, but Japan came calling and the Hanshin Tigers purchased his rights.

    He pitched quite well for Hanshin during the 2008 and 2009 seasons, but returned to the US so his baby daughter could get better treatment for a rare medical condition.

    He earned a contract at the start of the 2010 season, and over the past two years Scott has moved back and forth between Pawtucket and Boston, working under a split MLB/MiLB contract. 

    One of his greatest assets has been his control; in 61.1 innings with Pawtucket in 2011, he struck out 72 and walked only 9. When called up to Boston, he had a very respectable 2.83 K/BB ratio in 17 games with an ERA of 3.26. He also allowed zero home runs.

    Joseph Werner, writing on SeedlingstoStars.com, said, “Atchison’s season with Pawtucket was so absurdly good it’s amazing that he hasn’t drawn more attention… he was, simply, flat-out unhittable against right-handers...39 K’s and two walks.”

    Werner reports that he ranked no lower than 13th in major pitching categories among the 173 total qualifying pitchers. 

    He concludes, “…there’s no reason to believe that this journeyman can’t, at the bare minimum, become a serviceable middle relief pitcher for the Sox next season.”

    The bottom line is, the Red Sox have a wealth of options (as well as a lot of organizational bullpen depth), and I would expect the bullpen that goes north at the end of March will undergo many changes before the end of the season.

    Former Red Sox infielder Lou Merloni, interviewed on Comcast's "SportsNet Central" show recently, said: "And the thing I like most about it is . . . if the innings rack up and [Bard's] sitting on 130 in July and August and you think he's starting to get a little tired, give him a little breather [and] send him back into that bullpen. Now you've got a super bullpen. I think it gives them a little flexibility."

    More so than any other position, filling out the bullpen is a total crapshoot every year. It should be interesting.

17. Will the Return of David Ortiz Anchor the Middle of the Lineup?

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    There's no doubt about it in my mind: Big Papi's decision to accept arbitration and stay in Boston is the best news the Red Sox  had in the entire offseason.

    In 2011, Ortiz was by far the best designated hitter in baseball. (Check the facts here.)

    Joe McDonald of ESPNBoston.com quoted Ortiz as saying, "I've got so many ways to keep doing what I've been doing around here. I bring so much to this organization, I bring so much to the table here because I care so much about this organization."

    Underscoring that statement, prior to Game 2 of the World Series Ortiz received the Roberto Clemente Award, which honors one player every year who has made a significant contribution to the community.

    He's one of the few effective DHs who doesn't play in the field. There is no comparable replacement out there.

    He is also arguably the most beloved Red Sox player in the last 20 years. Big Papi was a critical component of two championship squads and is arguably the face of the franchise. 

    And, in 2011, Ortiz was by far the best designated hitter in baseball.

    The average batting average for a DH was .266. Ortiz hit .309.

    The average DH on-base percentage was .341. Papi’s was .398.

    The average DH slugging percentage was .430. Ortiz? .554.

    No DH in the last three years equaled his .953 OPS this year.

    So long as he avoids serious injury, Ortiz should be able to produce. And he will make a difference.

18. What Happens at Shortstop?

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    The recent salary dump trade of Marco Scutaro to the Rockies has left many citizens of Red Sox Nation fretting, "Who will play short?"

    For now, the answer seems to be a combination of utilityman Mike Aviles (who has not been a full-time shortstop since 2008) and recently-signed Nick Punto.

    Aviles was drafted as a shortstop by the Kansas City Royals in the seventh round of the 2003 draft, and played shortstop, third base and second base. He had Tommy John surgery on July 7, 2009–an unusual operation for a non-pitcher. He came back in 2010 and was the Royals’ regular second baseman, hitting .304 in 110 games.

    The Red Sox also played him in the outfield a couple of times last year, and sent him to winter ball to give him more outfield experience.

    Over the last two seasons, Aviles started just eight games at short. But he doesn't think it will be hard to pick it up again. "It's my natural position," Aviles told Ian Browne of MLB.com. "It's the one I feel is the easiest for me to get in the flow of things." The conventional wisdom seems to be that the shortstop platoon constitutes a stopgap to give Jose Iglesias more time to develop. 

    However, don't be surprised if Aviles makes it easier on the organization by performing far better than the fans expect. He showed decent numbers at the plate in limited duty after coming over from Kansas City last year, hitting .317 in 101 at-bats. 

    Iglesias, a 21-year-old native of Havana, Cuba, was a prized prospect who received a $6 million signing bonus when he inked his Red Sox contract in 2009.

    His scouting report describes him as possessing “elite defensive skills”. Iglesias has excellent instincts and anticipation, allowing him to get to many balls that other shortstops can’t reach. He has great hands and a soft glove to go along with a strong, accurate arm.

    He projects as a future Gold Glove shortstop (something the Red Sox haven't had since Rick Burleson in 1979), but unfortunately his offense is sadly lacking. In 2011, he hit only .235 in Triple-A, with an OPS of only .554 in 387 plate appearances.

    To put that in perspective, the lowest qualifying OPS in the majors this year was Adam Dunn’s .569, and Dunn had an absolutely atrocious year. 

    Iglesias also swings at bad pitches and gets himself out too often. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much pop when he does connect.

    For a minor leaguer, he is making a lot of money, more than $2 million a year, so his struggles are magnified. Despite his All-Star defensive potential, many believe that he needs to ramp it up at the plate to even be considered as the Red Sox shortstop.

    Former Red Sox pitcher Dick Drago has a different perspective. "Put Iglesias out there," he said to me. "As a pitcher, I don't care if he only hits .200, so long as he is the vacuum cleaner we've lacked for so long. Just think of the runs he can save us."

    Drago has a point. The Red Sox were at or near the top of MLB in virtually every offensive category last year. With Jacoby Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis and Carl Crawford, the Red Sox can afford a lack of offensive production at shortstop.

    My guess is that if the offense stays strong and the shortstop defense is deemed lacking, Iglesias will be on the filed at Fenway for the second half of the season.

19. What Can Be Expected of Kevin Youkilis in 2012?

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    Youkilis has serious credibility; at the start of last season he was 35th on theSporting News list of the 50 greatest current baseball players.

    But he also poses a dilemma for the Red Sox.

    The way he plays the game has taken a toll on his body, as the series of recent injuries shows. At 33, he was battered and bruised into submission at third base last season. Bursitis in his hip slowed him considerably, and then a sports hernia finally sidelined him for the season.

    More importantly, this injury issue is not isolated to 2011. As Ricky Doyle of NESN.com points out, "Lost in the constant attack on J.D. Drew is that he only played in three fewer games than Kevin Youkilis (528 to 525) from 2007-2010."

    Long-term, he needs to play first base or DH to keep his body from breaking down. But he won't be playing much first base in Boston with Adrian Gonzalez there. Now that the Red Sox have re-signed David Ortiz as DH, Youkilis has no choice but to return to third.

    That prospect is a two-edged sword. He has missed 102 games the last two years. Can he remain an offensive force and play an adequate third base?

    As Tim Britton of the Providence Journal points out, "A healthy Youkilis would provide the Red Sox with a middle-of-the-order right-handed presence to slip between Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz."

    He reminds us that he last four players to protect Gonzalez in the order at the end of last season were Mike Aviles, Conor Jackson, Jed Lowrie and Ryan Lavarnway.

    For a player of his caliber, Youkilis is relatively affordable at $12 million for 2012. This is the fourth and final year of a contract he signed in 2009, although there is a $13 million team option for 2013 with a $1 million buyout.

    No one plays the game harder than Youk, and I would hate to have to play against him. But Youk is the best (and most expendable) trade chip the Red Sox have.

    If he has a good first half, I could see him being the cornerstone of a blockbuster deal that brings the Red Sox a stud starter at the trading deadline. 

    A number of teams need corner infielders, and I could see Youkilis involved in a trade for pitching with clubs such as the A's, Braves, Giants, Rockies or Pirates.

20. Will the Cody Ross/Ryan Sweeney Right Field Platoon Work Out?

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    Cody Ross was one of the outfielders I thought might be a fit in Boston, but Ryan Sweeney came out of nowhere.

    Sweeney came from the Oakland Athletics along with closer Andrew Bailey in the December 28 trade for outfielder Josh Reddick and two minor leaguers.  The 26-year-old outfielder was chosen by the White Sox in the second round of the 2003 draft. He has a career .283 average with 14 home runs, leading to a slugging percentage of .346 and an OPS of .720 in 472 career games with the White Sox (2006-07) and Athletics (2008-11).

    Sweeney played in 108 games with the As in 2011, playing all three outfield positions. He has posted two consecutive errorless seasons, with 153 total chances each year.

    Cody Ross is one of the rare birds who bats right and throws left, he became an instant hero in San Francisco when he virtually single-handedly dismantled the Philadelphia Philliesin the 2010 NLCS, hitting .350 with three HR and three doubles in the six-game series to earn the series MVP award. He had hit an earlier home run against Atlanta in the NLDS and added one in the World Series against Texas for good measure.

    Ross was originally signed by Detroit, but he has played all but six of his 757 career games in the National League. He has been with five teams in the past eight seasons. Ross, who made $6.3 million last year, was not offered arbitration by the Giants.

    After a pretty good 2010 season, when he hit .269 (.288 with the Giants) with 28 doubles, 14 HR and 65 RBI, the 30-year-old outfielder regressed in 2011—as did many on the Giants roster. 

    He hit just .240, with injuries at the start and close of the season that took him out of the lineup. However, he showed his flexibility by playing all three outfield positions. 

    While Ross wanted a long-term extension with the Giants at the start of the 2011 season, that did not happen. Some team will probably take a flyer on him on a one-year deal—especially a team looking for a right-handed bat. Ross has hit relatively well in the clutch, and he has also done well against lefties in his career, compiling a .912 OPS against southpaws.  

    Should Red Sox Nation be worried about this potential outfield platoon? After all, one of the top items on the offseason wish list was another outfielder with some pop, preferably someone who could play right while the BoSox sorted out the Ryan Kalish/Josh Reddick situation (both are left-handed hitters, and neither sports good numbers against left-handed pitching).

    Now Reddick is gone, and while both Ross and Sweeney appear capable, neither projects to be a highly-visible, impact player.

    On the other hand, both will probably start the season, with one playing left while Carl Crawford rehabs from wrist surgery.

    If it doesn't work out, there's not a lot of risk here. Both are signed to one year deals, and the outfield free-agent class for 2012 is particularly strong (Quentin, Curtis Granderson, Josh Hamilton, Torii Hunter, B. J. Upton, Shane Victorino, among others), so the best solution for the Red Sox might be to mark time for a year…or at least until the trading deadline.

    I would still like to see them pick up Matt Murton of the Hanshin Tigers.

    In his first year in Japan, this former Red Sox prospect became only the fourth player in Nippon Professional Baseball history to have a 200-hit season, and he broke Ichiro Suzuki's single-season record by stroking 214 hits in 144 games. Not surprisingly, he won the NPB batting title that year with a .349 average.

21. How Will the Saltalamacchia/Shoppach Catching Tandem Work Out?

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    The player with the longest last name in MLB history (it means “jump over the thicket” in Italian) was a first-round draft pick of theAtlanta Braves in 2003. The 26-year-old native of West Palm Beach, Fla., went in the Mark Teixeira trade to the Rangers in 2007, and then came to the Red Sox in a 2010 trading deadline for three low-level prospects.

    2011 was an up-and-down year for Salty, but he certainly improved in many areas—especially defensively. He threw out 31 percent of potential base stealers in 2011, a huge improvement over his prior career mark of 19.7 percent.

    By all accounts, he did a good job of handling the pitching staff. In 2012, he will have the additional burden of a new pitching coach and a new manager.

    His hitting is still a cause for concern, however. He batted only .216 in April, but picked it up as the weather got warmer, hitting .327 in the month of June. Inexplicably, his average saw a steady drop thereafter to a woeful .162 in September. During the final month, he struck out 27 times and walked only once.

    This strikeout ratio is a real concern. On April 25, 2009, Saltalamacchia struck out in his 28th consecutive game, setting a new MLB record for a non-pitcher. This season he struck out 119 times—once every three at-bats.

    For the season, he hit .319 in wins and only .145 in losses–also a puzzling split.

    By the end of the year, however, he posted numbers close to league averages in offense from catchers.

    Saltalamacchia bats from both sides of the plate, but he is a much better left-handed hitter. According to an excellent analysis done by fellow BR writer Matt Trueblood, he had a .786 OPS against righties in 2011, but only .635 batting right-handed against southpaws.

    Enter the newly-acquired Kelly Shoppach, who led the league in throwing out runners. Trueblood pegs him as 44 percent better than the average batter against left-handed pitchers, and 26 percent worse than average against right-handers.

    "A perfect platoon division of the 657 plate appearances the Sox got from their No. 8 hitters in 2011 would give Saltalamacchia 379 PA and Shoppach 278," concludes Trueblood. Factoring in injuries and other factors, Trueblood projects about 130 PA for Ryan Lavarnway.

    The bottom line? It's a projected 3.6 wins above replacement. To say nothing of significant improvement in cutting down opposing base stealers.

    That's a win for the Red Sox.

22. Will the Ghosts of 2011 Be Exorcised by the Time Spring Training Ends?

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    I previously asked this question as, "Will the Ghosts of 2011 Be Exorcised by the Time Spring Training Starts?"

    The initial media reports from Fort Myers make it clear that the answer to that question is an emphatic NO.

    That frozen critter lying under the Red Sox porch is beginning to thaw, and it's not pretty.

    As Bill Reynolds of the Providence Journal so eloquently put it, "There's no truth to the rumor that the beer and fried chicken truck followed the Red Sox equipment truck to spring training."

    He added, 

    So here it is spring training, and if we've heard one word of remorse from the Red Sox players whose sense of entitlement and pampered status cost their manager his job and led to one of the all-time worst September collapses, I must have missed it.

    Part of the problem may be a disconnect between the players and the fans. None of the Red Sox players live year-round in the Boston area, and it is possible that they really are not aware of the depth of discontent that still roils Red Sox Nation.

    While Beckett and others are right that winning will make much of this go away, fans are rightfully concerned that if the players do not acknowledge (and change) the attitude problem and lack of commitment that resulted in the 2011 pratfall, then the same thing may happen in 2012. The players, no one else, own that collapse.

    "Just turn the page and move on" is not a sufficient response. Nor is the attitude of Beckett and others that the big problem was not the clubhouse collapse, but the fact that their unacceptable behavior was leaked to the press. 

    That's not taking accountability or responsibility. It's shooting the messenger.

    Reporters are now getting their first crack at most of the players since the 2011 collapse. Since the sticky questions about the end of last season are still unanswered, they will be asked again.

    The launch of spring training runs the risk of becoming a media circus, with the focus being on the end of 2011 instead of the beginning of 2012. This could become a major distraction from preparing for a new season.

    As Carl Crawford told Nick Cafardo, “Guys are gonna rally around that chicken and beer thing and rally together. Stay positive. Hope for the best.”

    The Red Sox need to find the right mouthwash to get rid of the chicken-and-beer taste.

    Last fall I suggested that the ownership team and GM Ben Cherington host an open, no-holds-barred press conference, where they commit to answer all questions frankly and to the best of their ability.

    Stay and answer every question, and respond to every criticism, with the condition being that once the conference is finished, everyone moves on. That's the end of 2011 post mortem, and the focus for the future will be 2012.

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