Boston Red Sox: 11 Reasons They Will Outperform 2012 Expectations

Frank LennonCorrespondent IMarch 2, 2012

Boston Red Sox: 11 Reasons They Will Outperform 2012 Expectations

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    Few pundits pick the Red Sox to win it all this year; many have the team finishing as low as third in the AL East, including Sports Illustrated senior writer Tom Verducci

    "Boston to me is third, because I don't like the shortstop situation," Verducci said.

    Others point to the mystery surrounding the back end of the starting rotation, the bullpen upheaval and the lingering sour taste of the way the 2011 season ended.

    Remember, however, this was a 90-win team last year—only seven teams in all of MLB won more. That's the same number of wins as the World Series-winning Cardinals.

    I do believe that chances are the Red Sox will win the AL East this year, even facing an upgraded Yankee pitching staff. The Rays, despite superb home-grown pitching, have been unable to upgrade their offense enough to knock off either the Yankees or the Red Sox.

    Toronto has made few offseason moves, and they closely resemble the .500 team from last year.

    The Orioles have now suffered through 14 straight losing seasons. Despite the pasting they gave the Red Sox to knock them out of the playoffs last season, they will finish last again in the AL East in 2012.

    Like most others who follow the Red Sox closely, I was very concerned about the way the 2011 season ended. The subsequent departures of GM Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona, combined with the "chicken and beer" fiasco, could have resulted in a long-lasting hangover that might have dragged the team down in 2012.

    However, the way things have gone so far this offseason should give Red Sox Nation cause for optimism.

    Kudos to ownership and new GM Ben Cherington for not overreacting. It would have been easy (but also a big mistake) to blow up one of the best teams in baseball.

    Think about it: When something bad happens, it's human nature to want to blame someone, or something.

    The fact that a disaster may be an act of God or just an unfortunate accident or a perfect storm of bad luck is not good enough. We have to string someone up. Remember poor Steve Bartman?

    Fans vicariously combine their own lives, joys and heartbreaks with the teams they support. Unfortunately, the media (talk radio especially) may sometimes fan those flames by blowing controversies out of proportion.

    The Red Sox "chicken, beer and video games" brouhaha was not Sex, Lies and Videotape. The Red Sox did not collapse in September because three pitchers drank rally beers in the clubhouse. 

    Thankfully, leadership did not overreact. All signs indicate they are making baseball decisions, not "holier than thou" social judgments. Remember, this WAS the best team in baseball for much of the season (and they were probably drinking rally beers during that stretch as well). 

    Fortunately, they ignored those frothing at the mouth to trade Beckett, get rid of Crawford, etc. Instead, they are uniting around this team's strengths and doing everything they can to get them ready to play in April.

    They can still be the best team in baseball.

1. They Have Weathered the September Collapse Issue and Appear to Be Moving On.

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    I was concerned that when reporters got their first crack at most of the players since the 2011 collapse, the sticky questions about the end of last season would be asked again.

    Well, those questions have been asked again, and there is no doubt that the players are unhappy about the seeming focus on the way last season ended rather than how the new season begins.

    Interestingly enough, however, the questions don't seem to have the same steam they had last fall, and the ire on the New England sports radio talk shows seems less vitriolic this time around.

    There has certainly been a reduction in the flow of rumor, innuendo and criticism which dominated the airwaves from the end of the season until about Thanksgiving. Maybe it was just a case of media exhaustion and also that the well of juicy tidbits seemed to dry up.

    And, of course, the Patriots run to the Super Bowl helped keep the spotlight off the Red Sox…

    There is no question that time has helped heal this wound (or at least scab it over) and most fans are getting enthusiastic about the 2012 prospects.

    Keep your fingers crossed, however, that the team does not get off to another 2-10 start.

2. GM Ben Cherington and Manager Bobby Valentine Are Making the Right Moves

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    In most cases, that means the moves they did NOT make.

    Congratulations for not overpaying for Jonathan Papelbon and potentially crippling the team's ability to make other moves. This was his first major player decision, and coming so soon after the season-ending debacle, there was a lot of pressure to keep Pap. 

    Congratulations also for staying the course he laid down in his very first press conference—to focus on low-risk, high-reward free agents and avoid the pressure to make a big splash in free agency. 

    He is living up to what he said in his initial press conference: that he would approach this offseason patiently, not overreact to the September collapse, and focus on low-risk, high-reward signings and trades.

    "But we need to add some pitching depth," he said. "Most likely, we'll do that through some good, creative, perhaps buy-low acquisitions."

    I predict that at least one of the "scrap heap" pitchers he has signed will be a big and pleasant surprise this year.

    While some Red Sox fans may be disappointed that the team did not pursue one of the top starters on the free-agent market, the business-like evaluation of "bang for buck" has put Boston in a good position to avoid salary cap hell for 2013.

    Also, he was able to acquire two potential closers (Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon) without giving up their best trade chip, Kevin Youkilis. There's a lot of baseball to be played between now and October. I would imagine the Red Sox are not finished dealing.

    With reference to the hiring of Bobby Valentine,I readily admit it: I was one of those who questioned the decision, 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, while building good communication and rapport with most of his players for the coming season.

3. Josh Beckett and Jon Lester Have Something to Prove

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    Jon Lester had, by his standards, an off year in 2011. He went 15-9, as opposed to his career average of 17-7. While his ERA of 3.47 was in line with previous years, he only struck out 182 while pitching 191.2 innings. He had struck out 225 in 2009 and 2010 while pitching more than 200 innings each year.

    Perhaps more importantly, he faltered in September, going 1-3 with a 5.40 ERA when the team needed him most. He was also identified as one of the prime culprits in the "chicken and beer" fiasco.

    This week, Lester told John Tomase of the Boston Herald, “It’s something I’m not proud of. You learn from your mistakes and I’m looking forward to starting new this year.”

    Lester went on to say:

    I care a lot about my job. I hope the fans realize that stuff had nothing to do with what happened on the field. I stunk. We stunk and we’re looking forward to proving people wrong.

    Tomase comments:

    In the span of 20 minutes, one of the central figures in the beer and chicken clubhouse scandal managed to brilliantly walk about a dozen fine lines. He expressed contrition without pandering. He firmly set his sights on 2012 without downplaying the significance of 2011. He blamed no one but himself for his performance.

    Compare Lester’s comments with those of Josh Beckett, who "barely admitted culpability despite being the perceived ringleader of the clubhouse shenanigans. Beckett barely could bring himself to admit he failed his teammates in any capacity other than on the field."

    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.

    Speaking of Beckett, 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 the alleged “ringleader” of the clubhouse morals offenders.

    Hold on a minute here.

    You don't jettison a season-long 2.89 ERA because of a few beers and some fried chicken. As many people pointed out this month, 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 $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 said that he will let his pitching do his talking. 

    Unfortunately, Beckett made it more difficult for himself by stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that he did anything wrong last year. Instead of being concerned about the attitude and contact within the clubhouse, he was angered by the fact that news of it got out. Beckett made no friends by saying that his biggest concern was finding the snitch.

    The guess here is that he will come out strong, with an "I'll show them" attitude.

    He's right, to the extent that he fans will support him again so long as he goes out on the mound and dominates to start next season. People have short memories; good performance will erase a lot of angst. 

    Whatever his motivation, the end result will be good for the Red Sox. He and Lester both will improve on their 2011 seasons.

4. Daniel Bard Will Succeed in the Starting Rotation

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    Bard pitched his first starter inning of spring training on March 1.

    If he 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. 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. Rich Hill Will Contribute in the Second Half

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    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 season. After all, he did undergo Tommy John surgery last spring, and it is doubtful that he would have been ready for the start of the season anyway.

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

    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 changeup. 

    Hill started the 2011 season with a bang, giving up only two runs in 16 innings at Triple-A 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 Cubs out 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 Cardinals just prior to spring training of 2010. He pitched at Triple-A Memphis before the Red Sox picked him up and converted him to reliever.

    Alex Speier of WEEI.com reports that Hill "is progressing well in his rehab from surgery that took place a week after he suffered his injury." He is now throwing at 120 feet and is guardedly optimistic that he will be ready by Opening Day.

    “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 was obviously disappointed that the Red Sox did not initially tender 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.

6. Daisuke Matsuzaka Will Come Back from Surgery and Be a Better Pitcher

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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 Matsuzaka 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; 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.

7. At Least One of the "Low-Risk, High-Reward" Pitcher Signings Will Bear Fruit

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    One of the more interesting comments Bobby Valentine made at the start of spring training this year was about the end of the Red Sox starting rotation.

    "I would just think that history is a great teacher, and recent history showed me that the team that won our division last year had no fourth and fifth starter coming into spring training," Valentine told Mike Bauman of mlb.com.

    He was reminding us all of the uncertainty faced by the Yankees last spring, who were able to stabilize the rotation enough to take the AL East crown with 97 victories.

    GM Ben Cherington has given Valentine a good supply of raw material to work with.

    Over the past several weeks, GM Ben Cherington added to the gaggle of arms competing for roster spots by signing a number of pitchers 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.

    And I'm not even considering pitchers already on the 40-man roster (Felix Doubront, Michael Bowden) or up-and-coming youngsters such as Alex Wilson. 

    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 SpooneJustin Thomas and Doug Mathis have also had starting experience.

    The first of these 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

    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 the Rockies’ 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. 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 10 years. The average MLB pitcher induces grounders about 44 percent of the time.

    That would certainly be useful at Fenway Park.

    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 when he covered the Ubaldo Jimenez 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.

    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.

8. Bailey and Melancon Give the Red Sox Multiple Bullpen Options

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    Adding Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon offers flexibility the Red Sox 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 percent 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 setup role that Bard excelled in last year. 

    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. So is choosing a closer, for every team that does not own Mariano Rivera.

    Take a deep breath and look at recent history.

    At the end of the 2010 season, the Tampa Bay Rays lost virtually every arm they had in what was a very strong bullpen. Dan Wheeler signed with the Red Sox and Chad Qualls, Rafael Soriano, Grant Balfour and Joaquin Benoit all left as free agents. (Most signed one-year deals elsewhere, and some are available again this year.)

    Through the summer, the Rays mixed and matched, and through a combination of rookies (Brandon Gomes and Jake McGee) and Maddon's various reclamation projects, they ended up with a relief staff that was one of the best in the majors.

    They picked up their very successful closer, Kyle Farnsworth, off the scrap heap.

    Another team that built up a solid bullpen in 2011 for very little money was the San Francisco Giants.

    Conclusion: 

    These two very successful bullpens consisted of a combination of non-performers who flourished in new environments, as well as youngsters who were developed by their teams internally.

    The bottom line is that decent relievers seem to materialize out of nowhere every year. The conundrum is that some of the good relievers in one year were total disasters just the year before. They seem to run out of gas in one park, division or league and are rejuvenated by a change of scenery.

    Conversely, some of the best firemen in 2011 will turn out to be expensive duds in 2012.

    The argument here is that there is no true recipe for success. That's why signing several low-risk, inexpensive free agents (and throwing in a few prospects from the farm) seems preferable to investing a lot of money (and therefore credibility) into just a couple of guys.

    The Red Sox seem perfectly positioned to capitalize on this situation in 2012.

    POSTSCRIPT

    The acquisition of Bailey may open a new channel of communication for Valentine with his players—most of whom the new skipper does not know well.

    However, Valentine and Bailey do know each other. Both reside in Connecticut, and for the past two years Valentine has emceed an event for Bailey's charity, the Strike 3 Foundation.

    "Bobby and I are good friends," Bailey told Didier Morais of yardbarker.com. "Bobby and I have a good relationship. He's excited to have me on board and I'm excited to be there for him. We spoke about this year. We're both looking forward to it. It helps knowing someone going in."

    It certainly does—and it may be more valuable to Valentine that he knows Bailey.

    "I see him off the field act the way you would want a major leaguer, or for that matter a son or father to act," Valentine said to Morais.

    According to Morais, Bailey is equally complimentary about his new manager. 

    "He's a great guy and brings a lot of energy to anything he does," Bailey said. "… He's going to do great with that bunch of guys in Boston. He's hard not to like, so I'm sure I'll get along well with him."

    This trade may offer the Red Sox an unexpected bonus when it comes to clubhouse communication.

9. A Fired-Up David Ortiz Anchors the Middle of the Lineup

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    Now that Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek have retired, the player who has been with the Red Sox the longest Red Sox is now David Ortiz. According to Tim Britton of the Providence Journal, he was the only player who addressed the team on the first day of full-squad workouts, talking about the pride he has to wear a Red Sox jersey.

    David Ortiz also seems angry about the way last year ended; he is fed up with all the chicken and beer chatter. Combine that anger with pride, and that's bad news for opposing pitchers.

    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 have had in several months.

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

    Joe McDonald of ESPNBoston.com quoted Ortiz:

    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.

10. Carl Crawford Will Have a Bigger Year Than Most People Expect

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    The one player who can have the greatest impact on Red Sox success or failure 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.

    I have argued since the end of last season that the Red Sox (and Bobby Valentine) should bend over backwards to help get Crawford's head on straight for spring training. Reports suggest that Valentine is saying and doing the right things to make that happen.

    Last week, Carl Crawford also met with Red Sox owner John Henry to clear the air about a remark that Henry made last October in a radio interview. Henry apologized for saying that he opposed signing Crawford in the first place.

    "I should have never made those comments,” Henry said to Tom Britton of the Providence Journal. Henry explained that it was an “off-the-cuff” remark he regretted making during the radio interview.

    Crawford said the apology “means a lot,” and hopefully this may eliminate one of the mental/emotional roadblocks in the way of Crawford returning to elite status.

    There are physical roadblocks as well.

    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.

    Word out of spring training is that Crawford is well ahead of schedule on his rehab, and that reports of him starting the season on the DL may have been prematuure.

    According to ESPN's Joe McDonald, he is optimistic about his chances to be ready when the season jumps off. "I was able to swing the bat very aggressively," he said." I felt good about where I was at today and hopefully I can get better."

    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 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.

11. The Red Sox as a Team Have Something to Prove, so Expect a Fast Start

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    While the players have been perhaps less forthcoming and apologetic than fans would like to see, I think the players' mantra of "We'll show you on the field" is beginning to take hold.

    I discussed this clubhouse situation at length with Drago.

    "As a professional ballplayer, I knew when I did not perform my best, or when I screwed up," he told me. "But that doesn't mean I'm going to go on national TV and beg forgiveness. I'm going to look in the mirror and commit to do better. Maybe I will also discuss it privately with my teammates. But that's it."

    As Josh Beckett and others have said, actions speak louder than words.

    And every player has a different personal motivation to perform. As Dustin Pedroia told ESPN.com, "I think about last year every day."

    That old adage, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger," may come into play here. There's also the sense that the players have circled the wagons in the clubhouse. If there's any kind of a silver lining to the way last season ended, it may be that greater unity has been forged among the players themselves. They are unified in their desire to show the fans and the media that last September was a fluke that will not be repeated.

    They also know that if they have another 2-10 start this year, Boston fans will be jumping off the Tobin Bridge in droves.

    That's not going to happen. My sense is that the Red Sox will come out of the gate with a vengeance and will be viewing the rest of the AL East in their rear-view mirror.