Manager Bobby Valentine has a bit of work to do this spring in Boston Red Sox camp. It will not be easy to erase the players' memories of what was a dizzying downward September spiral. Gone are Jonathan Papelbon (who gave up the hit that gave away the season) and Terry Francona, but ghosts will follow the team around until they get on the field and begin to dominate opponents.
It should not take long.
The Red Sox are a strong team from top to bottom, perhaps not as deep as they would like, but certainly very talented at the top end. Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury are three of the 10 or 12 best position players in the American League, and they are not alone. Talent abounds in Boston.
It may take time for the Red Sox to gel and for Valentine to figure out how best to juggle a roster with many solid, but limited, role players. When it clicks, though, it will click firmly, and things will get better fast. Here is a full preview of the team's race toward October.
This is the fourth of 30 team previews in 30 days, leading up to the start of the 2012 MLB regular season.
Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Matt Trueblood offers insight on all facets of each club, profiles their manager, raise key questions, identifies risers and fallers and lays out run matrices for each team based on his proprietary 2012 projections. Check back daily for the next team in the series, or follow Trueblood on Twitter:
How it Goes
- Jacoby Ellsbury: CF
- Dustin Pedroia: 2B
- Adrian Gonzalez: 1B
- Kevin Youkilis: 3B
- David Ortiz: DH
- Carl Crawford: LF
- Jarrod Saltalamacchia: C
- Ryan Sweeney: RF
- Mike Aviles: SS
What it Does
Crawford will not be in the lineup on Opening Day, but after his 2011, and given the depth of this unit, the Red Sox should be able to more than pick up the slack in his absence.
When Kevin Youkilis is hurt and out of the lineup, it gets very left-handed, so one of the underrated keys to Boston's season will be keeping their burly third baseman in that clean-up spot as often as possible.
Aviles, Sweeney and Saltalamacchia are each majority sharers in platoons, really, though Aviles and Saltalamacchia figure to get more than the straight platoon number of plate appearances. Valentine, a long-time NL manager, should be comfortable with the frequency of pinch-hitting, lineup shuffling and general tinkering that will be asked of him.
Who They Are
- Josh Beckett
- Clay Buchholz
- Jon Lester
- Daniel Bard
- Alfredo Aceves
How They Stack Up
These are the five most likely to make it at first, but the Red Sox have amassed a plethora of marginal starting options this winter, too. In so doing, they took a page from the Yankees' 2011 recipe book for a patchwork rotation built by a rich team.
Beckett's biggest problem will be health, and Buchholz should be good when he takes the ball, too.
After that, though, things get murky. Lester lost substantial zip on all his pitches in 2011. Bard last started as a freshly-drafted kid in the low minors and walked 78 batters against 47 strikeouts en route to a 7.08 ERA that year. He might well be ready to start now, but it's no sure thing.
Aceves is a good swingman, but an iffy full-time starter.
Who Comes In
- Andrew Bailey
- Mark Melancon
- Andrew Miller
- Franklin Morales
- Matt Albers
- Michael Bowden
- Chris Carpenter
What Comes of It
Bailey has never hit a batter in the big leagues in 174 innings. He has tremendous command and should leave no one missing Papelbon all that much. Melancon cost the Sox Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland, but he's a solid set-up man, and he's worth it.
Miller might get some starting assignments against lefty-heavy lineups, over Aceves and some of the lesser lights. Morales is a usable but not special lefty specialist. The rest are guys with some upside but whose careers are adrift right now.
Who They Are
- Cody Ross
- Kelly Shoppach
- Nick Punto
- Darnell McDonald
How They Roll
Ross was a good signing for the Sox, as facing mostly southpaws and drifting between right and center fields will allow him to return maximum value. Shoppach is the same sort of player behind the dish and showed his power in last year's ALDS as a member of the Rays. Punto's value rides on his glove at shortstop, which is a risky proposition at his age.
- Ryan Lavarnway
- Aaron Cook
- Jose Iglesias
- Ryan Kalish
- Felix Doubront
What They're Waiting For
Trading Marco Scutaro left the Red Sox without much safety net if their risky Mike Aviles-Nick Punto platoon doesn't work out. Iglesias isn't likely to be ready right away for the limelight, but his glove is terrific, and he needs only to find a way to hit at all in order to be useful.
Lavarnway is in sort of the opposite situation. He has a big bat, but is not a true catcher and will get his big break only if Saltalamacchia or Shoppach goes down. Kalish will miss the start of the season after offseason surgery, but is a candidate to be the starting right fielder in 2013 and should see playing time with the parent club this year.
Valentine is no tough guy, but his beer ban in the clubhouse is a nice show of authority and discipline. He's a great motivator, more than a great tactician, and he will bring that to bear with the Sox in a big way. Crawford and Bard especially provide interesting mental challenges and need to be managed, not merely coached. Valentine is up to the task.
Who's On the Rise
- Carl Crawford
- Daniel Bard
- Kelly Shoppach
Crawford cratered in the first year of his mega-deal with the Sox, but he's not going to disappear from the face of the Earth. He will be back early on after wrist surgery that will delay the start of his season, and he will play his usual excellent defense in left field. He will hit the ball hard and bounce back.
Bard is a project, and putting him back into the rotation—where he collapsed and his career nearly went off the track in 2007—is a huge risk. It will pay off. His fastball will carry his repertoire, and he will be productive and healthy. Shoppach, confined to facing left-handed opposing pitchers and throwing out runners every third or fourth day, will surprise a lot of people with his power and his presence.
Who's Going the Wrong Way
- David Ortiz
- Jon Lester
- Kevin Youkilis
Ortiz's body can only hold up so long. He rallied miraculously after seeming to be on the verge of cliff-dive decline in 2009-10, but he's not going to be good and healthy all year. Lester's velocity drop is troubling, and he is a player to watch very carefully this spring. Sudden losses of zip suggest injury risk, in addition to limiting effectiveness.
Youkilis remains a sound player in terms of skills, but third base is a demanding position at which players get hurt a lot. Youkilis has proved not to be terribly durable, and even if he's healthy, his defense is trending down fast.
- How long will Carl Crawford be out of action? It isn't as though Crawford is a completely irreplaceable cog in the Boston offensive machine, but he is a big upgrade over Darnell McDonald, assuming good health and moderate effectiveness. He needs to get onto the field quickly so as to establish his rhythm and gain confidence before the season gets rolling too fast for even the fleet Crawford.
- Is Mark Melancon AL East good? Melancon was very good as the Astros' relief ace in 2011. He throws a hard cutter/four-seam fastball mix and uses a curveball with great depth to get the ball down and generate ground balls. It remains to be seen, though, whether his success was (in whole or in part) a result of pitching for the Astros in what may have been baseball's worst offensive division.
- How well will Valentine use this roster? Great opportunities for platoon success exist at three positions for the Sox, but to derive maximum benefit from them, Valentine has to actually platoon the players. If Kelly Shoppach faces a right-handed pitcher this season, Valentine will have failed.
- How soon can Daisuke Matsuzaka return? Though no shining light in recent years, Matsuzaka would be a handy midseason addition to the Red Sox's pitching staff. They always need depth, and he is more likely to find success with Boston than is Aaron Cook or Carlos Silva, for instance.
- Is this the roster they'll have in August? This version of the Red Sox can certainly contend, even in the brutal AL East. So much the better that there are now two Wild Cards at which to aim if the division gets away from them.
If that does happen, though—if the Sox are in position to make a serious push for the playoffs in late July or even earlier—they should consider additions. Even if it means trading some key prospects, the Sox should go for it in 2012. The window to win with this particular crop of elite position players is closing, but they could be a World Series team right now. They need only to sign Roy Oswalt, or else to trade for a full-time player of higher quality than the pair in place behind home plate, at shortstop and in right field.
Runs Above Average
The rotation does very well, according to my projections, but that doesn't quite reflect the level of risk and the broad range of outcomes that are really possible. The positional core truly is perhaps baseball's best, the bullpen got only very slightly worse and the bench (though highly specialized) could be one of baseball's best. Boston should be co-favorites in the AL East heading toward Opening Day, though the Yankees and Rays are safer, lower-risk teams.