The Boston Red Sox have been on a wild ride over the last calendar year, one consisting of high highs and remarkably low lows.
For good or ill, the 2011 season changed the Red Sox. The epic September collapse was an unwelcome taste of the bad old days for Red Sox Nation, and it was followed by the strangest offseason in the history of the franchise. The club parted ways with Terry Francona, and general manager Theo Epstein left to go fix the Chicago Cubs. After a long search, the Sox brought in former New York Mets manager and ESPN personality Bobby Valentine to run things.
More recently, Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek retired, which still just doesn't feel quite right.
Take a look at the 2012 version of the Red Sox, and you'll notice that they bear little resemblance to the teams that won the World Series in 2004 and 2007. Things are different.
But this won't matter as long as the 2012 Red Sox perform well and wash the sour taste of 2011 from the mouths of Red Sox Nation. For all intents and purposes, the Sox have begun a new era, and they intend to get things started on a positive note.
Here's a look at how the Sox are shaping up heading into the 2012 season.
2011 Record: 90-72
Key Arrivals (courtesy of BaseballProspectus.com): C Kelly Shoppach (FA), INF Nick Punto (FA), RHP Mark Melancon (from Houston), RHP Raul Alcantara (from Oakland), RHP Andrew Bailey (from Oakland), OF Ryan Sweeney (from Oakland), RHP Carlos Silva (FA), SS Pedro Ciriaco (FA), RHP Clayton Mortensen (from Colorado), OF Cody Ross (FA), RHP Ross Ohlendorf (FA), RHP Chris Carpenter (from Chicago Cubs).
Key Departures: SS Jed Lowrie (to Houston), RHP Kyle Weiland (to Houston), 1B Miles Head (to Oakland), OF Josh Reddick (to Oakland), SS Marco Scutaro (to Colorado), RHP Jonathan Papelbon (FA), OF J.D. Drew (FA), RHP Tim Wakefield (FA, retired), RHP Dan Wheeler (FA), LHP Trever Miller (FA), C Jason Varitek (FA, retired).
Projected Rotation (per official site)
- Jon Lester (15-9, 3.47 ERA, 1.26 WHIP)
- Josh Beckett (13-7, 2.89, 1.03)
- Clay Buchholz (6-3, 3.48, 1.29)
- Daniel Bard (2-9, 3.33, 0.96)
- Alfredo Aceves (10-2, 2.61, 1.11)
- Daisuke Matsuzaka (3-3, 5.30, 1.47)*
*Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe has reported that Dice-K is targeting a June return from Tommy John surgery.
C: Jarrod Saltalamacchia (.235/.288/.450)
1B: Adrian Gonzalez (.338/.410/.548)
2B: Dustin Pedroia (.307/.387/.474)
3B: Kevin Youkilis (.258/.373/.459)
SS: Nick Punto (.278/.388/.421)
LF: Carl Crawford (.255/.289/.405)*
CF: Jacoby Ellsbury (.321/.376/.552)
RF: Cody Ross (.240/.325/.405), Ryan Sweeney (.265/.346/.341)
DH: David Ortiz (.309/.398/.554)
*Nick Cafardo has reported that Crawford's status for Opening Day is "in jeopardy" as he struggles to recover from surgery on his left wrist.
Closer: Andrew Bailey (R) (0-4, 24 SV, 1 HLD, 2 BLSV, 3.24 ERA, 1.10 WHIP)
Mark Melancon (R) (8-4, 20 SV, 3 HLD, 5 BLSV, 2.78, 1.22)
Matt Albers (R) (4-4, 10 HLD, 3 BLSV, 4.73, 1.44)
Franklin Morales (L) (1-2, 10 HLD, 3.69, 1.27)
Andrew Miller (L) (6-3, 5.54, 1.82)
Michael Bowden (R) (0-0, 4.05, 1.50)
Felix Doubront (L) (0-0, 1 SV, 6.10, 1.94)
Scott Atchison (R) (1-0, 1 SV, 3.26, 1.22)
Junichi Tazawa (R) (0-0, 6.00, 1.33)
Scouting the Starting Pitching
You probably caught wind of the fact that Boston's starting pitching totally sucked in 2011. If not, well, Boston's starting pitching totally sucked in 2011. Now you know.
The numbers support the notion. Sox starters logged just 71 quality starts all season long, second fewest in the American League. In fact, Sox starters pitched just 940 innings, also second fewest in the American League. They posted a collective ERA of 4.49, and a WHIP of 1.37.
On the bright side, at least Boston's rotation was solid at the top. Jon Lester wasn't quite as good as he usually is, but he was still pretty good. Josh Beckett, meanwhile, bounced back and had the kind of season most Sox fans probably didn't think he was capable of having after his disastrous season in 2010.
There's no overstating how much the Sox are going to need another outstanding season from Beckett in 2012. They need him to pitch like the ace he was in 2011.
Beckett was able to pitch like an ace primarily because he lowered his walk rate from 3.17 every nine innings to 2.42 every nine innings. He's done better than that in the past (1.79 BB/9 in 2007), but he was able to make up for it by keeping his strikeout rate a solid 8.16 per nine innings, and he pitched to contact effectively.
In the past, Beckett has been a strikeout/ground-ball pitcher. In 2011, he morphed into more of a strikeout/fly-ball pitcher. His fly-ball rate ballooned to 42.2 percent, yet he kept his HR/FB rate at a relatively impressive 9.6 percent.
If you ever got the notion that Beckett's bounce-back year was too good to be true, however, that's because it probably was. He deserves credit for not giving hitters anything good to hit, but his .245 BABIP was absurdly low. That will level out this season, resulting in more baserunners and, ultimately, more runs. Count on it.
As for Lester, the one concern I have about him is that his strikeout rate took a dive last season. This led to a slight increase in opponents' batting average, and many of the hits he gave up were hard hits. He gave up 20 home runs, and hitters slugged .374 off him. That figure is not astronomical by any stretch of the imagination, but it's the highest opponents' slugging percentage he's posted since becoming a full-time starter in 2008.
Of course, it must be noted that both Beckett and Lester had ERAs over 5.00 in September. If the stories are true, those can be chalked up to chicken, beer and too much Halo in the clubhouse.
But Beckett and Lester aren't who Sox fans should be worried about. They should be more worried about the final three spots in this rotation.
Clay Buchholz can do the Sox a huge favor by staying healthy. He wasn't on his way to having a brilliant season like the one he had in 2010, but he certainly didn't pitch poorly before back woes ended his season. The Sox will gladly take the 2011 version of Buchholz as long as he makes 30 starts and pitches 200 innings.
Just don't expect Buchholz to post an ERA in the low 2.00s like he did in 2010. That was a fluke. Buchholz proved that he could pitch to contact effectively, but he benefited from quite a bit of luck. His FIP of 3.61 in 2010 was more than a full run higher than his ERA.
In what starts Buchholz did make in 2011, the league seemed to catch up with him. His fly-ball rate climbed significantly, and so did his HR/FB rate. He just wasn't keeping hitters in the park like he did in 2010.
Even still, Buchholz will do fine for a No. 3 starter as long as he stays healthy. The No. 4 and No. 5 spots are where the true concern lies.
Daniel Bard is a total wild card. He has yet to log a single start in the big leagues, yet here he is trying to establish himself as a capable starting pitcher. Frankly, I have my doubts.
Bard's stuff is perfectly made for bullpen work. His fastball comes in at an average of 97 miles per hour, and he's got a sharp slider that he can break off to get swinging strikes. In the last two seasons, this stuff allowed Bard to establish himself as one of the dominant relievers in all of baseball.
What we don't know is if Bard can maintain velocity for five, six or seven innings, nor do we know if can use his secondary pitches consistently and effectively. If all he's able to throw for strikes is his fastball, he's going to bomb as a starter.
I have more faith in Alfredo Aceves. He's no ace, but at least he has a few starts under his belt.
As a whole, this isn't a bad rotation. It's just not great, especially not when you compare it to the New York Yankees' rotation and the Tampa Bay Rays' rotation. Moreover, you just get the sense that it's nowhere near deep enough.
I can't believe I'm about to say this, but the Sox better hope that Dice-K stays on track with his recovery. They're going to need him.
John Lackey, on the other hand, will not be missed.
Scouting the Bullpen
The Sox's bullpen was a bright spot in 2011. The guys in the pen had a 3.67 ERA, an impressive 2.63 K/BB ratio and an AL-best 1.20 WHIP.
There's simply no way of knowing if the bullpen is going to be this good again. One key piece, Jonathan Papelbon, is in Philadelphia. Another key piece, Daniel Bard, is in the rotation.
Things will be fine if Andrew Bailey turns out to be a capable replacement for Papelbon. In order for him to be that, he'll have to stay healthy. Bailey pitched over 80 innings in his rookie season in 2009, but he's been held to under 50 innings in each of the last two years. He has a habit of coming down with injuries, and that's a tendency this Sox bullpen can ill afford to see come to reality.
Bailey has generally been very good when he's been able to pitch. He's struck out exactly one batter per inning in his three-year career, and he's done a good job of limiting his walks. He doesn't have Pap's control, but he does a good job of pitching to contact and keeping the ball in the yard. That's more than you can say about Papelbon, even despite his fantastic 2011 season.
Mark Melancon projects as a guy who will be perfect for the eighth inning. He doesn't have exceptional control, but he's shown over the last two seasons that he can strike guys out and get ground balls. The ball will fly when hitters get it in the air (11.1 HR/FB in 2011), but the bright side is that Melancon is coming off a season in which his fly-ball percentage was a minuscule 21.4 percent.
Forming a bridge to Melancon and Bailey is where things get dicey. The Sox have a lot of arms for the task, but no real good ones.
Matt Albers walks too many guys and is a little too hittable; Andrew Miller is a mess of a pitcher; Michael Bowden has never proven to be anything special; Felix Doubront has an ERA over 5.00 in limited action as a reliever; Scott Atchison is hittable; and Junichi Tazawa is largely unproven.
Even Franklin Morales, the key lefty in this pen, is imperfect. He's not a bad pitcher, but it's saying something that lefties hit him even better than righties last season. He also gave up a few too many homers after coming over from the Rockies last season.
If all goes well, the starters will log enough innings to allow Valentine to go right to Melancon and Bailey. But I think we all know that's an iffy proposition. Nothing can be taken for granted with Boston's rotation, and nothing can be taken for granted with its bullpen.
Scouting the Hitting
Offense wasn't a problem for the Sox in 2011. They led the majors in runs scored (875), on-base percentage (.349), slugging percentage (.461) and were second in team batting average (.280).
Good news. All of the key guys who made Boston's offensive explosion possible in 2011 are back.
It all starts up at the top with Jacoby Ellsbury, who is coming off a remarkable 2011 season in which he hit .321 with 32 home runs and over 100 RBI and over 100 runs scored. The star potential Ellsbury had been flirting with in 2008 and 2009 was realized.
As you may have noticed, Ellsbury hit the ball harder in 2011 than he used to. His line-drive percentage increased to 22.9 percent, and 16.7 percent of his fly balls left the park. To boot, relatively few of them were cheapies.
Will Ellsbury be as productive in 2012 as he was in 2011? I highly doubt it as far as his power is concerned. I won't put it past Ellsbury to hit 20 or 25 home runs, but upwards of 30 home runs is probably asking too much. But if Ellsbury can hit .300 with an OBP in the high .300s while tacking on 20-25 homers and 40 stolen bases, he'll still be a star. Again.
The Sox know they have a star in Dustin Pedroia. He also missed a lot of time in 2010, but he bounced back to have the best season of his career in 2011. It was even better than his MVP season in 2008.
Pedroia posted a rock-solid .307/.387/.474 batting line with a career-high 21 home runs and a career-high 91 RBI. This is pretty impressive once you consider Pedroia got off to a very slow start in 2011, batting .255 in April and .227 in May. He caught fire in June and he didn't stop hitting the rest of the way.
Adrian Gonzalez is another hitter the Sox don't need to worry about. His power numbers took a dive after the All-Star break, but Gonzalez's first season in Boston was largely a success. I'll break it down in more depth in just a little while.
Kevin Youkilis will be looking to have a bounce-back season. He was one of the top hitters in the American League from 2007-2010, but he suffered from a low contact rate and an increased ground-ball rate, so it's not surprising that his average and power numbers suffered.
It was an off year, plain and simple, and it didn't help that Youkilis was banged up for most of it. Ultimately, he was done in by a hip injury and had to have surgery to repair a sports hernia after the season.
Youkilis will be able to rest comfortably knowing that David Ortiz is likely to be backing him up in the lineup. Big Papi enjoyed a fantastic season in 2011, and it wasn't a fluke. He earned his numbers.
The key was a huge strikeout decrease. Papi's strikeout percentage was over 20 in 2009 and 2010, but it was a mere 13.7 percent in 2011. He was putting the bat on the ball, and he was hitting it hard. His line-drive percentage increased, and a good chunk of Papi's fly balls left the yard.
Papi seemed to turn a corner in 2011. He doesn't have the bat speed he used to, nor is his swing as violently powerful as it used to be. He knows his limits now, and he knows how to compensate for them. Against all odds, he figured it out.
Things get a little trickier once you look beyond these five key hitters. The Sox have no idea what kind of production they're going to get out of whoever's playing shortstop on a given day, nor do they know what kind of production is going to come out of right field. Jarrod Saltalamacchia will be good for a home run here and there, but nothing significant.
And of course, the Sox will be looking for a huge bounce-back season from Carl Crawford. I'll have more on him in just a minute.
Regardless of what happens with the unknowns, this lineup is going to score a ton of runs. There are some really good hitters at the top and in the middle of the batting order, and they'll do their part to generate runs.
Offense wasn't a problem in 2011, and it won't be a problem in 2012.
This spot was up for grabs between Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, but I have to go with Lester simply because he's been the more reliable one of the two.
Since Lester took over as a full-time starter in 2008, he's tied with Cliff Lee for the fourth-most wins in baseball with 65, and he has a solid ERA of 3.33.
Relatively few of Lester's other numbers over the last four seasons truly jump out at you. He has a solid, but not great, 8.68 K/9, and a 3.19 BB/9 that is less than elite.
Nevertheless, Lester has emerged as one of the top starters in baseball thanks in large part to the fact he's just plain hard to hit. He always posts good ground-ball rates, and he's been able to keep his opponents' slugging percentages well under .400. Hitters will get singles, but getting extra-base hits off Lester is not so easy.
Like I mentioned above, there is some concern surrounding Lester because of his strikeout decrease in 2011. He struck out exactly 225 hitters in both 2009 and 2010, yet he struck out just 182 in 191.2 innings pitched.
A decrease in fastball velocity didn't help. Lester's fastball averaged 93.5 miles per hour in 2009 and 2010, but it dropped to 92.6 miles per hour in 2011.
Despite all this, Sox fans can feel optimistic knowing that Lester was outstanding in four of the season's six months. Had it not been for ERAs over 5.00 in May and September, he would have posted dominant numbers across the board.
We can dive into the numbers all we want, but I really don't need them to make a very simple point:
When Lester is on, he's an ace. That's all there is to it.
Adrian Gonzalez lived up to the hype in his first season with the Red Sox, finishing tied for second in the majors with a .338 batting average and third in the American League with a .957 OPS.
Gonzalez arrived with a well-deserved reputation as a guy who would take his walks, but the strange part is that his walk rate actually decreased to 10.3 percent. He swung the bat more in Boston than he did in San Diego, presumably because he actually had protection behind him in the lineup for once.
When Gonzalez hit the ball, good things happened. He had a .380 BABIP in 2011, which tied him with Matt Kemp for the highest mark in the majors.
And yes, Gonzalez loved hitting at Fenway Park. This table should tell you just about everything you need to know.
So as expected, Gonzalez mashed at Fenway Park much more than he ever did at PETCO Park. Not exactly a shocker, especially seeing as how (and I'm not kidding with this number) Gonzalez hit an even .500 in 2011 when he hit the ball to the opposite field.
About the only thing Gonzalez didn't do well was hit against the Yankees. The Bombers held him to a .183 batting average and a .324 slugging percentage.
Beyond that, there's nothing to complain about when it comes to Gonzalez. He's pretty great.
This spot could go to Clay Buchholz, Daniel Bard, Andrew Bailey, Mike Aviles, Nick Punto, Cody Ross, Ryan Sweeney or even Jose Iglesias.
But no player in the Red Sox organization is a bigger X-factor than Carl Crawford. It's not close.
Crawford simply wasn't himself in 2011. Between 2005 and 2010 with Tampa Bay, Crawford was good for a .300 batting average and nearly 50 stolen bases. That version of Crawford simply didn't show up in Boston.
It started with one of the worst months any of us has ever seen. Crawford hit .155 with a .204 on-base percentage in April, with just five extra-base hits.
To his credit, Crawford got rolling in May and was pretty good in June. But then a hamstring issue landed him on the disabled list, and whatever hope he had at establishing any kind of consistency went out the window.
There really isn't any scientific explanation for Crawford's awful showing in 2011, but some numbers are pretty damning. Crawford's never been a guy to take his walks, but he took even fewer walks in 2011. In the meantime, his strikeout percentage increased and he managed a BABIP of just .299.
Crawford tried to do too much, which is understandable given the huge contract he was (and is) trying to live up to. Whenever he is able to return to the lineup, he'll simply have to relax and play ball.
If the Sox get the old Crawford, their lineup is going to be absurdly deep, and multi-dimensional to boot. More runs won't solve Boston's pitching issues, but they will help compensate for them.
Prospect to Watch
Sox fans have had their eyes on Jose Iglesias for several seasons now, and this might just be the year he takes over as the team's everyday shortstop.
The big question concerning Iglesias has always been whether he can hit in the big leagues. He hasn't even been able to hit in the minors to this point, and he struggled mightily after being promoted to Triple-A in 2011. He hit just .235 with a .285 on-base percentage, which is not encouraging.
What isn't a big question is Iglesias' defense, which is elite. He projects as a perennial Gold Glove shortstop, and it's not uncommon for scouts and beat writers to geek out over something they just saw Iglesias do.
Mike Aviles and Nick Punto are blocking Iglesias' path to the big club, and Aviles in particular has been impressive in spring training. If Iglesias is going to arrive this season, it's going to take a combination of luck and hard work.
What the Red Sox Will Do Well
Even if Ellsbury comes back to earth and Crawford fails to live up to the numbers he posted playing for Tampa Bay, the Sox are still going to score a lot of runs. They were the best offensive team in baseball in 2011, and they'll be the best offensive team in baseball in 2012.
The Red Sox are also going to be an above-average defensive team. They finished second in the American League with a collective UZR of 42.8 last season, and they have Gold Glovers at first base, second base and center field.
As long as the Sox score runs and field the ball well, they're going to win plenty of games.
What the Red Sox Won’t Do Well
I like Josh Beckett, I like Jon Lester and I like Clay Buchholz. As long as the three of them stay healthy, the top of Boston's rotation will be just fine.
What worries me is the rest of the pitching staff. The final two spots in Boston's rotation are at best shaky, and the bullpen will be a disaster if Bailey can't stay healthy and if Melancon has trouble adapting to the American League.
If the Sox miss out on the playoffs for a third year in a row, it will be because of their pitching.
I'll come right out and say it: The Red Sox are not good enough to win the American League East.
For all the runs the Sox are going to score, they have no assurances that their pitching is going to be any better than it was in 2011. Even if everything goes well, the ceiling for this pitching staff is pretty low.
Pitching is exactly why the Sox don't measure up against the Rays and the hated Yankees. Both of them have deep, talented starting rotations, and it must be noted that the Yankees have an outstanding bullpen. The two of them are the teams to beat in the AL East.
The best the Sox can hope for is to land one of the two wild-card spots. It's possible, but their main competition will be the Los Angeles Angels, another team with better pitching than the Sox.
Full disclosure: I've been a Red Sox fan my whole life, so I hope I'm wrong. But this year, I just don't see it happening.
Projected Record: 88-74, third in AL East.
American League East
National League Central
American League Central
National League West
American League West
Zachary D. Rymer is a lifelong baseball junkie with an impressive collection of Nomar Garciaparra rookie cards and a knuckleball that is coming along. He loves the Red Sox and hates the Yankees, but he has a huge man-crush on Derek Jeter and would like nothing more than to have a few beers with Nick Swisher. He's always down to talk some baseball, so feel free to hit him up on Twitter: