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Boston Red Sox: 10 Burning Questions Heading into Opening Day

Frank LennonCorrespondent IApril 2, 2012

Boston Red Sox: 10 Burning Questions Heading into Opening Day

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    Back on February 22, I wrote an article entitled, "22 Biggest Question Marks Heading into Spring Training."

    As Opening Day approaches, let's see which of those questions remain unanswered and which new questions have arisen.

    Some of those early questions have already resolved themselves: Bobby Jenks is not even on the radar screen, and it appears Andrew Miller will start the season on the DL due to hamstring issues.

    Cody Ross has had an incredible spring, and even though his fellow right-field platoon mate Ryan Sweeney has scuffled, both will get playing time with Carl Crawford being out to start the year.

    Jose Iglesias has been sent to Triple-A, thus squelching (at least for now) any budding shortstop controversy.

    One of my big questions coming into camp was, "Will the ghosts of 2011 be exorcised by the time spring training ends?"

    I'm not sure they've been exorcised as much as they have just suffocated by their own weight, overtaken by the many interesting storylines that have come out of training camp.

    Now that the manager Bobby Valentine has announced that Daniel Bard and Felix Doubront will fill out the starting rotation, let's start with the most pressing of the remaining issues.

1. How Will the Andrew Bailey Injury Affect the Team?

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    Numerous reports out of spring training indicate that Andrew Bailey's thumb injury is more serious than originally thought, and chances are good that he will start the season on the DL.

    Bailey himself seems unsure of how he even sustained the injury, reports Sean McAdam of CSNNE.com.

    Nevertheless, it's serious enough for him to return to Boston to get it checked out.

    As I wrote yesterday, "That would really get the Red Sox off on the right foot, wouldn't it? Having signed Bailey to replace Jonathan Papelbon, the closer slot was one pitching position that seemed to be set for Boston."

    This unfortunate incident has a major domino effect on a number of other decisions.

    Yes, the Red Sox signed a second closer this offseason—26-year-old Mark Melancon registered 20 saves in 25 chances for the struggling Astros in 2011. He posted a 2.78 ERA and ended up 8-4 with 71 appearances, holding opponents to a .234 batting average and striking out 66 batters while walking only 26.

    As I wrote back on January 2, "He saved more than 35 percent of his team's wins last year even though he did not become the closer until mid-May."

    But, with Bailey potentially unable to answer the bell, the question becomes, "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?"

    Interestingly enough, I argued back then that having Bailey as the featured closer would make things easier for Melancon, giving him more time to adapt to a much more competitive division.

    Now the opposite may be the case: Melancon may have to step in to give Bailey time to recover—or not.

    Manager Bobby Valentine told Peter Abraham and Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe that part of the reason Alfredo Aceves is going back to the Red Sox bullpen is because of concerns about Bailey's health.

    That makes no sense unless Valentine was considering having Aceves be the interim closer instead.

    Either way, this injury scrambles the bullpen situation and is also causing Red Sox brass to rethink the decision about the 25th and final roster spot.

    Because of Bailey's reported injury, Valentine told Cafardo that spot could well go to an extra reliever and not a position player.

2. Who Will Be the 25th Man on the Roster?

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    Fan-favorite Pedro Ciriaco's chances of making the team took a huge hit as a result of the Bailey injury. 

    I won't go through the relative merits of the candidates here, but until yesterday, it was a foregone conclusion that the last spot on the Red Sox roster would be filled by a position player. Jason Repko, Pedro Ciriaco and Nate Spears are the three names most mentioned as contenders.
     
    Now, however, that spot may go to a pitcher, in order to help cover for Bailey.

    To start the season the Red Sox will probably add bullpen depth. So far, it appears that Matt Albers, Mark Melancon, Vicente Padilla and Franklin Morales have made the team, with Michael Bowden perhaps next in line.

    That leaves two more bullpen slots, if in fact the 25th man is a 13th pitcher.

    According to Maureen Mullen of NECN.com, the most likely candidates are three right-handers (Scott Atchison, Clayton Mortensen and Junichi Tazawa) and left-hander Justin Thomas. Mortenson and Tazawa are on the 40-man roster, which makes the selection of one of them more likely—especially since this stint in Boston may be short-lived.

    Manager Bobby Valentine told Mullen the final decision would not be made until after the final exhibition game in Washington on Tuesday.

    The corollary to this question is, "Who goes to Pawtucket?"

3. Can Daniel Bard Succeed as a Starter?

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    As early as last November, I supported the idea of making Bard a starter, and I'm not backing off now.

    Granted, he didn't exactly blow people away in spring training, posting a 6.57 ERA—the highest in camp for any pitcher with at least three innings pitched. He also pitched 24.2 innings, more than any other Boston pitcher, so Red Sox brass can't say they didn't get a good look at him.

    He struck out 18 but also gave up 16 walks. That's well below his career K/BB ratio of 2.80 (3.08 in 2011). Those results give him a K/9 ratio of 6.69 (well below his career rate of 9.70), and the BB/9 ratio this spring (5.95) is well above his career average of 3.50.

    Combined with a spring WHIP of 1.50, those are not encouraging stats.

    Pundits, scouts and fans seem to be almost evenly divided on whether this experiment will work or not. Some critics of the move say Bard doesn't have good secondary pitches, especially a decent changeup.

    Other critics may not question Bard's stuff but are concerned about weakening the bullpen. That worry level just went up with word of Andrew Bailey's thumb injury.

    Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston.com says one scout told him, "That was their major offseason project, and then you pull the plug even before the kid has a chance to show whether he can do it?" the scout said. "That makes no sense."

    I agree—Bard needs the chance to show what he can do when the games count. 

    At the same time, I count this as one of the most important questions not really answered in spring training.

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

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    The potential midseason return of Daisuke Matsuzaka seems to have gotten lost amidst the hand-wringing involved with "to Bard or not to Bard."

    If the stars align for the Red Sox (yeah, I know—fat chance, right?), the return of a healthy Daisuke could be just the hedge Boston needs while pursuing the Bard Experiment.

    One of the biggest concerns some naysayers have expressed is that Bard can't be expected to throw a lot of innings, even if he is successful. After all, he pitched only 73 last year and only 197 in his three-year major league career. Even when he was starting in the low minors, he never threw more than 75 innings in a season.

    As Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston.com so aptly points out, look what happened with Texas reliever-turned-starter Alexi Ogando last year. He started out great, with a very strong first half—9-3 with a 2.92 ERA in 17 starts—"then hit a wall and was 4-5 with a 4.48 ERA in the second."

    If and when Bard begins to reach his limit, perhaps, Matsuzaka could step in. 

    Daisuke underwent Tommy John surgery in June and began playing catch at the beginning of October. Bobby Valentine told Ian Browne of MLB.com, " "His arm feels good…He's healthy, and he's on that recovery pace that all rehab guys are on. He's on a very good pace."

    According to Didier Morais of NESN.com, that pace has picked up. A week after throwing his first live batting practice, Matsuzaka tossed two innings last week in a simulated game against minor leaguers.

    "Red Sox pitching coach Bob McClure said the hurler touched 92 mph," reports Morais, "An impressive output as Matsuzaka targets a possible June 1––a date mapped out by Valentine––return."

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

    As I wrote in February, "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."

    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.

5. And What About the Other Forgotten Rehabber, Rich Hill?

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    Lefty Rich Hill underwent Tommy John surgery at almost the same time as Matsuzaka last season. He will likely be able to return sooner than Matsuzaka because the recovery time is less for a reliever than for a starter.

    Nevertheless, a year is the expected time frame it takes for a pitcher to get back into action. Back on February 20, manager Bobby Valentine told Ian Browne of mlb.com that despite the progress Hill was making in his rehab, he was not expected to appear in any Grapefruit League contests.

    At the time, Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal reported that the Red Sox had given Hill the slot on the 40-man roster that resulted from putting John Lackey on the 60-day disabled list. As I indicated in February, this was 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." Hill was "guardedly optimistic" that he will be ready to pitch by Opening Day, although that seems to be pushing it.

    Hill beat the odds, appearing in a game Double-A game at Fenway South on March 31, a few days shy of 10 months from the date of his surgery.

    According to Peter Abraham of the Boston GlobeHill went two innings and threw 18 of his 26 pitches for strikes. He allowed one run on two hits with two strikeouts and no walks.

    "Hill is potentially a huge piece of the Red Sox bullpen as his sidearm delivery makes him a difficult matchup for left-handed hitters," added Abraham. "Before he tore a ligament in his elbow last season, lefties were 1-for-14 against Hill with seven strikeouts."

    Hill, originally a starter, signed a free-agent deal and was 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 worked to improve his changeup and concentrated on throwing his fastball inside to right-handers. 

    I've been a big fan of Hill, who started the 2011 season by giving up only two runs in 16 innings at Pawtucket. He was brought up to Boston, where he added 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," I wrote."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.

    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. And of Course…What About Carl Crawford?

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    I'm not going to spend a lot of time on this one because the Carl Crawford situation has been discussed, analyzed and dissected ad nauseam.

    Suffice it to say that the future of the left-handed former Tampa star is one of the biggest unresolved issues this team faces.

    Andy Behrens of Yahoo!.com wrote an article a couple of days ago entitled, "See you in a few weeks, Carl Crawford. Hopefully."

    Behrens makes a very interesting point, that I think gets lost in the weeping and gnashing of Red Sox Nation teeth. 

    "If you eliminate last season's atrocious April, the 2011 numbers don't look quite so terrible," writes Behrens. "Crawford hit .279 from May to September, with a .757 OPS, 10 homers and 14 stolen bases. Those stats aren't too out of line with his career norms, except of course for the steals." 

    The point is, if you take April out of Carl's 2011 season, the numbers are nowhere near as bad as most people make them out to be.

    After an initial setback in his return from wrist surgery, the Red Sox are taking no further chances.

    He is on a program which is being carefully monitored by the Red Sox medical and training staff, and he won't play until he's fully ready to play. Even at that point, the team wants him to get at least 50 at-bats in the minors before he comes back to Boston.

    That means he would probably need about 15 games to get ready—and right now, he's only hitting off a tee.

    Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine told Ian Browne of MLB.com, "The only thing I know about that is that you don't want to put the kid—anybody rehabbing—under the pressure of a deadline. It can never be the calendar or the schedule that says when a guy is healthy. It can't be. It's not fair."

7. Can Clay Buchholz Regain His 2010 Form?

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    A few days ago, I wrote a feature about the progress Buchholz is making this spring and how encouraging those signs are to Red Sox brass.

    To summarize, his back seems to be fully healed, and he's pitching more innings this spring than he has pitched in previous years in order to build up his stamina. After a shaky start, his command has improved drastically, and his K/9 and K/BB rates are improving.

    There's hope that he may regain his 2010 form, when he earned a spot on the All-Star team and finished with a 17-7 record and an ERA of 2.33.

    Still, back injuries are always scary. The Red Sox have their fingers crossed about how Buchholz will fare with a full workload.

8. Can Alfredo Aceves Keep Up the Pace?

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    Red Sox Nation loves this guy, as well they might. He takes the ball. He produces, and he never complains—until now.

    There's no question that Aceves had his heart set on being a starter this spring. Didier Morais of NESN.com reports that a couple of days ago, Aceves expressed his desire to crack the rotation, saying "it's like a dream to start." 

    Then that dream ended, as Daniel Bard and Felix Doubront were named as the starters—despite the fact that Aceves had been the better pitcher during camp.

    "I like to be a dream maker, not a dream breaker," Valentine told Marais. "He wasn't happy about it obviously…"

    Valentine's task was complicated by the injury to Andrew Bailey, and it is possible Aceves may be called upon to close games until Bailey returns.

    In February, I summarized his importance to the team: 

    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.

    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.

    Here's hoping he gets over his disappointment at not starting and continues to produce. Keeping him happy this year will be crucial to the Red Sox run for an AL East championship.

9. Which Kevin Youkilis Will Show Up in 2012?

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    As I love to point out, Youkilis has serious credibility; at the start of last season, he was 35th on the Sporting News list of the 50 greatest current baseball players.

    But he also poses a dilemma for the Red Sox.

    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. As Red Sox announcer Don Orsillo points out, sports hernia surgery is pretty major; look what it did to Mike Cameron, and how long it took for him to recover—if he ever did.

    The way Youkilis plays the game has taken a toll on his body. Orsillo says, "Last year was so painful for him and really gave you a good idea of strong mentally he is to play in that kind of pain."

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

    Of greater concern is the fact that this injury issue started well before 2011, although few people noticed it. 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."

    Youk has missed 102 games the last two years. Can he play an adequate third base and still remain an offensive force?

    It is extremely important to the Red Sox offense for Youkilis to get back in a groove at the plate. 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.

    I'm concerned that nagging injuries have slowed Youkilis already, and it's only spring training. He was a late scratch from a couple of games due to lower-back stiffness, and that's not a good sign.

    On the other hand, Orsillo does not seem too concerned, and he's in a much better position to judge than I am. "He looks like a totally different guy this spring," says the Red Sox announcer. "His range has returned and he is moving very well. I am impressed with his range of motion and am glad he is feeling well."

10. Finally, What About the Lineup? Is Mike Aviles Really Going to Lead Off?

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    Eyebrows were raised all over Red Sox Nation last week when manager Bobby Valentine trotted out a new lineup featuring controversial starting shortstop Mike Aviles leading off, with Jacoby Ellsbury batting third.

    "At first glance, the idea seems unrealistic," wrote Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal. "Ellsbury seems entrenched as the leadoff hitter—and if he’s going to move anywhere, it seemingly would be to the No. 3 hole to capitalize on his extra-base power."

    However, as Valentine told Peter Abraham several weeks ago, he's rethinking the idea of sending Ellsbury up to the plate without any runners on base at least once every game, especially given Jacoby's newfound ability to drive in a lot of runs.

    Also, Valentine loves the righty-leftty-righty-lefty combination that would provide at the top of the order.

    The 30-year-old Aviles, acquired midseason from Kansas City, is a right-handed hitter with some speed who hit .317 in 38 games for Boston. He can play second, short and third–and even some outfield, as he did last year.

    One thing is clear from Aviles' history: The more he plays, the better he hits. Check his stats: the year in which he mustered 286 at-bats (2010), he hit .304. In 2008, when he had 418 at-bats, he hit .325 and finished fourth in voting for the Rookie of the Year. 

    Derek Stykalo of BosoxInjection.com agrees that more at-bats for Aviles means more production. "And what better way to give him additional at bats then to hit lead off? Stykalo asks.

    Aviles has been one of the more consistent bats for the Sox this March, hitting .313, with a slugging percentage of .500 and an OPS of .813.

    But hitting leadoff isn’t just about getting base hits. It’s about getting on base, and despite his high batting average, Aviles only has a .318 career on-base percentage.

    That's because he just doesn't walk—just 4.2 percent of the time in his career. Up to this point, he has only been able to get on base by getting a hit.

    That's a real weakness for a leadoff hitter. The most he's ever walked in a season is 20 times, and it is somewhat worrisome that he has yet to manage a base on balls this spring. Not getting walks lowers not only his OBP, but more importantly, his runs total.

    However, many believe that playing in Boston is going to help him improve this big hole in his offensive game.

    With patient hitters like Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Adrian Gonzalez leading the way, the Red Sox are one of the most patient hitting teams in the league. They are always among the league leaders in PPA—Pitches seen per Plate Appearance. That number is usually well over four for the most patient hitters. The league average PPA has been hovering around 3.8 for the last three seasons. For his career, however, Aviles has seen only 3.48 pitches per PA (3.39 in 2011).

    On the other hand, Michael Barr of FanGraphs points out that Aviles seldom swings and misses—just 7.2 percent of the time, "which while not quite Pedroia good, is still well above average," Barr concludes.

    "Then there’s the allure of ballpark fit," adds Barr. "Aviles is happiest when he’s pulling the ball, and it just so happens that Fenway is happy to deliver a lot of doubles to right-handed pull hitters due to something about a big wall in left."

    Barr bolsters his argument with the fact that Aviles is a career .368/.366/.638 pull hitter, hitting nearly 90 percent of his home runs to left field. 

    Aviles' stat line for his four major league seasons shows a .288 average, .318 OBP, .419 slugging percentage and an OPS of .737. If you take out his lost 2009 season prior to his Tommy John surgery (.183/.208/.250), he has a career batting average of .2994.

    As I concluded earlier in the month,

    "To put this in perspective, only three AL shortstops hit better than .288 last year (Peralta, Jeter and Escobar). For 2012, ESPN projects that not a single AL shortstop will even reach that number. Aviles will be hitting in a considerably more hitter-friendly park with a much stronger lineup around him. If he just reaches his career-average numbers, he could lead all AL shortstops in batting average."

    Given that Dustin Pedroia, Carl Crawford and Kevin Youkilis have no interest whatsoever in leading off, Aviles may be the best bet if Valentine decides to move Ellsbury down to a better RBI slot in the order.

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