Fans of the Boston Red Sox should look on the bright side. After the season they just had, the only way to go is up.
The Red Sox made it clear this winter that they at least intend on moving forward. They conjured a completely new look for themselves, starting with a new manager in John Farrell and then adding quality veterans like Ryan Dempster, Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino to their roster.
The team that stands before everyone today looks nothing like the club that collapsed in the final month of the 2011 season, nor does it look anything like the 2012 club that was an embarrassment under the leadership of Bobby Valentine. The Red Sox may not be a playoff team in 2013, but the season promises to be a welcome change of pace all the same.
Here's a look at how the Red Sox are shaping up heading into the 2013 season.
2012 Record: 69-93
Key Arrivals: C David Ross (FA from Atlanta), OF Jonny Gomes (FA from Oakland), OF Shane Victorino (FA from Los Angeles Dodgers), RHP Koji Uehara (FA from Texas), SP Ryan Dempster (FA from Texas), SS Stephen Drew (FA from Oakland), 1B Mike Napoli (FA from Texas), CL Joel Hanrahan (Trade from Pittsburgh).
Key Departures: SP Aaron Cook (FA to Philadelphia), 1B James Loney (FA to Tampa Bay), SP Daisuke Matsuzaka (FA to Cleveland), RHP Vicente Padilla (FA to Japan), OF Scott Podsednik (FA), OF Cody Ross (FA to Arizona), RHP Mark Melancon (Trade to Pittsburgh).
Projected Starting Rotation (Record, Innings, ERA, WHIP and K/BB from 2012)
1. Jon Lester, L (9-14, 205.1, 4.82, 1.38, 2.44)
2. Clay Buchholz, R (11-8, 189.1, 4.56, 1.33, 2.02)
3. Ryan Dempster, R (12-8, 173.0, 3.38, 1.20, 2.94)
4. Felix Doubront, L (11-10, 161.0, 4.86, 1.45, 2.35)
5. John Lackey, R (N/A)*
Depth: Franklin Morales, L (3-4, 76.1, 3.77, 1.23, 2.53)
*Missed season recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Projected Starting Nine (AVG/OBP/SLUG)
C: Jarrod Saltalamacchia, S (.222/.288/.454 in 121 games)
1B: Mike Napoli, R (.227/.343/.469 in 108 games)
2B: Dustin Pedroia, R (.290/.347/.449 in 141 games)
3B: Will Middlebrooks, R (.288/.325/.509 in 75 games)
SS: Stephen Drew, L (.223/.309/.348 in 79 games)
LF: Jonny Gomes, R (.262/.377/.491 in 99 games)
CF: Jacoby Ellsbury, L (.271/.313/.370 in 74 games)
RF: Shane Victorino, S (.255/.321/.383 in 154 games)
DH: David Ortiz, L (.318/.415/.611 in 90 games)
In the Bullpen (Appearances, Innings, ERA, WHIP, K/BB)
Closer: Joel Hanrahan, R (63, 59.2, 2.72, 1.27, 1.86)
Andrew Bailey, R (19, 15.1, 7.04, 1.89, 1.75)
Koji Uehara, R (37, 36.0, 1.75, 0.64, 14.33)
Junichi Tazawa, R (37, 44, 1.43, 0.96, 9.00)
Craig Breslow, L (23, 20, 2.70, 1.15, 2.11)
Daniel Bard, R (17, 59.1, 6.22, 1.74, 0.88)
Andrew Miller, L (53, 40.1, 3.35, 1.19, 2.55)
Alfredo Aceves, R (69, 84.0, 5.36, 1.32, 2.42)
Analyzing the Starting Pitching
Lousy starting pitching played a part in Boston's collapse in 2011, and the trend continued into 2012. Red Sox starters compiled a 5.19 ERA, fourth-worst in MLB behind only Colorado, Minnesota and Cleveland.
Jon Lester was one of the primary offenders, finishing the year with a career-worst ERA and record. His strikeout rate declined for a third straight season, and he surrendered a career-high 25 homers and an opponents' slugging percentage of .442.
A decrease in fastball velocity is usually to blame in situations like these, but what's strange about Lester is that PITCHf/x data shows that his fastball was coming in at roughly the same velocity as it was in 2011. Yet opponents hit .307 off his heater after hitting it at a mere .237 clip in 2011.
One thing Lester stopped doing in 2012 was relying on his cutter as much as he had in the past, as he went from throwing it over 20 percent of the time to only throwing it 13.3 percent of the time. This could explain his trouble with right-handed batters, who slugged .448 against him.
Just as important as Lester getting his repertoire figured out is him getting his head squared away. He rarely looked comfortable on the mound last year, and he was quick to lose focus when things weren't going his way. John Farrell, who was Boston's pitching coach from 2007 to 2010, may be able to help.
Farrell could work some wonders with Clay Buchholz as well. He had a tremendous season under Farrell in 2010, winning 17 games with a 2.33 ERA. Since then, he's been hit or miss.
Buchholz did have his moments in 2012, at one point compiling a 2.08 ERA in an 11-start stretch. But his season was marred by a poor beginning and a poor finish, and there are no easy explanations for what went on.
One of Buchholz's bigger issues, however, is that he relies too much on luck. He has the stuff to strike hitters out, yet his M.O. is to make do with a K/9 under seven. When mixed with his usual BB/9 over three, that makes for a small K/BB that gives Buchholz a very small margin for error.
Buchholz is still young enough to have some untapped potential, but ERA simulators like FIP, xFIP and SIERA indicate pretty strongly that he's just not that good (see FanGraphs). Until he proves otherwise, he looks like a mid-rotation starter who just got lucky in 2010.
Ryan Dempster wishes that luck was on his side when he was with the Texas Rangers in the second half last year, but his first foray into the American League didn't go well. He enjoyed a higher strikeout rate with the Rangers, but his BABIP soared from .244 with the Chicago Cubs to .335.
Such extreme BABIP spikes generally come off looking like flukes, but that's not the case with Dempster. What he experienced in Texas was something of a BABIP correction, as his .244 mark with the Cubs was too far below his .306 career mark to be for real.
If Dempster can keep his BABIP in the .300 range this year, his track record suggests he'll post an ERA in the 3.50-4.00 range. But since his track record is skewed by years of National League service, I'd expect something more like an ERA in the 4.00-4.50 range. That will do so long as he gives the Red Sox 200 innings.
The Red Sox will be looking for something close to 200 innings from Felix Doubront. He's something of a wild card in Boston's rotation, as he got everyone's hopes up with a strong start (3.75 ERA through June 2) in 2012 before fading late in the season (5.56 ERA after June 2).
Doubront has good stuff, including a low-to-mid 90s fastball and a good curveball. He just needs to master his control. He was effectively wild enough to notch a K/9 over nine last year, but he also had a BB/9 of about 4.0 and left too many pitches up in the happy zone.
As for John Lackey, well, who knows? He was horrid the last time he pitched in 2011, but we know now that his elbow wasn't 100 percent.
If Lackey's elbow is feeling better, he may revert back to the form he showed in 2010 when he was a decent mid-rotation starter. Having a surgically repaired elbow may help him reestablish his cutter, which was destroyed in 2011 to the tune of a .312 batting average (see FanGraphs). Opponents hit .258 off it in 2010.
If Lackey bounces back and gives the Red Sox an ERA somewhere near 4.00 and around 200 innings, they'll have few reasons to complain. They may be paying him like a No. 1, but Lackey's only being expected to be a capable fifth starter this year.
In all, Boston's rotation doesn't have the look of a unit that's going to be elite in 2013. It should be decent, though, and that would be a huge improvement on what took place in 2012.
Analyzing the Bullpen
In Joel Hanrahan, the Red Sox have the proven closer that they didn't have last season after Andrew Bailey was lost to thumb surgery on the eve of Opening Day. He's saved 76 games over the last two seasons, and is looking to have a big year with free agency looming.
But don't get your hopes up too high for Hanrahan. His control abandoned him in 2012, as his BB/9 went from 2.1 in 2011 up to 5.4. That was probably bound to happen given the fact that his career BB/9 is over four, in which case a return of the command he had in 2011 is unlikely.
It's also likely that Hanrahan will struggle with the long ball again. His HR/FB in 2011 was 1.9, well below his career mark of 8.8 percent (FanGraphs). The 12.5 HR/FB rate he had in 2012 was a sort of correction that should stick in 2013.
Hanrahan should be able to save over 30 games because he can still strike hitters out with the best of 'em, but he won't be automatic. He's going to walk hitters, and he'll give up the occasional long ball.
Hanrahan's setup men, on the other hand, should be automatic.
The Red Sox picked up one of baseball's great control artists when they signed Koji Uehara. He has a BB/9 of 1.1 and a K/BB of 10.8 since 2010. He gives up the occasional home run thanks to a lack of overpowering velocity, but he has the control and his pitches have enough movement for him to keep his walks down and his strikeouts up. As a result, he won't run into trouble too often.
Junichi Tazawa will give Uehara a run for his money for the Red Sox's primary eighth-inning setup role. He was lights-out down the stretch last year, giving up only one run in his final 15 appearances. He'll be able to maintain this success as long as he keeps his K/9 over nine and his BB/9 well under two.
Bailey has been demoted to a setup role with Hanrahan in town. He'll be a very good one if he stays healthy and rediscovers his old form. He's primarily a fastball/cutter guy, and a good one when he has both pitches working. This was the case in 2009 and 2010 when hitters failed to reach the Mendoza line against either Bailey's four-seamer or cutter (FanGraphs).
The Red Sox have two solid lefties to turn to in Craig Breslow and Andrew Miller. Miller is the more traditional lefty specialist between the two, as he held lefty hitters to a .429 OPS with 33 strikeouts last year.
Breslow, on the other hand, can get both lefties and righties out. He held lefties to a .597 OPS in 2012, and righties to a .683 OPS. For his career, right-handers only have a .654 OPS against him.
Until one or both of them is needed in the rotation, the Red Sox are going to have two very versatile relievers in their bullpen in Alfredo Aceves and Franklin Morales. Both can work as long men, but they can also be used in the later innings if need be.
Daniel Bard will be the wild card. Turning him into a starter last year was a risky move from the start, and it turned into a disaster when his velocity and his command abandoned him early in the season.
What's concerning is that PITCHf/x data shows that Bard's velocity didn't return to him when he was recalled as a reliever later in the season. He used to throw over 95 miles per hour with regularity, but his fastball was still hovering under 95 late in the 2012 season.
Still, the Red Sox don't need to bounce back to have a strong bullpen. If he does bounce back, he'll just make a deep bullpen even deeper.
Analyzing the Offense
The Red Sox finished fifth in the American League in runs scored in 2012, and that's impressive given the circumstances. Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford were gone in the first half of the season, and David Ortiz got hurt right when things seemed to be turning around. Then Adrian Gonzalez was jettisoned to Los Angeles.
Boston's lineup will have a completely new look in 2013, as it features four new additions in Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew and Shane Victorino.
Gomes crushed left-handers to the tune of a .974 OPS in 2012, and he should do so again in 2013. He'll also benefit from regular action at Fenway Park, as he owns an absurd .940 slugging percentage for his career when he hits the ball to left field (FanGraphs).
Napoli has a perfect swing for Fenway Park as well, and he's showed it off in the past. He owns a 1.107 career OPS in Boston, as well as seven home runs in only 19 games.
The Red Sox are no doubt hoping that Napoli will revert back to his 2011 form and give them a batting average over .300 and an OPS over 1.000. It's very unlikely that he will, though, as that year saw his strikeout percentage dip way below his career norm and his BABIP shoot up to .344 (FanGraphs).
Napoli will likely continue to strike out roughly 25 percent of the time while maintaining a BABIP under .300. The power will be there, however, and there will likely be lots of it. Since 2008, Napoli ranks behind only Albert Pujols, Jose Bautista and Ryan Howard in ISO (Isolated Power).
The signing of Drew has been largely overlooked, but he could pan out to be a significant contributor for the Red Sox. He showed signs of life in Oakland last year, posting a .707 OPS in 39 games. He'll be fully healthy this year, and that may mean the Red Sox are in line for his 2008-2010 production, which consisted of an .800 OPS and roughly 15 homers per season.
Victorino is a bigger question mark. He regressed in 2012, and the signs say it was for real. His huge season in 2011 came about thanks largely to a .212 ISO that was way higher than his career norm of .154 (FanGraphs). He's a good grinder at the plate, but he's been a low BABIP guy for three years now and he doesn't have that much power.
Also, Victorino can't hit right-handers. He has a .311 OBP (h/t ESPN's Keith Law) against right-handers over the last three seasons. By the end of the season, he could be a platoon player.
Jacoby Ellsbury is a similar question mark heading into 2013. Good health could result in him reverting back to his near-MVP form from 2011, but that year stands out as an outlier.
Ellsbury was only marginally more patient than usual at the plate in 2011. He was successful because of a BABIP spike and huge spikes in ISO and HR/FB. He had a .230 ISO and a 16.7 HR/FB in 2011 (FanGraphs). His career ISO is .145, and his career HR/FB is 8.8.
So even if he stays healthy, Ellsbury probably won't be hitting 30 bombs again. He's more likely to return to being an all-speed little-power guy if he stays healthy.
Another guy with question marks over his head is Jarrod Saltalamacchia. He hit a career-high 25 home runs last year, but don't expect him to do that again. He had a hot first half, but his slugging percentage dipped to .371 in the second half. Salty can only be so good as long as he's striking out 30 percent of the time, which is par for the course for him.
Will Middlebrooks is also a high-strikeout guy, but he's not in the same boat as Salty. Despite his poor plate discipline in his rookie year, Middlebrooks maintained a high .335 BABIP and .221 ISO that were consistent with his production in the minor leagues (FanGraphs). He certainly should work on his approach, but good things are going to happen when he makes contact.
The two regulars the Red Sox don't have to worry about are Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz. Pedroia is generally good for a decent walk rate, low strikeout totals and BABIPs around .300 every year. The Red Sox can safely expect an average around .300, 15 bombs and 20 steals from him.
Big Papi has been a different hitter in 2011 and 2012 than he was back in 2009 and 2010, in large part because he's solved the strikeout problem he had. He's as patient as ever, and he's proved he's capable of sustaining high BABIPs and ISOs (FanGraphs). He'll continue to do so in 2013 if he stays healthy, and that will likely mean another 30-homer season.
In all, Boston's offense isn't elite. There are some potential pitfalls here and there, and the ceiling can only go so high if Victorino and Ellsbury fail to revert back to the form they showed in 2011.
Nonetheless, the Red Sox's offense is going to feature good balance, and they should once again be one of the top five run-scoring teams in the American League this year.
Analyzing the Fielding
Fair warning: Defense could be an adventure for the Red Sox in 2013.
Their outfield defense will be a strength. Gomes will be a statue when he plays left field, but he'll be flanked by two outfielders in Ellsbury and Victorino who can cover a ton of ground. Ellsbury led all center fielders in UZR when he was healthy in 2011 (FanGraphs). Victorino will feature the speed of a center fielder in right field, and he has the strong arm needed to man the position.
Infield defense is where the Red Sox are more of a mixed bag. They have an elite defensive second baseman in Pedroia, who owns a career 9.9 UZR/150 and a plus-62 Defensive Runs Saved (FanGraphs). He may be the only strong defender the Red Sox feature on their infield, though.
Middlebrooks is billed as a strong defensive third baseman, but he was prone to miscues in his rookie season. He made nine errors and compiled a DRS of minus-three (FanGraphs). Next to him, the Red Sox have a player in Drew who's only ever been an average defensive shortstop. He's in Boston because of his bat, not because of his glove.
Same goes for Napoli, who's no Adrian Gonzalez or Mark Teixeira at first base. He's a catcher by trade and he's coming off a season that saw him post a minus-three UZR at first base (FanGraphs).
Saltalamacchia has made strides defensively behind the plate, but he's still well short of being Yadier Molina's equal. He cut down on his passed balls last year, but he threw out only 18 percent of would-be base stealers. He owns a 23 percent caught-stealing percentage for his career.
The Red Sox shouldn't be a downright poor defensive team in 2013, but don't expect fielding the ball to be one of their primary strengths.
Most Important Pitcher
The Red Sox are counting on Jon Lester to be their ace in 2013, but that's entirely up to him.
Lester's descent really began in September of 2011 when he posted a 5.40 ERA in his final six starts. The Red Sox lost five of those, including his last start on the final day of the season when the collapse reached its completion.
Lester still looked shell-shocked in 2012, and he was liable to implode at the slightest sign of trouble. Missed calls and bloop base hits seemed to rob him of whatever confidence he took to the mound in the first place.
He needs to snap out of it. With Josh Beckett gone and John Lackey an afterthought, Lester is no longer a co-ace or the secret ace of Boston's pitching staff. He's the guy. It's all on him.
Lester still has the stuff to be a front-line pitcher, and it could be that a reunion with John Farrell is just what he needs. He'll also be paired with a pitching coach in Juan Nieves who learned from one of the best in the business with the Chicago White Sox. Pitching coaches don't get much better than Don Cooper.
If Lester can't get it together, the Red Sox will find themselves looking for a new ace. And given the collection of starters they have at their disposal, another one may not be forthcoming.
Most Important Hitter
Boston's best hitter is David Ortiz. He's the guy the Red Sox know they can count on to hit 30 home runs, and he's the guy who pitchers are afraid to face.
Exactly how often pitchers will go after Ortiz, however, will depend on Mike Napoli.
Whether he bats cleanup or in the No. 5 spot, Napoli is a natural fit to back up Ortiz in Boston's lineup. It's therefore going to be his job to give pitchers some incentive to challenge Ortiz.
This won't be an issue if Napoli gives the Red Sox his typical production, but they can't have him striking out 30 percent of the time like he did last year. Napoli's power would still be scary, sure, but there would be far greater chance of him making a harmless out than of him hitting a ball 500 feet.
The situation will be good enough if Napoli finds a happy medium between his 2011 production and his 2012 production. That would mean a batting average upwards of .250 and an OBP upwards of .350, as well as a slugging percentage in the neighborhood of .500.
If he can manage these numbers, he'll keep Ortiz well protected. Boston's offense will benefit accordingly.
Because he was so bad last year, it's easy to forget how good Daniel Bard used to be.
Between 2010 and 2011, Bard compiled a 2.62 ERA and a 0.98 WHIP in a total of 143 appearances. He struck out over nine batters per nine innings, and his fastball averaged over 97 miles per hour (FanGraphs).
Turning him into a starter in 2012 ruined everything. And as I noted above, he never really fixed himself as the season went along. He was a mess from beginning to end.
It's still very early, but the initial buzz about Bard at Red Sox camp is positive. He told Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe that he's feeling good, and Farrell likes what he's seen.
“He looks really good right now,” said Farrell last week.
Exactly how Bard fits into Boston's bullpen mix is unclear now, but Farrell will surely find space for him if he dominates during spring training. And if he does, then the Red Sox will have a nice problem: too many good relievers.
They can either move forward with this abundance, or make a trade to address a weakness. A solid left-handed-hitting platoon partner for Jonny Gomes, perhaps.
Or maybe Bard is officially a lost cause, in which case he could be banished to the minors and never seen again. Like all X-factors, he's either going to be a boon or nothing at all.
Prospect to Watch
The Red Sox have featured a revolving door at shortstop ever since Nomar Garciaparra was traded in 2004, but that could change when Xander Bogaerts arrives.
Bogaerts is popping up on a lot of radar screens these days, and the opinions the experts have of him is very positive. ESPN's Keith Law, for example, has Bogaerts ranked as the No. 5 overall prospect in baseball. He loves what he sees in Bogaerts' bat:
Bogaerts has a very easy, picturesque right-handed swing, with great hand acceleration that leads to surprisingly hard contact—the ball comes off his bat much better than you'd expect, given his size. He gets his front leg down a little late, which could lead to timing issues but hasn't so far.
Bogaerts is progressing quickly towards the majors. He made it to Double-A in 2012, where he posted a higher OPS in 23 games than the OPS he posted in 104 games at Single-A. In all, he's hit 36 home runs over the last two seasons.
There was some talk last year that Bogaerts would have to be moved to third base due to his size, but that talk has died down. He could very well stick at shortstop, where he projects to be a .300 hitter with power.
There aren't many shortstops like that out there. The Red Sox could have one starting for them very soon.
Best-Case Record: 92-70
The Red Sox don't look like a potential 100-game winner, but they do have the potential to contend for a playoff spot in what will be a very tough AL East race.
The Red Sox are banking on Lester and Buchholz to hold down the fort at the top of their rotation, and they'll be in pretty good shape with their starting pitching if their faith is rewarded. The two of them have the stuff to be front-line starters, and there are much worse back ends out there than Dempster, Doubront and Lackey.
Health will be of paramount importance when it comes to Boston's offense. If guys like Ortiz, Pedroia, Ellsbury and others stay healthy, then the Red Sox's lineup is going to be as difficult to negotiate as ever. They've got some grinders, as well as both power and speed.
With the arms they have lined up for their bullpen, the Red Sox could take a page out of the 2012 Baltimore Orioles' book and specialize in winning close games. All they would have to do is hand the ball over to their pen with a lead or a tie, and the pen would take it from there.
Chemistry is also going to be an important part of Boston's 2013 season. The Red Sox committed themselves to building a strong clubhouse this winter, and good things will happen if their players come together the way they're hoping.
The Red Sox won't be a world-beater either way, but they could definitely be better than expected.
Worst-Case Record: 75-87
Nobody's expecting a 2012-level disaster for the Red Sox in 2013, but things could definitely go south for them.
Boston's starting rotation could be a bust from top to bottom. That will happen if Lester and Buchholz continue to be inconsistent, Dempster continues his struggles from late last season, Doubront fails to improve his control and Lackey picks up right where he left off.
How many wins will the Red Sox finish with in 2013?
On offense, the Red Sox will be in rough shape if Ortiz is undone by his age and if Pedroia's all-out style results in nagging injuries or a major injury. Ellsbury is another injury risk, and Napoli's hip ailment could be a bigger issue than the Red Sox are anticipating. Elsewhere, they could have underachieving players in right field, left field, shortstop and at third base.
It's hard to imagine any scenario in which Boston's bullpen goes from a strength to being a problem, but they could see a few wins slip away if Hanrahan's control problems from 2012 persist. If he fails and Bailey struggles again, they could have closer problems all over again.
The clubhouse atmosphere shouldn't be as rotten as it was in 2012, but establishing good clubhouse chemistry is easier said than done. Boston's offseason efforts to patch up its clubhouse could be for naught.
If all these scenarios come to fruition, it's going to be another rough season in Boston.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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