Boston Red Sox: 5 Early Season Questions That Need to Be Answered
The Boston Red Sox officially put the bow on a banner 2013 by receiving their World Series rings during Friday’s home opener at Fenway Park.
The 2014 regular season is now a week old, and Boston is currently tied for last place in the American League East with a 2-4 record.
It’s obviously early, as six games should not be a microcosm of what the entire year will end up being like.
The Red Sox still have 156 games to play before the playoffs begin, but questions remain that will have an impact on whether or not they will defend their championship once the calendar flips to October.
New acquisitions, health issues and improved teams within their division are all things that will be something to pay attention to this month and beyond.
Let’s look at five early season questions that Boston needs to answer.
All player statistics sourced from RedSox.com unless otherwise noted.
Will Grady Sizemore Last All Season?
Grady Sizemore’s comeback has been one of the biggest feel-good stories of the young MLB season. He went from being a low-risk, nonimpact signing to Boston’s Opening Day center fielder after outperforming Jackie Bradley Jr. in spring training.
Once he showed enough in Fort Myers, Fla. to be added to the major league roster, he collected two hits in his regular-season debut against the Baltimore Orioles, including a solo home run. He’s cooled off since, hitting .214/.353/.429 with one homer and one RBI in 14 at-bats overall.
His production and experience will be important to Boston’s success, but how long will he stay healthy?
That’s the million-dollar question.
As long as he stays on the field, good numbers will likely follow; he is a three-time All-Star, after all. However, expecting him to avoid injury is something manager John Farrell shouldn’t do, given his history.
The outfielder hasn’t played over 100 games in a season since 2009 with the Cleveland Indians (106) and hasn’t played every day since 2008, appearing in 157 games.
Sizemore has credited Boston’s medical staff for helping him progress and stay strong throughout spring training, but their work isn’t even close to finished. Farrell must be careful not to wear him out too early in the season.
He’s done the best he can so far, resting him in two of the team’s first six contests.
He hit leadoff for the first time April 4, but the plan will be to avoid putting him in that position very often, hoping to prevent extra strain on his body.
The injury to Shane Victorino hasn’t given Farrell much flexibility in the outfield and in the lineup. Until he returns, Sizemore will be asked to do a little more than the coaching staff may be comfortable with.
Can A.J. Pierzynski Adjust to Boston’s Hitting Philosophy?
Instead of handing the starting catcher duties to an internal candidate—Ryan Lavarnway comes to mind—general manager Ben Cherington brought in veteran A.J. Pierzynski.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia had a solid year in his third and last full season with the organization, hitting .273/.338/.466 with 14 home runs and 65 RBI. Coupling his production at the plate with how he handled the pitching staff made him an asset.
Pierzynski has had a good offensive reputation over the course of his career, but 2014 hasn’t started well, hitting .125 in his first 16 at-bats. According to Fangraphs, the catcher is swinging at balls out of the strike zone 78.6 percent of the time, an increase from a 49.6 percent mark in 2013 with the Texas Rangers.
He talked about his approach at the plate in an article he wrote for ESPN Boston:
I'm more of an aggressive hitter, and the Red Sox like to work the count. People have asked if I'm going to change my plate approach. I always want to try to walk. It just never happens. The problem is when I swing, I usually hit the ball, so I make early outs. I'm just trying to get better pitches. Everyone has talked to me about this, and the Red Sox have talked to me, but they said they don't want to change what I do.
The Red Sox have started slow, and if they want to start moving up in the standings, Pierzynski needs to hold his own at the plate, not just behind it.
When Will Shane Victorino Return?
Victorino was slowed this spring because of rehab from thumb surgery, as well as issues with his rib cage. He was still projected to be ready for Opening Day before landing on the 15-day disabled list with a strained hamstring.
He’s eligible to return April 14, but ESPN Boston’s Tony Lee reports a bout with the flu could keep him out longer.
To prevent teammates from catching his illness, he comes to the park for his treatment during games so they’re not around. Farrell spoke about the eventual return of his outfielder:
Remains to be seen. I can’t tell you if it’s going to prolong the DL time or when his date of return will be. I don’t think we had a specific date on the calendar that we expected him back regardless of the flu. We’ve just got to progress through it.
Hamstring injuries take long enough to return from normally, and catching the flu doesn’t help this situation.
Victorino’s presence in the lineup is important because of Boston’s lack of a true leadoff hitter. If Bradley won the center field job, he would have been a logical choice but an unproven one. For now, Sizemore and Daniel Nava will share that duty.
The sooner Victorino gets back, the sooner Farrell has more depth in the outfield to give Sizemore more days off and another potential leadoff hitter.
An undetermined return date will force him to wait patiently to be activated off the DL.
Can Clay Buchholz Make 30 Starts This Season?
Clay Buchholz’s ability rarely comes into question. In 108.1 innings pitched in 2013, the right-hander went 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 96 strikeouts.
What does come into question is his durability.
He’s posted three seasons of 11-plus victories for Boston, but he has made 20-plus starts just twice.
At 29, he’s aware he needs to run out to the mound every fifth day and minimize his time on the DL. That’s easier said than done.
Farrell and the coaching staff decided to make Buchholz the fifth starter, giving him more time to build up his arm strength, according to ESPN Boston’s Joe McDonald. The righty hopes entering this season healthy and strong will keep him on the mound more consistently.
His first start of 2014 against the Milwaukee Brewers didn’t go as planned, allowing six runs on 13 hits (two home runs) with three strikeouts in 4.1 innings of work.
This has already been much different than his start last season. In 2013, he began with a 9-0 record before hitting the DL in June with shoulder and neck problems. Those injuries limited him to eight starts the rest of the way.
He started 29 games and threw 189.1 innings in 2012, the most in his big league career. Hopefully, the extra time he received to build up his arm strength this spring allows him to take the ball more consistently than ever before.
Can Boston Continue AL East Dominance?
One of the most effective ways to climb through the standings is to beat divisional opponents with regularity. Boston was successful in doing that last season, posting a 44-32 mark against the AL East, the best in the division.
The Red Sox begin 2014 with 19 of their first 28 games against divisional foes. They took two of three on the road against the Orioles last week.
After welcoming the Texas Rangers to Fenway Monday for a three-game series, they’ll play four games in the Bronx against the New York Yankees. They get a reprieve from April 15-17 by traveling to Chicago to play the White Sox.
Recent history says Boston will rise to the occasion—it went 18-8 last April, including an 8-5 mark within the division.
So many head-to-head matchups in April and a deep division with teams that made significant improvements this past winter makes a quick start imperative. It becomes even more important after losing three straight to the Brewers.
There is certainly no reason to panic yet about Boston, however, these early season challenges will play a vital role in how it positions itself for the rest of the year.
Matt's baseball opinions have been featured on MLB Trade Rumors, Yahoo! Sports, MetsBlog, Amazin' Avenue and Mets Merized Online. To keep up with Matt, you can follow him on Twitter.
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