The Red Sox find themselves in a situation they haven't had to deal with since the new ownership group entered the picture at the beginning of the century. Several seasons of success and lavish spending gave way to a last-place finish in the AL East in 2012. This came after a spectacular implosion at the end of 2011. The recent chain of events has re-focused the organization. They no longer are shopping for elite free agents or paying big-money contracts, preferring to bide time until upper-level prospects are ready in 2014 and 2015. New manager John Farrell is a familiar face at Fenway Park from his days as a pitching coach, and there's hope that he can influence pitchers that had down years in 2012. Expectations are set low for 2013, and there are holes on the roster. The Red Sox need bounce-back seasons from a few key players and minimal health problems to remain competitive in their division.
Signed OF Jonny Gomes.
Gomes was the first of several moves intended to be clubhouse-changing signings. But the Red Sox need him to be more than a good teammate in the locker room. At this point in the offseason, Gomes is projected to get most of the at-bats in left field, though he hasn't hit right-handers well (.209 in career) and has one season with more than 500 at-bats. That means we'll likely see a timeshare. The problem is Daniel Nava is the only MLB-experienced candidate as we enter spring training. Nava is a nice story, but he wasn't invited to training camp in 2012 and he gets exposed when forced into long-term duty. He's a switch-hitter, but like Gomes, hits better against lefties. Boston was hoping to have Ryan Kalish ready, but he underwent another shoulder surgery and won't be around until mid-season.
Signed OF Shane Victorino.
Victorino serves two roles for Boston as we enter the 2013 season. He'll be the team's primary right fielder, but will also be center-field insurance should Jacoby Ellsbury get hurt or traded. He's proved to be a durable player, playing no less than 131 games since 2006, so he should see over 500 at-bats. Whether that's a good thing may be debatable. In 2012, his age-31 season, Victorino slashed .255/.321/.383. Much of his fantasy value is tied up in his speed.
Signed C David Ross.
The Red Sox made several transactions at the catcher position in the offseason, adding a couple of minor leaguers to the 40-man roster and signing Ross. That tells us the guys who finished up last season behind the plate - Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ryan Lavarnway - were lacking in some way. Particularly on defense. Ross fills the bill as a defensive catcher with good game-calling ability. He won't provide the power potential of Saltalamacchia or Lavarnway, but he hit a respectable .269 in his last four years with the Braves.
Signed RHP Koji Uehara.
If there's any phase of the game that didn't disappoint for Boston in 2012, it was their bullpen. It may have been overworked, but there was a steady stream of good performances. Uehara makes the relief corps even deeper. He has some closing experience, but that's not what is most appealing to the Red Sox, who already have a closer in place plus a few other options. No, Uehara is a strikeout machine with pinpoint control and pitches effectively to hitters on both sides of the plate. At 37-years-old (38 when the season opens), age/health can be a concern - he had a couple of nagging shoulder injuries in 2012, but finished the season as the Rangers' best arm in the bullpen. He'll serve a prominent late-inning role in Boston.
Signed RHP Ryan Dempster.
Since becoming a full-time starter in 2008, Dempster's been a workhorse, throwing over 200 innings four straight seasons before dropping to 173 in 2012. There was a noticeable drop-off after he was acquired by Texas last year, but part of that is attributable to the career National Leaguer moving to the American League for the first time. He maintained a high strikeout rate while eliminating some walks last season and sported a 2.25 ERA over 104 innings for the Cubs before being traded. The Red Sox are looking for him to take the ball every fifth day as a third or fourth starter.
Signed SS Stephen Drew.
The Red Sox have been getting by with holdovers at shortstop the last two seasons, waiting for Jose Iglesias to be ready for a full-time gig at the major league level. His bat just hasn't caught up to his defense. Whether that's because injuries have delayed his development, or it's because he'll never become a capable hitter in the AL East, he's not ready in 2013. Cue Stephen Drew. Drew signed a one-year deal to serve as this season's holdover and becomes an interesting buy-low candidate for Boston and fantasy players. He had been trending to become a very productive shortstop until an ankle injury in 2011 derailed his career.
Acquired RHP Joel Hanrahan and 2B Brock Holt from Pittsburgh for 2B Ivan De Jesus, RHP Mark Melancon, RHP Stolmy Pimentel and LF Jerry Sands.
Red Sox manager John Farrell named Hanrahan the team's closer about five minutes after Boston acquired him. He's been a pretty competent closer the last two seasons with the Pirates, but closing in the AL East is a different animal. Boston has a few in-house options to close should Hanrahan struggle in the role, but clearly the Red Sox feel he's the real deal. Why else would they trade for him to fill a position that wasn't deemed an area of great need?
Signed 1B Mike Napoli.
The Mike Napoli situation became Boston's biggest offseason soap opera. The Red Sox quickly agreed to terms on a three-year, $39 million deal, but nothing was signed until about six weeks later as Boston didn't like what it found in a physical. Eventually, concerns about Napoli's hip downgraded the deal to a one-year pact worth $5 million. He's anticipated to be Boston's starting first baseman, but as we learned, health is a concern. And so is defense at that position. If healthy, he provides a big bat in the middle of the lineup, capable of protecting David Ortiz, and he has a good history hitting at Fenway Park.
Signed 1B Lyle Overbay to a minor-league contract.
Overbay is the insurance policy should Mike Napoli get hurt. He's signed to a minor-league contract, so there's the business of earning a roster spot in spring training. If he makes the team, we'll see him often as a defensive replacement, but he's not going to replace Napoli's bat in the middle of Boston's order. The Red Sox are in trouble if Napoli can't sustain over the course of the season. Other than Overbay, Mauro Gomez is in the first-base mix, but he's nowhere near the fielder that Overbay is. Nor is Daniel Nava, who will see time at first base this spring.
Signed OF Ryan Sweeney to a minor-league contract.
There's a good chance Sweeney makes the roster as a fifth outfielder. Presently, the Red Sox don't have a depth outfielder beyond Daniel Nava, a spot that was presumed to be Ryan Kalish's, but he required another shoulder surgery that will keep him out until mid-season.
Projected Lineup (vs. RH/LH)
1. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
2. Shane Victorino, RF
3. Dustin Pedroia, 2B
4. David Ortiz, DH
5. Mike Napoli, 1B
6. Will Middlebrooks, 3B
7. Daniel Nava, LF/Jonny Gomes, LF
8. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C/David Ross, C
9. Stephen Drew, SS
A few things need to fall in place for Boston. Will Middlebrooks and David Ortiz are coming off injuries and the team revised its contract with Mike Napoli due to concerns about his hip. Those three project to make up the middle of the order. Napoli is a key. If healthy, he'll be protection for Ortiz, who thrived when there was a Manny Ramirez or Kevin Youkilis hitting behind him. They would like to avoid putting Middlebrooks in that position at this stage of his career. Another option is Jacoby Ellsbury, who has shown to be a multi-faceted hitter with some pop. They'll need to create room for Shane Victorino, who has hit mostly leadoff or second during his career. With Ellsbury at leadoff, that leaves second in the order Victorino's most likely landing spot, and moves Dustin Pedroia to third. Pedroia often batted third last season after Boston traded Adrian Gonzalez and he turned out to be more productive there than as the second batter. The bottom three in the order won't be scaring many opponents.
1. Jon Lester
2. Clay Buchholz
3. Ryan Dempster
4. John Lackey
5. Felix Doubront
It all starts with Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. Lester's strikeout rate dropped and he displayed a penchant for letting perceived bad calls affect his pitching. Buchholz threw a career-high 189.1 innings and was the staff's ERA leader at 4.56, but he was more hittable and experienced a second straight season of an increased HR rate. Ryan Dempster and John Lackey are innings munchers, though Lackey's coming off Tommy John surgery. Felix Doubront tossed a career high 161 innings and though he hit a wall during the summer and was victimized by a .314 BABIP, he finished off the season with a four quality starts. He's starting training camp with shoulder fatigue and concerns about his conditioning. Starting depth will come from Alfredo Aceves and Franklin Morales, two relievers who are being stretched out in spring training.
Closer: Joel Hanrahan - Hanrahan brings three-and-a-half effective seasons out of Pittsburgh's pen - the last two as an All-Star closer - to Boston where he'll get first crack at closing games for the Red Sox. His walk rate spiked in 2012 and he didn't finish the season well, but most of the damage came in non-save, uncompetitive situations. The Red Sox had scouted him during September and did not see diminished stuff. His fastball remained in the 96-mph range, while his slider still had swing-and-miss capability. That's good enough to succeed in Boston, but it should be noted he'll be pitching full-time in the American League for the first time and there's a few more challenges facing AL East teams.
Key Bullpen Members: The Red Sox have a few MLB-experienced closers in the bullpen, with Andrew Bailey leading the group. He'll likely enter the season as the eighth-inning option while Koji Uehara is one of the seventh-inning set up men. Alfredo Aceves, who closed for much of 2011, will be stretched out this spring, and used in multiple relief roles. One name to file away is Junichi Tazawa, who was dominant for Boston out of the pen. He has minor-league options left, but given how well he pitched, there's a good chance he'll open the season in Boston. Notice we didn't mention Daniel Bard. He'll work as a reliever in training camp, but still has a minor-league option left.
Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:
What's the health of the middle-of-the-order bats?
David Ortiz (Achilles), Mike Napoli (hip) and Will Middlebrooks (wrist) all enter spring training with health concerns. They also portend to hit fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively, in a batting order that isn't as fearsome as it used to be. Ortiz is still rehabbing his injury as we enter training camp; Napoli's hip is more of a future concern, but he's played more than 114 games just once in his career; and Middlebrooks suffered a broken wrist, an injury from which a player's power doesn't always bounce back immediately. Added to that, is the importance protecting Ortiz. His best seasons have come with a feared hitter behind him. The offseason plan called for Napoli to fill that role. If he can't hold up, it might be asking a lot to put the young Middlebrooks in that position. He may develop into that kind of threat, but the Red Sox don't want to put him in that role this early in his career.
What impact will new manager and former pitching coach John Farrell have?
There are a few pitchers on Boston's staff that worked for manager John Farrell when he was the team's pitching coach from 2007-10, a period in which the Red Sox held opponents to an American League-low .254 batting average and led the league in strikeouts. They also won a World Series in 2007. While pitching coach Juan Nieves will be the coach working exclusively with pitchers, Farrell's input will certainly help when it comes to guys like Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Daniel Bard. All three had career-best years in terms of ERA in 2010, but have since regressed. And in the case of Bard, dramatically so. Farrell/Nieves also have to deal with John Lackey, who is coming off Tommy John surgery.
Where will Jacoby Ellsbury finish the season?
Ellsbury becomes an unrestricted free agent after this season. And he's the worst kind of free agent for baseball teams in that he's represented by Scott Boras. The dynamic center fielder has been on a roller coaster the last few seasons, as injuries limited him in 2010 and 2012, but there was the MVP-like season he put up in 2011. Along the way, there has been a disconnect between player and organization. The Red Sox certainly recognize his talent and upside, and he will enter the season as Boston's starting center-fielder and leadoff hitter. But do they see him as a long-term fixture in Boston? That's another story. The offseason acquisition of Shane Victorino presents the team with an option should they let Ellsbury walk or trade him mid-season. Victorino can be the bridge to Boston's next center-fielder, widely presumed to be Jackie Bradley, Jr.
Is there starting pitching depth?
Boston general manager Ben Cherington admits his club was caught short last season when he didn't provide enough depth to overcome whatever adversity presented itself in the starting rotation. Whether it was the failed experiment of Daniel Bard, or Felix Doubront hitting a mid-summer wall, or trading Josh Beckett, or a DL-stint for Clay Buchholz, Aaron Cook (5.65 ERA, .304 BAA) and Daisuke Matsuzaka (8.28 ERA, .307 BAA) offered little support. Cherington feels the team is in a better position in 2013. Alfredo Aceves and Franklin Morales will be stretched out in training camp and will serve as on-hand options in case a starter is needed. Additionally, he feels the haul (Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster) received from the trade with the Dodgers last season is ready or near-ready for major league duty. One name manager John Farrell has mentioned a few times during the hot-stove season is knuckleballer Steven Wright.
The bullpen is stacked with quality arms. So many, in fact, that a trade is possible. Middle-of-the-order power, if injury free. And starting depth both in-house and at Triple-A if necessary.
The outfield needs both a legitimate everyday left fielder and depth. There are some minor-leaguers on the way, but with very few at-bats at the Triple-A level. The bottom third of the batting order isn't threatening and if the 2012 Shane Victorino shows up, other parts of the order will suffer.
Rising: Will Middlebrooks - After only 160 plate appearances at the Triple-A level, Middlebrooks made an earlier-than-anticipated debut with Boston. He busted out immediately following his callup with a .922 OPS in May, hitting against both righties and lefties. The league eventually caught up to him, but just as he started to adjust, Middlebrooks suffered a broken wrist that ended his season. He bashed 15 homers in 267 at-bats. It doesn't take a sabermetrician to see potential in his bat. There have been no indications of a delayed offseason, so Middlebrooks enters 2013 as Boston's starting third baseman and hitting sixth in the batting order.
Declining: Jarrod Saltalamacchia - Saltalamacchia has developed into a slugging catcher when he makes contact, sending 41 balls over the fence the last two seasons. Nearly half of his 90 hits in 2012 went for extra bases and his 25 homers placed him third in the league among all catchers. Unfortunately, there's little else to his offense and he can be brutal for long stretches. He's improved defensively, but the Red Sox felt the need to beef up the position, adding free agent David Ross in the offseason. With Ryan Lavarnway hanging around at Triple-A, and the organization's decision to add a couple of more minor-league catchers to the 40-man roster this offseason, Saltalamacchia doesn't appear to have a long shelf life. The surplus of catchers might prompt a trade. He signed a one-year deal in January and will become an unrestricted free agent after 2013.
Sleeper: Junichi Tazawa - Tazawa came all the way back from Tommy John surgery and then some. He experienced increased velocity and found better control in his first full season following surgery. Tazawa was unhittable in September (.075 BAA) and his ridiculous 45/5 K/BB rate in 44 innings means he'll be a big part of the setup crew, leading up to closer Joel Hanrahan. Tazawa has no experience as a closer, so we're not looking for him to emerge in that role in 2013. But in 2014, a year in which the Red Sox are not committed to any one pitcher with closing experience, the team could look to this surprising starter-turned-reliever for back end work.
Supersleeper: Steven Wright/Juan Carlos Linares - Two areas of need that may be exposed during the season is starting pitching and another outfielder. The Red Sox are preparing a couple of relievers (Alfredo Aceves and Franklin Morales) as starters during spring training, but if they need to reach down to Triple-A, keep Steven Wright's name handy. He made such a successful transition to being a knuckleballer in 2012 that the Red Sox added him to the 40-man this offseason. Linares hit 16 homers and .316 while splitting time at Double-A Portland and Triple-A Pawtucket. The international free agent signed in 2010 is more advanced than the home-grown prospects, has experience at all three outfield spots, and he could emerge if the Red Sox need to reach down for an outfielder.
Xander Bogaerts, SS - Bogaerts moves to the head of the organization's prospect class after a two-level year, in which he bashed 20 homers and hit .307/.373/.523 at High-A Salem and Double-A Portland. The adjustments in approach he put into practice at A-ball helped prepare him for Double-A, where he did not experience the typical struggles of a young hitter facing advanced-level pitching. He is on the fast track to Boston and will work at the major league camp during spring training. The one thing that may alter his trajectory is a position shift. Bogaerts is currently a shortstop, but he is young and his body is still developing. A position switch is not out of the question, especially if Bogaerts' power stroke continues to develop. It is not hard to envision a start at Double-A; a mid-year promotion to Triple-A; followed by a September call-up.
Jackie Bradley, Jr., CF - The Red Sox certainly liked Bradley when the organization drafted him in 2011, but his first full season of professional baseball in 2012 showed he was much more advanced than imagined. He was an on-base machine at High-A Salem (.480) and Double-A Portland (.373) while showing a bit more power (nine homers, 42 extra-base hits) at this stage than expected. There was some average drop off after his promotion, so we would like to see if he can maintain as a .300 hitter for a full season at the advanced levels. He was already considered above-average defensively, so the development of his offense this early is a nice omen for his baseball future. He is right behind Xander Bogaerts in terms of the organization's prospect rankings.
Bryce Brentz, OF - Brentz overcame a slow start at Double-A Portland, a new level for him, to hit .296/.355/.478 with 17 homers before a late-season promotion to Triple-A Pawtucket. It took a little more than a month for Brentz, but he eventually adjusted to the advanced off-speed stuff he saw at the higher level, and he remains the organization's top power prospect. The team would like to see him become more selective at the plate and to continue to hone the mechanics of his swing. Defensively, Brentz is still working on his routes to fly balls and instincts. After a productive stint in the Arizona Fall League, Brentz was slated to open the season at Triple-A Pawtucket, but he was involved in an accident while cleaning a gun. He suffered a bullet wound to his lower leg, but it does not appear his baseball career is in jeopardy because of it.
Matt Barnes, RHP - Barnes quickly became Boston's top pitching prospect in 2012, moving through the Low-A South Atlantic League in just one month before being promoted to High-A Salem. As we have seen before with top pitching prospects, they can get by with a good heater in Low-A, but the need to establish secondary offerings, like a changeup and curveball, is the key to continue their ascent. After his promotion, he was definitely challenged more by the advanced hitters. Barnes logged 119.2 innings in his first professional season, and the organization will build off that. Continued work on the secondary pitches is Barnes' main objective entering 2013, which will likely start at High-A.
Rubby De La Rosa, RHP - De La Rosa came back last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2011. He made a handful of appearances in the Dodgers' organization but was shut down after he was included in the deal to acquire Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. He was shut down because the Dodgers could not move De La Rosa until after the season. With Boston, the young righty with the power arm and plus changeup is expected to open the season at Triple-A Pawtucket. If he can't harness the fastball command or develop a legitimate third pitch, De La Rosa could be moved to the bullpen as a late-inning reliever.
Allen Webster, RHP - Webster was included in the blockbuster deal between the Dodgers and Red Sox in August after entering 2012 as the Dodgers' second-ranked prospect. Logging 130.2 innings, Webster struggled with his control (4.2 BB/9) while striking out nearly a batter per inning at Double-A. In terms of raw stuff, Webster's arsenal includes a 94-96 mph fastball with occasional sink along with a slider and a changeup that both grade out as better than average offerings. The Red Sox are unlikely to force him into prolonged duty with the big club in 2013, but Webster will likely get a bump to Triple-A Pawtucket with an eye toward competing for a full-time rotation spot in 2014 if he's able to cut back on the free passes.
Garin Cecchini, 3B - After battling injuries in his first full professional season, Cecchini took a big step forward in 2012 at Low-A Greenville. Currently playing the hot corner, he showed off his strong arm in the field while hitting .305 with 38 doubles and 62 RBI at the plate. He also added 51 stolen bases in 57 attempts, showing good speed that runs in the family (his younger brother, Gavin, was a 2012 first-round pick by the Mets). He also showed strong discipline at the plate by taking 61 walks. The Red Sox's organizational depth chart is crowded with Will Middlebrooks locked in at third base ahead of him. Cecchini has not shown the power most teams look for in the corner infield (four home runs in 2012), so it will be interesting to see if a position change is in his future. Look for him to begin his age-22 season at High-A.
Blake Swihart, C – Swihart, drafted out of high school where he played both third base and catcher, spent last season as a full-time receiver. It’s a positive sign that the Red Sox placed him at a full-season team, Low-A Greenville, fresh out of high school. He is relatively new to catching and, at this stage of his career, is a bit on the thin side for the position. His development defensively may take away from his production as a hitter, but the switch-hitter projects as a plus hitter for average with modest power. Swihart slashed just .262/.307/.395 with seven homers for the Drive in 2012. Swihart is considered an excellent athlete, who could change positions down the line, but for now he’s focused on improving as a backstop. He’s likely to be placed High-A Salem to start 2013.