Right about now, less than a week before the start of the 2012 Major League Baseball season, about the only thing the Red Sox Nation should be feeling good about is the additional Wild Card slot this year. And honesty, if I were them (and so happy the Good Lord chose to make me a Yankee fan) I wouldn’t even feel secure with the fact that third place in the American League East is even within their grasp. Counter in the fact that even should Boston be able to achieve that position, the resulting one-game playoff game could be up against the far superior starting rotations of the Tampa Bay Rays, Texas Rangers or Anaheim Angels of Los Angeles (still causes me some discomfort to write that) and that cannot calm the collective brain of the Nation.
All kidding aside, consider the 2011 version of the club, a club that some writers were handing over the World Series trophy around this time last spring, then witness one of the greatest crash and burns the game has ever seen and after the rats left the sinking ship what is left? What indeed? Let’s spend some time dissecting the team the Boston Red Sox will put on the field this the one-hundredth anniversary of Fenway Park. Please disregard the smell emanating from the bloated corpse as we slice them open, but something’s really rotten in the state of Massachusetts.
The Front Office: As a Yankee fan, Sox’ GM Theo Epstein bugged me mostly because the wunderkind was the man who built their two championship teams. But in the wake of last season’s disaster, Epstein is gone; “traded” to the Chicago Cubs for pitcher Chris Carpenter, and not only is he not that Chris Carpenter, he’s injured, too. Jed Hoyer, who was Epstein’s heir-apparent, went with him leaving Ben Cherington the task of putting this club back together.
Cheringon let 2011’s shortstop, Marco Scutaro (.299/.358/.781) go to save money ostensibly so the club could bolster their hurting starting rotation and sign Roy Oswalt, only to be rebuffed. Losing closer Jonathan Papelbon to free-agency and potential replacement Daniel Bard to the rotation, the replacements of Mark Melancon and Andrew Bailey cannot be considered an upgrade.
In the wake of the PR nightmare that was their 2011 season, the new GM had no choice but to overpay DH David Ortiz to stick around and put a friendly smile on things. And while Big Papi did have a good season last year (.309/29HRS/96RBIs/.953OPS) paying nearly $15M this season is an awful lot for a DH on the decline.
The Red Sox have yet to play a single game this season and already the word out of Boston is that GM Cherington is squabbling with his new manager.
The Manager: And that new manager, as I am sure you’re aware, is Bobby Valentine. Now, I’m not going to stand here and say that “The Mouth” doesn’t possess a fine baseball mind, but all he’s done this spring, after instituting his “no beer in the clubhouse” rule has been to cause distractions from the team on the field he’s going to helm and who could blame him?
He’s taking over a team clearly on the decline with a lot of question marks and he’s replacing Terry Francona who was quite possibly the best and most successful of managers in Boston club history. Valentine started the spring by taking a misinformed pot-shot at Derek Jeter, another at A-Rod and even ruffled the feathers of the usually unflappable (okay, I’m kidding there) Ozzie Guillen in a meaningless grapefruit league game.
On the positive side, Bobby Valentine relishes being a lightening rod and could distract some of the intense Boston media scrutiny from the team he’ll be running out there this season.
Let’s get to the team:
Firstbase: This is one of the few spots on this ballclub that I can’t find much fault. Adrian Gonzalez is clearly the real deal (.338/.410/.957 and 27HRS/117RBI) while playing a Gold Glove winning firstbase. That said, Gonzalez turns thirty next month so perhaps his years of playing 159 games may be passing him by and he clearly benefitted from hitting in a Red Sox line-up after years of little to no protection in the San Diego. This may be the only spot on the field where I could give Boston a slight advantage over Tex at first for the Yanks.
Secondbase: Dustin Pedroia is a former MVP, but that was a few seasons ago. If you polled all the General Managers in the Major Leagues and asked them today if they’d rather have Pedroia or Robinson Cano I would go all-in that it would be unanimous in the Yankee second baseman’s favor. The numbers are still there for Pedroia (.307/.387/.861) but this is a guy with such a huge chip on his diminutive shoulder, that I seriously suspect precipitous decline. Yes, he’s small and scrappy, but the way he plays the game may start to lead in the number of games he’s healthy enough to be on the field. Chase Utley anyone? Anyone?
Shortstop: Do the Red Sox have a shortstop? A spring training competition between twenty-two year old Jose Iglesias and Mike Aviles was won this past week by the latter. Aviles has hit well this spring and fielded his position well enough to get the job; he’ll effectively maintain the string of average-at-best shortstops since Boston ran Nomar Garciaparra out of town. Even the most diehard of Bosox fans would take the soon-to-be thirty-eight year old Derek Jeter over what they have in the middle of their infield.
Thirdbase: “The Greek God of Walks” just ain’t what he used to be. Kevin Youkilis, the heart and soul of the Bosox, is a guy having an increasingly difficult task of staying healthy enough to be a mainstay in their line-up. And while that may also be true for suddenly-injury-prone A-Rod, Youkilis is in a serious decline from his career seasons of 2008 and 2009. The walks are down, the power is down and Valentine can’t really afford to give him a break at DH with Ortiz cemented in that slot or at first with the presence of Gonzalez. Add to this that Youkilis made nine errors at the suddenly-too-hot corner in 2011 doesn’t bode well either; he hadn’t made more than five previously and that was his rookie season.
Catcher: Jarrod Saltalmacchia is going to handle the bulk of the Red Sox catching duties in 2012 which means what it meant in 2011: a lot of stolen bases for their opposition. He put up decent enough power numbers (16HR/56RBI) in only one-hundred three games, but he’s having hip issues this spring and back-up Kelly Shoppach isn’t a guy you want to see out there too much. The combination of Russell Martin and Francisco Cervelli in pinstripes is clearly a Yankee advantage.
Outfield: From the mouth himself, Bobby Valentine is “comfortable” with his outfield alignment for the coming season. Doesn’t quite sound like a ringing endorsement, does it? And who can blame him? The Bosox spent a lot of money to bring in Carl Crawford, who between injury and that growing sense that this simply is not the guy for Boston, was awful in 2011 (.255/.289/.533) with a scant eighteen stolen bases and starting this season on the disabled list due a continuing wrist injury shouldn’t excite the Fenway faithful. Crawford is a “legs guy” and the Sox are losing out on his big upside the first few years of this bloated contract. Time will tell which Crawford shows up – when he shows up – but I wouldn’t feel comfortable.
On the other hand, I do suspect new outfielder Cody Ross will hit some; if he couldn’t hit the San Francisco Giants would have held on to him. And while accentuating the positives in the Bosox outfield, Jacoby Ellsbury was healthy last season and should anchor center very well again in 2012. Even I can’t find fault in the numbers he put up in 2011 (.321/.376/.928) along with significant power numbers (32HR/105RBI) while nabbing thirty-nine stolen bases and scoring one-hundred nineteen runs.
But even a repeat season from Ellsbury won’t likely cover for Ryan Sweeney and Darnell McDonald in the corner slots. The Boston Red Sox scored an impressive number of runs in 2011, but I don’t see a repeat of that in 2012 and the pitching won’t be able to cover for it.
Pitching: If I were Ben Cherington (and I am glad that I am not) I’d be on the phone to Tim Wakefield begging him to un-retire. I would also probably bemoan the fact of being stuck with John Lackey (out for the season) and Dice-K (if the Sox are lucky: a tax write-off) to my therapist. While Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz are a formidable starting trio when healthy what comes after that is suspect.
Compare the “problems” Joe Girardi has had in choosing his starting rotation this spring with the decision facing Bobby Valentine in picking between Daniel Bard (trying to get stretched out from set-up man to starter), ex-Yankee Alfedo Aceves, Felix Doubront and Aaron Cook for the last few spots in their rotation and the advantage is crystal clear. This is not a rotation that will be able to compete with what the Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays will be throwing out each and every game.
And while the Yankee bullpen is a definite strength, Boston’s has even more question marks than its starting five. Their closer, Jonathan Papelbon is gone as a free-agent to Philadelphia. Bard, as mentioned who was the heir to the job may, or may not be in the rotation. The Sox brought in yet-another ex-Yankee, Mark Melancon, at first for the closer spot.
The fire-sale in Oakland later landed Boston Andrew Bailey who was good, but in Oakland — the competition in the AL-East is a whole other matter — and only when he’s healthy which has been a major issue as well. And as bad as things may turn out to be coming from the Boston bullpen, they may be catching a break in that head-case and potential team-cancer, Bobby Jenks, may never be healthy enough to pitch for them.
The 2011 Boston Red Sox were about as schizophrenic a team as you can get: one of the worst teams in the Majors in April and in September and yet one of the best from May through August before the choke to end all chokes, the “beer and fried chicken” escapades and then this winter’s overhaul. And while I don’t see them being as bad as when they were really bad, I seriously doubt they will come close to being as good as they were last season during the summer months when they seemed to be living up to spring prognostics.
Yes, we had the Bronx Zoo in the 1970s, but what is going on in Boston now feels like the kind of failure on an organizational level that sees them not returning to the playoffs again in 2012. Already this spring, there’s been the aforementioned GM versus Manager issue, but there’s been more than that. Retired Curt Schilling has taken shots at Valentine and Josh Beckett fired back at the ex-Red Sox pitcher. Bobby Jenks has been arrested on DUI charges and that’s not to mention rather disturbing charges levied against a former member of the Boston front office. They let their captain, and the heart of their team, catcher Jason Varitek, depart without much fanfare, dignity or respect.
Clearly I am biased, but in keeping with the Macbeth theme from the opening, I don’t think the 2012 Boston Red Sox have a ghost of a chance this season. And if an immediate and sharp change of course doesn’t occur and with the very strong Yankee and Rays clubs and an emerging one in Toronto, the Sox could very well be keeping the Baltimore Orioles company down toward the bottom of the AL-East. The Orioles, a once great and consistent contender themselves, could use the company down there.