It’s that time of year again, the grass is freshly mowed, the baseballs are new and the expectations are high. Spring Training is a time of optimism and dreams. A new season with a new roster and with it, new questions. Even the teams with the highest payroll come to camp with questions marks and this year’s Sox team qualifies for both of those statements. With a payroll of upwards of $190 million this team is not without it’s questions, money can buy a lot of things but apparently a complete roster isn’t one of them. With that in mind let’s take a look at a completely cliche top 9 questions facing the 2012 Boston Red Sox as they set up camp.
9.) Who replaces JD Drew and plays right field?
This question might not get a final answer until a couple weeks into the season with the injury to Carl Crawford. Before the trade of Josh Reddick, of which I am in full support of, this wasn’t a questions at all. As of right now it stands that Cody Ross and Ryan Sweeney are going to fight it out in the spring and see who is left standing. Unfortunately, with Crawford expected to miss the opener the thought is that Ross and Sweeney will team with Ellsbury to round out the opening day outfield. Although not the most popular player, Drew was steady in his five seasons with the Sox, while underachieving at the plate he offered plus defense in a tough right field. Both Ross and Sweeney are considered average defenders at best who will offer similar offensive numbers to Drew although with lower On Base Percentages. The advantage here could be to Ross as he is a right handed bat and much has been made of the Sox lefty heavy lineup. However, lefty vs righty doesn’t hold a lot of water if both players are hitting around .250 – .260 as is highly possible with both these guys. The biggest advantage that Ross seemingly has in this competition is power, having a career high of 24 home runs hit back in 2009 and following that up with 14 in each of the last two season, Ross easily bests Sweeney who hit a personal best 6 home runs in 2009. The wild card in all this is Ryan Kalish, who is viewed as the long term solution based on his 53 game audition in 2010. Still recovering from last season’s surgery, Kalish isn’t expected to be ready for the start of the season, giving both Ross and Sweeney plenty of time to show what they can do.
How I see it going: Both Ross and Sweeney have stretches where they look good but get exposed over the long term. Kalish doesn’t turn out to be the answer and a right handed hitting outfielder becomes a priority for Ben Cherington by July.
8.) Who is going to be the fifth starter?
Let’s start off by acknowledging that due to a lack of options Daniel Bard will be the number four starter even if his spring stats read more like failed comeback attempt than the start of a new chapter in a career. That said, there is still one more spot left to settle in the rotation and even though the Sox won’t actually need a fifth starter until the 24th of April someone is going to win this job. The early front runners coming into camp look to be Andrew Miller, Aaron Cook and Vincente Padilla. On the outside looking in, but still with a chance, are Felix Doubront, Junichi Tazawa, Alfredo Aceves (who’ll I’ll go into more detail later on) and Carlos Silva. The good news is that you generally only need 25 – 30 starts out of your number five. The bad news is that the odds are that one of these guys will be toeing the rubber in the bottom of the first inning at Minnesota on April 24th.
There is some potential in this group however, Andrew Miller showed small glimpses in his first year with the team and despite the yearly lowering of expectations for him still has the biggest upside of this group by far. Aaron Cook has had the most ‘successful’ career so far out of this group as he enters his eleventh big league season. Having spent his entire career to this point pitching in Colorado, his numbers will be admittedly skewed a bit, Cook has a season high of 16 wins, which came back in 2008 and was the first of his only two seasons with double digit victories. More concerning perhaps with Cook is that in his nine full big league seasons, he has started 30 games or more exactly twice, which is also the only two times he has come within 34 innings of reaching 200. Clearly there are durability issues here, which explains the sheer volume of candidates for this spot and gives you the feeling that if Miller can’t take a hold of this spot or possibly Doubront, who I believe is ticketed for the pen, then the Sox will try to cobble a full season out of 3 or 4 guys.
Another veteran who is attempting to come back from injury is Vincente Padilla, the 13 year vet, who has been clocked throwing in the 60′s with his breaking ball brings experience and flexibility to the table. A starter most of his career Padilla made all 9 of his appearances in 2011 out of the Dodgers bullpen, including 3 saves. How does his stuff translate into the toughest division in baseball? My guess is not well over a long stretch. I think you can use Padilla in a spot start capacity or a as a two or three start injury replacement if the match ups work out, but I don’t think you want him toeing the rubber in Yankee stadium…or a lot of other places for that matter.
How I see it going: Andrew Miller gets the first shot and the most rope of all the candidates as it becomes clear, very early on, that they want him to win the job. Aceves will make a few spot starts this year and it’s possible that we could see either Cook or Padilla but thankfully not both. I think Miller turns out to be serviceable to good and threatens 10 wins this year.
7.) Who is the first off the bus when someone goes down?
This was the biggest issue responsible for the fall of the Sox last year. While chicken and beer made for great headlines the fact that Kyle Weiland made 3 starts over a 10 day span in mid-September while the season was slipping away was the biggest reason the Sox missed the postseason. Organizational depth was always preached by Theo from the day he was hired, until the day he left but in this instance it wasn’t there and it proved to be a fatal flaw. This season has the potential to test their depth even more so than last year. Youkilis is another year older, and to be honest I don’t know if he can physically survive playing third base anymore, shortstop is another issue that we will get to, and you have a rotation filled with question marks and health concerns. Beckett generally doesn’t make 35 starts a year, Buchholz is coming off of a back injury serious enough to sideline him most of last year and you are counting on a guy who hasn’t thrown more than 74.2 innings in a season since being drafted in 2006 to be your fourth starter. Throw in the fact that you don’t really have a number five starter right now, and the fact that your closer is a perennial visitor of the DL and even if you assume perfect health for the rest of your roster there are going to be times when you need to lean on your depth. Currently, and obviously at this point of the year this is subject to change, the 40 man roster is filled with fringe ‘prospects’ like Felix Doubrant and Michael Bowden. However, those guys are out of minor league options so there is a chance they are going to be pitching out of the pen on opening day for the sox or somewhere else entirely.
This year’s list of non roster invitees is filled with journeyman starters like Aaron Cook, Vincente Padilla, Carlos Silva and Brandon Duckworth, one of which you are looking at as breaking camp as your number five. Again the issue here is no young pitching depth, if someone goes down there is no Papelbon or Lester or Buchholz to bring up and get their feet wet in the majors. Considering that this team continuously has declared it’s wish to build through the draft the dearth of organizational pitching depth in the upper minor league levels is worrisome to say the least. Position wise there is more to work with as the Sox have enough depth to deal with an injury or two with either some fringe/stop-gap guys like Oscar Tejada or Lars Anderson. If there is a longer term injury they also have a few prospects on the brink that might be able to step in like a Jose Iglisias.
How I see it going: I think they’ll be shuttling pitchers in and out of both the number five rotation slot as well as the bottom of the bullpen roster. Dice-K will return from Tommy John surgery to give a temporary boost but won’t be able to sustain after missing most of last season and gets shut down after a handful of starts. Positionally I think we’ll see Iglisias before he is ready and get our first glimpse of Will Middlebrooks before the season is over. Depth will be on their list come the trade deadline but that could be said for every team in the league so no surprise there. I think they are better off than they were last year but still could use a few more younger arms waiting in the wings.
6.) What to expect from the revamped ‘pen?
Daniel Bard, Jonathan Papelbon, Matt Albers, Alfredo Aceves and Dan Wheeler. That is, in order, the relievers with the most appearances out of the bullpen for last year’s Sox team. Important to note that it’s not only possible that Matt Albers is the only one on this list who will start the season in the bullpen, but it’s not out of the questions that none of these guys will be sitting out in right field come opening day. What this means is that there will definitely be a revamped bullpen this year and with that comes some real questions. Andrew Bailey, a former rookie of the year with Oakland, brings a lot of promise and the potential to match the Papelbon of the last 4 years. Unfortunately he also comes with the label of being fragile and given the lack of proven depth that this group could have, its fair to say Bailey needs to not only be healthy, but also be an anchor for the entire season in order for this team to be successful. Whether or not he can do this is a fair question and quite possibly the single biggest concern facing the Sox not named Beckett. Even with Bailey anchoring the bullpen there are still plenty of questions surrounding this group. Mark Melancon, acquired from Houston for Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland, was solid last year in the ninth inning for the Astros but how that translates into the AL East is anyone’s guess.
If Alfredo Aceves does move into the rotation, which I think is a big mistake if you look at his starting vs relief splits from last year, than you have further weakened yourself in the fifth through seventh innings as well as the eighth. Although an admittedly small sample size, Aceves in four starts had an ERA over 5.00, saw his WHIP increase by .571 while seeing his strikeouts per nine go down by almost a full K. What does this say? Well to me it says that Aceves either a.) doesn’t have the stamina to get through starters innings or b.) his stuff just isn’t good enough to get through a lineup 3 times. I tend to side with option ‘B’ on this one. The rest of the bullpen figures to be filled out by inconsistent but talented pitchers (Franklin Morales, Andrew Miller), former starting prospects who are out of options and never quit realized their potential (Michael Bowden, Felix Doubrant), and underwhelming fringe major leaguers (Clay Mortensen, Matt Albers) and young wildcards (Chris Carpenter).
How I see it going: Bailey will miss at least a little time this season with an injury, Aceves will spend the majority of the season in the bullpen, save for a couple of spot starts and there will be a struggle for consistency all season. You are most likely going to see a rotating cast filling the last 3 or 4 spots in the pen as the team searches for someone to emerge. Expect, as with every year, relief help to be high on the wish list come July. Not all is bleak though, Carpenter emerges as a dependable 7th inning guy by the end of the season, Melancon is solid all year and when healthy Bailey is an upper echelon closer.
5.) How does the top of the lineup shake out?
A lot was made last year of how the lineup would stack up and here we are a year later and really, nothing has changed. This team is still left-handed heavy and Carl Crawford still doesn’t have a home in this lineup. A career number two hitter, Crawford was shoe-horned into the number three spot to start last year and the rest as they say, is history. The same problems exist this year, although now there is the added dimension of possibly dropping Ellsbury out of the lead off spot and into a more run producing role. If you look at each player individually, you’ll see that the majority of them seem to have a spot where they are most comfortable and perform at their best. The trick is meshing them together into a one through nine that works. Ellsbury is now a known commodity out of the lead off spot, Pedroia is a proven number two hitter, as is, last year not withstanding, Crawford. Gonzalez can hit anywhere but should be batting third and then you are left with Youkilis and Ortiz who are probably best suited for the fifth or sixth position at this point.
Valentine is credited as being an outside the box type of manager and this might present him with the best chance to prove it. Could we see a top six line up of Ellsbury, Crawford, Pedroia, Gonzalez, Youkilis, Ortiz? How about, if you throw out the issue of stacking lefties, Ellsbury, Crawford, Gonzalez, Pedroia, Youkilis, Ortiz? When Manny was traded and Youkilis went into the clean up spot people questioned if he could handle the job and protect Ortiz. He turned into a serviceable option. Gonzalez is your best hitter by far so regardless of who hits behind him, there will be times when he is pitched around. The best way to prevent that is with the people in front of him getting on base as opposed to relying on who hits behind him. Can Pedroia, who has done it for short periods of time, fill the clean up spot for an entire season? It sounds like the kind of challenge that would get him fired up. If he can’t bat clean up, can he be a lead off man that allows Ellsbury to drop down to the three hole? History says that Pedroia doesn’t hit all that well at the top of the order since it changes his aggressive approach. Crawford is similar in that he doesn’t fit the prototypical lead off mold of working pitchers so you would think that Ellsbury is going to be the guy in the one hole. One thing is certain and that’s the fact that there will be a point in the lineup where you have a string of lefties, I just don’t think you can put together a sane line up with the players available and not have that happen.
How I see it going: For another year Crawford is going to have to hit lower in the order. Valentine passes up the chance to try and shake things up and instead produces a lineup that will look very similar to Francona’s as we’ll see Ellsbury, Pedrioa, Gonzalez, Youkilis, Ortiz, Crawford, Right Fielder Du Jour, Saltalamacchia, SS Du Jour.