Spring is rolling on and we have more questions to answer. If you missed part one of this preview you can check it out here. If you’ve already read it, thanks. We are charging towards the opener and talked about some of the questions facing this team, but I’ve gone and saved what I think are the 4 most important ones for now. Regardless of what happens with Right Field or some of the other issues I think these last four questions, if they don’t work out, could be what keeps this team from playing into October. With that in mind lets get started.
4.) How does the catching hold up?
Since recently retired Jason Varitek became the Sox full time catcher in 1999, there were only two years out of the next ten where he failed to appear in at least 131 games. For a team that knows what a luxury it is to have an established, respected and durable catcher behind the plate every night, this season will be a change. The safety net, despite his struggles offensively in the last couple years, is gone. Last year when the Sox handed the job to Saltalamacchia, they did so knowing they could be patient since Varitek was there to handle the pitching staff if things went south. That luxury is gone and there hasn’t been a lot of talk about what happens now. It is assumed that Saltalamacchia will continue to progress, building off of a solid season last year, and establish himself as the catcher of the present and future.
There is reason for optimism here, yes he did struggle out of the gate last season, but he recovered and put together a three month stretch between May 13 and Aug 12 that saw him bat .282 with a .908 OPS, .354 BAbip (Batting Avg on balls in play) 11 HR and 30 RBI. The flip side to that argument however, is that from August 14th through the end of the season, Saltalamacchia batted only .183 with a .609 OPS, .234 BAbip 5 HR and 18 RBI. One of the most staggering splits of those periods is his BAbip, an under-utilized stat in my mind as it shows a slant towards lucky or unlucky in regards to hitting balls at fielders. Add in the fact that in the last ten games of the season, while the Sox were fading away, he totaled 3 hits in 34 plate appearances with just one walk, while striking out 15 times. The point here being that while there is potential here, there is also nothing close to a certainty that Saltalamacchia is going to be able to step in and handle the load. Fair to point out that until last year his career highs for games caught in a year were 83 (2009), 54 (2008) and 25 (2007) so fatigue down the stretch may certainly have been a factor. The Sox have brought in a capable back up, and former Sox farm product, in Kelly Shoppach to pair with Saltalamacchia so hopefully he won’t wear down as this season progresses.
How I see it going: I think Saltalamacchia handles the load as an offensive catcher. Defensively there is still a ways to go with him but I think offensively he is solid and his game management improves as the year goes on. Shoppach turns out to be a very good back up and the hunt for the next franchise catcher can be put to rest for at least another year or two. The fact that catching is at a premium, and the best prospects in the system at this position are in the lower levels also means that it is going to have to get REALLY bad for the Sox to make a move at this position outside of giving Shoppach more starts than originally planned.
3.) Who plays shortstop this year?
Rafael Furcal, Edgar Renteria, Derek Jeter, Jimmy Rollins…Mike Aviles? This is what the list of the last five world series champion short stops would look like if the Sox were to go all the way with the plan they seem to have in place for the position. When you look at this list you see, All Stars, solid players, very good players, a Hall of Famer and a career utility guy who hasn’t played more than 34 games at short since 2008 when he played 91 games for the 75 – 87 Kansas City Royals. Do you need a dominant short stop to win the title? The 2007 Red Sox and Julio Lugo say no. Make no mistake though, that team was a wagon. An historic offensive machine with one of the best 3 – 4 combos in history and while this team should score its share of runs, you just don’t see teams reaching the world series with a hole at short stop. Aviles is a decent player but guys like him tend to get exposed over the long term. Iglisias, while still needing a lot of work at the plate, has entered the discussion to be the teams starting short stop by virtue of the front office not bringing in a viable stop gap. The second they traded Scutaro and decided to go with Aviles/Punto, they opened the door for rushing Iglisias. That said, at least with the kid you get plus defense right now, which when you consider they have a third basemen coming off a hip injury, extra range on the left side might not be the worst thing in the world.
The biggest question here is what happens if Aviles can’t hold the fort, Iglisias gets rushed and it turns out he really isn’t ready? Do you turn to Punto, who’s career high in games played at SS is 61 back in 2008? Do you go out and look to add someone from outside the organization, when every team you try to deal with is going to know that you are dealing from a position of weakness? This is what makes me think that the short stop(s) for this season is on the roster somewhere.
How I see it going: Aviles at this point of the spring is still the ‘favorite’ but when push comes to shove I think Valentine sees Iglisias as a chance to shake things up a little and prove that he is thinking outside the box. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Iglisias breaks camp with the big club at the expense of Punto and ends up as the starting SS by the end of April at the latest. Once anointed though, they are going to have to give him Perdroia like rope to find his way at the plate. His defense will ultimately be enough to keep him up and playing while his bat turns out to be not quite as bad as people are afraid of.
2.) What is the Valentine effect?
We already know that he supposedly created the wrap and that he is the most famous crossing guard in Stamford CT history, or that he was going to go to USC and replace OJ Simpson. We know all this about Bobby V, but what we don’t know is how he is going to do as the manager of the Boston Red Sox. What do we really know about Valentine as a manager? Well, he was successful in his time over in Japan and made the World Series while leading the Mets after a fairly nondescript tour in Texas. He has arrived in Boston with the reputation that does everything but come right out and call him a ‘genius’, we are told he will shake things up and keep the players on edge. Both pluses if they turn out to be true, but there are also some things that haven’t been mentioned nearly as much. Such as the fact that in 15 Major League seasons, Valentine has won more than 88 games exactly twice. Also not often talked about is the fact that in those 15 seasons he won exactly zero division titles while finishing second only 4 times. When it comes to postseason awards, and granted they don’t always tell the story, Valentine has never been named manager of the year. In fact, besides his personal best finish of second in 1986, he has never finished higher than fourth in the voting.
I don’t bring these numbers up to say that he is destined to fail, I bring them up because to me it seems like he has gotten somewhat of a free pass from the local media. I can’t remember another manager coming in to, not only such little scrutiny, but to so much universal praise. It’s a little baffling, I’m not going to lie. The company line was that Valentine was needed to shake things up after last year’s collapse and while I agree a change was warranted, I’m not sure a manager who over saw a similar finish while with the Mets is the answer. Of course, when you are talking about the Valentine hiring you have to mention the process that brought him here. A two month search, in which he wasn’t even a candidate until after the original search came to an end. To say Valentine was brought in under ‘odd’ circumstances would be an understatement and while I’m in no way pining for Dale Sveum, there was never really a thorough explanation of why all of a sudden Bobby V was ‘The Guy’.
How I see it going: I think Bobby V will be fine, this team is talented enough to win regardless of the manager. That said he is only on a two year deal and I don’t think we’ll be seeing him for a third. I’m looking at this hiring as a two year shake up and then they’ll bring in someone who better fits what Ben Cherington wants in a manager. Valentine will have his share of headlines there is no question, he will undoubtedly continue to say things that make their way into the news such as his Jeter comments earlier this spring. In the end though, this is the best team, on paper, that he has ever had so if he can’t get to 90 wins and the postseason now then I don’t think it’s out of the question that there is no year two for Bobby.
1.) What do they get from Josh Beckett?
This is the biggest question facing the Sox this season. Chicken and Beer, Beer and Chicken, isn’t going away until Beckett puts it out of people’s minds with his performance on the field. Some expected the defacto leader of the rotation and poster boy for last September to come in to camp in great shape, ready to own up and impress. Didn’t happen. Beckett instead came to camp looking about the same as he did when he walked off the mound in Baltimore last September. Then there was the odd press conference when he essentially was more concerned about who ‘told on them’ than he was about accepting responsibility for what happened. Personally, once it became clear that no real roster shake up was coming in response to last year, I immediately stopped caring if there was an apology. What I wanted to see was how he performed on the field. So far this spring, he was been outstanding, which is important for many reasons but mostly because this team can’t win without their top 3 starters pitching at a very high level.
Peformance alone should now be the focus, so lets look at what we can expect from Beckett this season. Last year, coming off a 2010 that saw him finish 6 – 6 in only 21 starts left Beckett as the #4 starter in order for him to avoid the opening series against the Rangers. This year he was at least in the discussion for Opening Day. Quite a swing, which historically has been Beckett’s biggest issue. Inconsistency. Up and down from season to season, or sometimes in a single season, consistency is always the issue. Only in 2007 has he ever put it all together and been good essentially from start to finish. 2011 looked to be a huge bounce back year for Beckett who was good from the jump and had only 4 starts through August that saw him give up 4 earned runs or more and never more than 5. That is until September when in only 4 starts Beckett went 1 – 3 leaving one start after only 3.2 innings and then getting shelled in back-to-back 6 run starts against the Orioles to close out the year. There are a lot of theories ranging from the flashy headlines that we’ve already addressed, to him just flat out wearing down. Whatever the reason, the Sox need a strong year out of Beckett from start to finish in order to get to the post season and beyond.
How I see it going: Beckett seems to feed off of ‘slights’ whether real or perceived. Well, he should have all the motivation he needs going into this season then. Taking all that into account you would think he is slated for a big year, what would be a reason for concern? How about the fact that every even numbered year in his career has been a let down. Every. Single. One. His career high in wins on an even year? 16. Not bad, except that came with a 5.03 ERA. Also worth noting is that only 1 time in his career has Beckett started more than 27 games in an even numbered year and that was the previously mentioned 2006 with the plus five ERA. I don’t generally put much stock in these types of numbers, but we are going back 11 years so that’s at least an eye brow raising trend. Still, I think Beckett has a strong year, wins at least 15 games and keeps his ERA around the low 3′s. Even if he does it to just spite everyone else.