Red Sox plan to make best of fresh start
Boston hoping to return to the postseason after three disappointing years
BOSTON -- The recent memories are so hard to shake for Red Sox fans that perhaps they'd rather just think about the Patriots and their run at another Super Bowl these days.
But with the start of Spring Training coming fairly soon, it seems like the proper time to take an analytical look at the Old Towne Team and how it stacks up after missing the postseason for three straight seasons -- the first such drought since 2000-02.
The good news is this: Following a 69-93 season, the worst by any Red Sox team since 1965, there truly is nowhere to go but up. At the very least, the 2013 season will be an improvement for Boston -- you can take that to the bank.
But once Tom Brady is finished taking snaps this season -- New England sports fans are going to obsess on one theme at a time -- is this revamped Red Sox roster good enough to play in October?
With a friendlier postseason format that went into play last year -- there are now two Wild Card teams in each league -- it would be wise not to go to sleep on the Red Sox.
However, the fact is that Boston will enter 2013 in a position it hasn't been in for over a decade: a sleeper.
The mess of 2011, when the Red Sox became the first team in history to hold a nine-game lead in September and not make the postseason, is still fresh in the minds of prognosticators. So, too, is the utter debacle of last season, when manager Bobby Valentine's one season in the dugout turned out to be a depressing six months.
And here is the third element of why the Red Sox won't get the hype of some of their competitors -- particularly the Toronto Blue Jays -- heading into the season. General manager Ben Cherington made a lot of moves to upgrade his offense and his pitching staff, but he didn't make any of those giant splash moves that get the marquee headlines this time of year.
That said, if the Red Sox are to reclaim their status as a contender, several things have to go right. And that's why this Boston team might be harder to project than any in recent memory.
The strategies of Cherington and his baseball operations department became fairly clear through the course of the winter: Sign veteran players to short-term deals, some of whom are coming off down years; add players who have great clubhouse character, which should help a team that certainly needs a change; bulk up the bullpen in a big way.
"We're trying to add to the team and improve the team in as many areas as we can without being as focused on the headline. [We're trying to be] as focused as we can on improving the team and building the roster in as many areas as we can, building as deep a team as we can and filling the clubhouse with guys we can believe in and building the team that way," Cherington said. "We're going to continue to try to do that. The proof will be in the pudding. We'll see if we can execute it enough."
Perhaps the best move Boston made was the most recent one. Joel Hanrahan, by virtue of pitching in Pittsburgh, has been one of the game's most underrated closers the last couple of years.
With the Red Sox -- and the adrenaline and exposure that comes with pitching in a big market -- he could turn into a star at his position. Not only that, but Andrew Bailey now gives Boston an eighth-inning pitcher with closer's stuff.
And that's without mentioning Koji Uehara, the free-agent acquisition who can be dominant when healthy. There's also Junichi Tazawa. While many fans had turned away from the Red Sox late last season when they fell far from contention, Tazawa turned into a lights-out setup man with a fastball that sat in the upper 90s.
While Daniel Bard tries to bounce back from his nightmare of last season, the added weapons Boston has accumulated makes him more of a luxury than a necessity.
If there's one area of the team that is probably most worrisome, it is the starting rotation. The Red Sox went out and got a veteran innings eater in Ryan Dempster, but they have thus far been unable to add the type of top-tier starter fans have been thirsting for.
The good news is that Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz have the ability to be elite starters. But thanks to inconsistency, both pitchers saw their stock drop a little last season.
For the Red Sox to get where they need to get, Lester and Buchholz need to pitch like All-Stars. Also, Felix Doubront needs to take another leap forward and John Lackey has to have a healthy return from Tommy John surgery.
Scoring runs shouldn't be a problem for the Red Sox in '13. Assuming the Mike Napoli signing eventually gets done -- the sides are in a month-long stalemate over some issues regarding the physical -- Boston has a big right-handed bat at first base, one that can give David Ortiz some much-needed protection in the lineup. It also doesn't hurt that Napoli has a swing that was built for Fenway, and he has always thrived there during his career.
The concern with Napoli is that he was far better in 2011 than he was last year. He must hit closer to his form of two years ago if the Sox are going to be postseason bound.
While there was some thought to giving defensive wizard Jose Iglesias a chance to be the everyday shortstop, Cherington went a safer, pricier route by signing Stephen Drew to a one-year, $9.5 million deal.
Drew can hit and field when he's healthy, and his durability issues have been exaggerated by some. As his brother J.D. pointed out, Stephen's only major injury in his career was a broken right ankle that really couldn't have been avoided.
Drew thinks he's healthier than he's been in years, and perhaps he'll be a one-year rental who flourishes with something to prove, much like Adrian Beltre in 2010.
With the expected return to health of Ortiz and Will Middlebrooks, plus the continued excellence of Dustin Pedroia, the offense should have plenty of weapons. And that's without even mentioning Jacoby Ellsbury, who nearly won the American League Most Valuable Player Award two years ago before a subluxed right shoulder ruined the first half of his 2012 season. The troubling thing is that Ellsbury was on the field for the entire second half and didn't play at nearly the same level he did the year before.
So here is yet another if. If the Red Sox are to be a postseason contender, Ellsbury needs to recapture his MVP-caliber form and stay healthy.
The outfield has two other additions fans will see a lot of. Shane Victorino, known as a high-energy player, will patrol right field. When he's on his game, he is spraying extra-base hits, stealing bases and making all the plays in the outfield. Victorino wasn't himself last year, but he's only 32 -- meaning it could have just been an off year.
Jonny Gomes, who calls himself the "grease" that can hold a clubhouse together, offers the Red Sox right-handed pop in left field. He likely won't play every day, but 300 to 350 at-bats is probably a realistic guess.
Yet another question mark will be if a left-handed-hitting left fielder can step up. Ryan Kalish and Daniel Nava are the top in-house candidates.
Perhaps the most underrated move of the winter was the first one. David Ross is a proven catcher who pitchers love throwing to. The Red Sox badly missed that type of presence last year, coming off the retirement of Jason Varitek.
With all the ifs and unknowns, the Red Sox are an intriguing team to keep tabs on for the coming season. And there have been enough roster changes that it's unfair to lump them in with the disappointing teams of the last two seasons.
The first pitchers and catchers workout in Fort Myers, Fla., will take place on Feb. 12.