2012 Previews: The Boston Red Sox

2011 Record: 90-72, 3rd AL East
2011 Prediction:
98-64, 1st AL East

Impact Player: 2B Dustin Pedroia
Impact Pitcher:
LHP Jon Lester
Best Reliever:
RHP Mark Melancon
Top Prospect:
SS/3B Xander Bogaerts

Last Year
The Boston Red Sox were by far the best team in baseball for four months of the year in 2011. Between April 16th, when they entered their game against the Blue Jays with a 2-10 record, and September 1st, Boston went 81-42 for an astounding .659 winning percentage; the best in baseball during that span. Enter chicken-gate. The Red Sox crashed down the stretch with a 7-20 record in September, allowing the Rays to sneak into the playoffs as the AL Wildcard. The collapse was historic; as were the events that culminated it on the last day of the regular season. The fallout was even more surprising.

The media, looking for answers, blamed the entire thing on some of the starting pitchers eating fried chicken and drinking beer in the clubhouse on off days. Then they smeared manager Terry Francona by calling out his apparent personal troubles and addiction to painkillers. Francona, the most decorated manager in franchise history, stepped down. Days later, the architect of two World Series titles, GM Theo Epstein left for his new job as President of Baseball Operations with the Cubs. Assistant GM Ben Cherington was promoted as Epstein’s replacement, while the infamous Bobby Valentine took over as bench-boss.

There is a problem with all of this: The Red Sox collapse had nothing to do with fried chicken or painkillers. Injuries hit many key players and Boston did not have the depth to compensate for it. If those injuries don’t happen, we aren’t talking about the biggest collapse in Major League history, we’re talking about another successful playoff season for one of baseball’s best franchises.

Pitching
When Clay Buchholz, Josh Beckett and John Lackey all succumbed to injury last September, the Red Sox were woefully short on suitable replacements. Kyle Weiland, now fighting for a spot in the Houston Astros’ AAA rotation made several key starts for the team while ace Jon Lester struggled down the stretch. Although they haven’t made any headlines with key rotation acquisitions this offseason, they have improved their depth greatly.

Lester, Beckett and Buchholz will head up the rotation with Lackey recovering from Tommy John surgery after a terrible 2011 and Daisuke Matsuzaka battling his own injury problems. Beckett bounced back from a sub-par 2010 to post numbers more in line with his career marks and is still just 32, while Lester is a legitimate ace. His September swoon cost him better numbers in 2011, but he was seventh among all starters in fWAR between 2008 and 2010.

Relief ace Daniel Bard will get a shot at the rotation after another terrific season setting up now-departed closer Jonathan Papelbon. The last time Bard started a game was at High-A in 2007 when he had a walk-rate of 14.58 BB/9. Switching him to the bullpen in 2008 saved his career so the Red Sox need to be careful here.

Boston made a concerted effort to improve upon their back-end rotation depth by signing a number of experienced pitchers to minor-league deals. Swing-man extraordinaire Alfredo Aceves should get a shot at a rotation spot, but there is also Vicente Padilla, Carlos Silva, Andrew Miller, Clay Mortensen, Ross Ohlendorf, Aaron Cook, and Will Inman; all of whom will provide much-needed depth.

The Red Sox seemed to show no interest in re-signing Papelbon, who by a lot of measures was the best reliever in baseball in 2011. Considering he ended up signing perhaps the worst deal in baseball this offseason in Philadelphia, that move will probably turn out well for Boston. Instead of overpaying on the market, the BoSox traded for two pitchers who were closers last season on their respective teams. First, they dealt infielder Jed Lowrie and the aforementioned Weiland to Houston for Mark Melancon, then two weeks later traded outfielder Josh Reddick and some prospects to the A’s for Andrew Bailey and outfielder Ryan Sweeney. If Bard falters as a starter, he, Bailey and Melancon form a potentially frightening back-end along with a hopefully healthy Bobby Jenks (who could miss the first half recovering from back surgeries) and other intriguing pieces such as Michael Bowden and lefty Franklin Morales.

Lineup
The Red Sox were not a great pitching team last season, allowing the sixth-most runs in the AL, but their offense was easily the best in the game. Boston led the AL in runs scored, on-base percentage and slugging, while finishing third in home runs. Centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury led the AL in fWAR at a rather ridiculous 9.4 while second baseman Dustin Pedroia continues to annoyingly be one of the very best players in baseball, recording a .377 wOBA and continuing his trend of elite defending.

First baseman Adrian Gonzalez enjoyed a terrific, albeit perplexing first season in Boston. His walk-rate dropped, as did his home run production, but his batting average (fuelled by a .380 BABIP) skyrocketed. Still, his 6.6 fWAR was the best mark of his career and he ranks behind only Albert Pujols, Joey Votto and Miguel Cabrera among first basemen over the last three years in that category. David Ortiz is back as the DH and continues to be very productive well into his 30s, while Kevin Youkilis is back at third. He is still a very productive hitter when healthy, compiling a .366 wOBA last season, but health is an issue. He has played only 222 games over the last two years and questions remain about his ability to play third base over a full season.

Carl Crawford can’t be as bad as he was last season when he posted a disdainful 83 wRC+ and stole just 18 bases. He may not reach the value he produced in Tampa, but he should be an above-average leftfielder. He could, however, start the year on the DL with wrist problems. In the other corner, the underrated J.D. Drew will be replaced by a combination of Sweeney and Cody Ross. Sweeney posted a 108 wRC+ against righties and is only two years removed from a 4.2 fWAR season; if he can figure out how to improve against southpaws, he’ll be a passable everyday player.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia was a pleasant surprise for Boston in 2011, producing league-average offense while greatly improving his ability behind the plate. If for some reason he falls off a cliff like he did while he was in Texas, the Red Sox have veteran Kelly Shoppach to step in.

Finally, the curious salary-dump-trade of Marco Scutaro to Colorado leaves a potential platoon of Nick Punto and Mike Aviles at shortstop. Aviles is a decent hitter who had a .317/.340/.436 slash line after being acquired by Boston last season, while Punto is a very good defender who surprisingly posted a .350 wOBA last year with St. Louis. Cuban prospect Jose Iglesias is bananas on defense, but he has yet to figure out how to hit a lick at the upper levels; if he does start to hit, he could end up supplanting the platoon.

Bench
The bench will consist of Shoppach, the off-day shortstop and the off-day rightfielder, while the 25th spot could go to any number of infielders such as Pedro Ciriaco, Brad Emaus and Nate Spears.

For a detailed statistical look at the Red Sox roster, click here

Outlook
It’s important not to get too drawn in by small sample sizes. The Red Sox 2-10 start and 7-20 finish were horribly-timed blips on an otherwise brilliant season. Lackey and Daisuke missing time due to injury may actually make them better than they were last season and the offense is still extremely impressive. I trust that the team with the .659 winning percentage for four months of the year is closer to the real Red Sox than the apparently fried chicken-infused one down the stretch.
2012 Prediction: 94-68, 1st AL East

Comments (8)

  1. This is a good summary. Red Sox are far from a likeable bunch and they’ll be even harder to tolerate with the smug and insufferable Valentine mugging for cameras at every opportunity. However, they spend money and don’t get anywhere near the credit they deserve for their excellent draft and develop record. Ellsbury, Lester, Pedroia, Youk, Bard and the recently departed Papelbon all were drafted and developed by Boston. ( In ’02 the Jays took David Bush ahead of Jon Lester, in ’03 they took Kurt Isenburg 4 spots in front of Papelbon, & in ’04 they took Curtis Thigpen in front of Pedroia) Right there is a very good start on why the Sox are contenders and the Jays are not. With the Rays’ pitching, they can’t be dismissed as contenders for the Division. If the Yankess can defy father time for another year they should be in the hunt, but the Sox should be on a mission and will likely prevail.

  2. The Red Sox are a team built to win and to win now. So, on that level, I can understand why you are bullish on them. Great offense with a lethal mix of OBP, speed and power.

    Like many teams, they have plenty of holes in their rotation and the bullpen might not be as good as advertised (especially if Bard is slotted into the rotation). And it looks more and more like the Scutaro trade was a preemptive trade that backfired as neither Jackson or Oswalt are with the Red Sox. Vicente Padilla, Carlos Silva, Aaron Cook, et al. give the Red Sox some depth but who will emerge as a viable option for manager Bobby V.? As for Bard, I am not convinced that we will see him emerge as a starter. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him return to the bullpen by mid-June. Brandon Morrow is an equally talented pitcher and he’s still learning how to become an effective starter.

    After what happened last September, I am not convinced that the fractured and damaged clubhouse has healed enough. Winning can cure those ailments. But if the Red Sox get off to a horrible start, will we see the same fractures emerge?

    The Yankees have to be the favourites with the pitching talent that is joining them. They still have a great lineup that is tailor-made for their ballpark. And one of the best bullpens in the AL. Tampa Bay has all of the pitching you need to win. If they score some runs, they too can win the division outright.

    I see the Red Sox and Blue Jays fighting it out for 3rd place.

  3. I will be stunned – STUNNED – if the Sox win the division. Sure they’ve got some parts there, but are they on par with the Yankees in any way? Offensively, perhaps, but starters and pen? Don’t see it. And if the word is true that Rivera is shutting it down, that might be just a little extra juice for the Yankees to push through on top. Like AP Robichaud said, I think they’re more likely fighting for 3rd with the Jays.

  4. I don’t think the Red Sox have the pitching depth to win the AL East. If they were able to sign Oswalt that may change, but right now I see them finishing behind both the Yankees and Rays.

  5. Two posts above me sound exactly like the reason everyone was sure BOS would win the division last year; because the Yanks didn’t have the pitching depth to win the division.

    I don’t like any of the guys mentioned for the back-end, but I would’ve said the same thing about Colon and Garcia’s chances last year.

    That being said, I see the Sox as being emotionally fragile because of all the criticism and chickengate. Maybe that’s just me buying into the story a bit, but they got a lot of tempermental guys and if it looks like it’s going off the rails, I don’t see them being composed enough to right the ship quickly. That being said, I think you can make a serious case that 1-6 they’re a step above their competitors, which makes it pretty hard not to have them in the discussion.

    • Just because it worked out for the Yankees last year doesn’t guarantee that the Red Sox will get the same result. I don’t think any of their minor league signings are likely to turn out above average, as most of them have never really been above average in their career, whereas both Garcia and Colon had been in the past. If they end up with Bard and Aceves in the rotation, then they’ll have lost their 3 best relievers (Papelbon) from the 2011 season. Any way it turns out, there’s a lack of quality options for the back end of the rotation or the bullpen.

      • Actually, I do agree with you about the likelihood it works out even 75% as well as it did for the Yanks. IMO the Yanks have a way better rotation this year and have very little chance of repeating, not to mention any thought of actually improving upon, their starters’ numbers from a year ago. I was just taken with how similar the comments or situations are and that I have a hard time writing off a team with that lineup.

  6. I think another important thing to consider (which I should have put in the post), is that the Red Sox could still go after a pitcher on the trade market mid-season if they’re in the thick of things (which they will be). If they add a Matt Garza or even a lesser talent, it will really help. You’ll see over the next two days that I have almost nothing separating the top 3 teams. It might come off as headging, but I can see the division going any way.

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