We all love a good baseball argument, and ranking the players on the 2012 Red Sox’ roster from 25 to 1 (based primarily but vaguely on projected importance to the team’s success) is an effective way of generating one even before the team has reported to Fort Myers.
This, the third year we’ve done these rankings, is especially open for debate since the Red Sox roster has more areas of uncertainty than usual. Which fifth starter candidate should be considered? How important is Mike Aviles? Who is more irreplaceable: Jacoby Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez, or Dustin Pedroia?
Here are my rankings, which will be revised throughout the season.
1. Dustin Pedroia
Pedroia was one of three Red Sox players to finish in the top 10 in AL MVP balloting last season, coming in ninth after a season in which he hit .307 with 21 homers, 91 RBIs, 195 hits, and 37 doubles while winning the Gold Glove award at second base. The argument can be made that either Gonzalez or Ellsbury belongs in the top spot on this list, but we’re going with Pedey not only because of his production, but because in the transition from Terry Francona to Bobby Valentine and in the effort to put the hideous September behind them, his leadership and attitude are more essential than ever.
2. Adrian Gonzalez
In his first season with the Red Sox, the sweet-swinging first baseman led the AL in hits (213) while batting .338 with a .957 OPS and hitting 27 homers. He was seventh in the AL MVP balloting, but there’s also the sense he could be even better in ‘12. Whether it was because of a shoulder injury or his participation in the Home Run Derby, his second half (.317-10-40) did not match his first half (.354-17-77) when he was the best hitter in the league not named Jose Bautista. We’re putting him down for 40 homers and a legitimate shot at the MVP award in ‘12.
3. Jacoby Ellsbury
If you want to put him first, well, who are we to argue? The center fielder is coming off a spectacular 2011 season in which he hit .321 with a .928 OPS and clubbed 32 homers, 23 more than his previous career high, while finishing second to Justin Verlander in the AL MVP voting. He was also one of the few Red Sox who performed well in September (.358, eight homers). So why do we have him third? Because some regression is possible, and the other two guys aren’t too shabby either.
4. Jon Lester
Statistically, the 28-year-old lefty had another fine season in ‘11, going 15-9 with a 3.47 ERA and 182 strikeouts in 191.2 innings. But projections that he would become a frontrunner for the AL Cy Young Award proved wishful, and his September struggles coupled with his involvement in the clubhouse chaos were disappointing. The Red Sox need him to be an ace in ‘12, and that he’s already in Fort Myers and reportedly in excellent shape are encouraging signs.
5. Josh Beckett
His 2011 season was a microcosm of the team’s itself: An excellent summer was ruined by an ugly performance in September (5.48 ERA in four starts), and he was one of the central figures in the poisonous clubhouse culture as the season slipped away. Beckett finished with 13 wins, a 2.89 ERA, and a team-best 193 innings pitched. The Red Sox need him to be just as good, if not better, on the mound, and accountable away from it.
6. Clay Buchholz
One advantage both the Rays and Yankees appear to have on the Red Sox in the AL East is depth of starting pitching. But if Buchholz, who excelled in 2010 (17 wins, 2.33 ERA in 28 starts) but who didn’t throw a major league pitch after June 16 last year because of a fracture in his back, can return to form, the Red Sox could have a top three that matches up with anyone.
7. Kevin Youkilis
Youkilis suffered through his second straight injury-plagued season, missing 42 games last year after a thumb injury limited him to 102 games in ‘10. He struggled defensively in the move back to third base, hit just .258, and his .833 OPS was his lowest since ‘06. The Red Sox are counting on a bounce-back -- and good health -- from their cleanup hitter and Tom Brady’s future brother-in-law in ‘12.
8. Carl Crawford
His first season after signing a lucrative free agent contract with the Red Sox went as if it had been scripted by a Yankees fan -- he hit .255 with just 18 stolen bases, and the stellar defense he played in left field for nine seasons with the Rays suddenly became mediocre at best. He’s an enigma entering his second season in Boston, and that season will start late due to offseason wrist surgery. Perhaps the delayed start will help him fly under the radar, because the Red Sox need Crawford to be the player who tormented them for so long when he was an opponent.
9. David Ortiz
Perhaps this is too high in the order for a designated hitter who turned 36 in November. But Ortiz is still an extremely productive hitter -- he finished ‘11 with 29 homers, 96 RBIs, and a .953 OPS. And with there being more questions in the Red Sox’ traditionally potent lineup this year than in previous springs, it’s imperative that Big Papi remains a force in the middle of the order.
10. Daniel Bard
After three seasons as the Red Sox’ hard-throwing, highly effective setup man, Bard will slide into a new role this spring. No, not as the replacement for Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth inning, but as a starter. While logic suggests getting 180 innings as a starter from a pitcher of Bard’s ability is wiser than getting 70 or so innings in relief, there is some risk involved. Some analysts feel his repertoire won’t translate as well to starting. But it’s smart for the Red Sox find out, because he does throw smoke, and there’s also the possibility he could blossom in the No. 4 spot in the rotation.
11. Andrew Bailey
It will take a closer of competence and confidence to replace Jonathan Papelbon, who despite the ugly final inning excelled in Boston for six-plus seasons. But Bailey, acquired from Oakland in December, should be up to the task provided he remains healthy. The 2009 AL Rookie of the Year has a 2.07 ERA and 75 saves in his three seasons, and his third-most similar pitcher through age 27 is Papelbon.
12. Alfredo Aceves
Signed as a free agent by the Red Sox last February after he was discarded by the Yankees, the rubber-armed righthander proved to be the glue of the pitching staff, throwing 114 innings in 55 games (four starts) with a 2.61 ERA. He was particularly essential for his ability to throw more than one high-leverage inning at a time, and though he’ll likely get a shot at the rotation in Fort Myers, it’s hard to see how he can be replaced in the bullpen.
13. Mark Melancon
Acquired from the Astros in a December deal that sent Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland to Houston, the former Yankee will slide into the chief righthanded setup role vacated by Bard’s move to the rotation. While Melancon’s stuff isn’t electric -- he depends upon a slider more than anything else -- his results last season with Astros were excellent (2.78 ERA, 20 saves) and he is said to have off-the-charts makeup.
14. Jarrod Saltalamacchia
The 27-year-old catcher showed signs of fulfilling the promise that once made him one of baseball’s top catching prospects, smacking 16 home runs, slugging .450, and throwing out 31 percent of basestealers. But he also had his lows -- a .288 on-base percentage, a 24/119 BB/K ratio, and a .162 batting average in September. Further improvement is required in ‘12 if he is going to be the Red Sox’ catcher beyond this season.
15. Mike Aviles
The 31-year-old former Royal could be a real sleeper for the Red Sox this year, provided he can handle the rigors of shortstop on close to an everyday basis. He’s a career .288 hitter, once hit 17 home runs in a season, and has an .814 career OPS against lefthanded pitching. If he can stay healthy, perhaps he’s capable of matching and even surpassing the departed Scutaro’s production.
16. Cody Ross
His effervescent personality will make the 2010 NLCS Most Valuable Player a fan-favorite at Fenway, provided he produces against lefthanded pitching the way he has for most of his career (.912 OPS, 46 homers in 759 plate appearances).
17. Franklin Morales
Once one of the game’s best pitching prospects, the 26-year-old enters spring training as the top lefthander in the bullpen. Morales’s command was improved after coming to Boston from Colorado last May, trimming nearly two walks off his BB/9 ratio, and he has the power stuff to succeed in the role.
18. Nick Punto
The 34-year-old utilityman is coming off a strong season for the champion Cardinals, having posted an .809 OPS in 166 plate-appearances. It may be too much to expect him to replicate his success at the plate -- he’s a lifetime .249 hitter in 11 seasons. Punto is a fine defender at second base and third base, but it’s hard to imagine the Red Sox are serious about giving him significant playing time at shortstop.
19. Ryan Sweeney
A gifted defender who came over from the A’s in the Andrew Bailey/Josh Reddick deal, Sweeney looks the part of a productive corner outfielder -- he’s 6-feet-4-inches, 220-pounds, and has a classic lefthanded swing. But the power potential hasn’t translated to the majors yet -- in parts of six seasons, he’s a .283 hitter, but with just 14 homers in 1,681 plate appearances. At worst, he’s a capable fourth outfielder.
20. Kelly Shoppach
The veteran catcher returns to the organization that drafted him in the second round of the 2001 draft, and it’s in a role he should capably fill: a righthanded-hitting backup to Jarrod Saltalamacchia who can hit the occasional home run (he had 11 last year in 221 at-bats) and throw out more than the occasional base-stealer (a league-best 41 percent last year).
21. Andrew Miller
The lanky lefty showed flashes of the ability that made him the sixth pick in the 2006 draft, ahead of the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, and his North Carolina and Red Sox teammate, Daniel Bard. But the final numbers -- 5.54 ERA, 121 baserunners allowed in 65 innings -- are telling. At age 26, he’s still a work in progress and little more than a candidate for the fifth spot in the rotation.
22. Bobby Jenks
Signed to a two-year, $12 million contract before last season after piling up 173 saves in five-plus seasons with the White Sox, the burly fireballer’s first season in Boston was plagued by injury and ineffectiveness (6.32 ERA in 19 appearances). He’s a bit of a forgotten man entering spring training, but with good health he could become a key contributor in front of Melancon and Bailey.
23. Matt Albers
The 29-year-old righthander trailed only Aceves and Bard in relief innings among Red Sox pitchers last year, which may be one reason why he faltered late (2.55 ERA in the first half, an abysmal 7.36 in the second half). At the least, he is a capable veteran arm in the middle innings.
24. Jose Iglesias
The 22-year-old shortstop’s glove is major-league ready, but his offense is still a work in progress. He had just 10 extra-base hits and a .554 OPS at Pawtucket last year. He needs more time in Triple A, but if his bat progresses to the point where he can be adequate at the plate, he could play a meaningful role in the second half.
25. Vicente Padilla
The Red Sox enter spring training with a vacancy in the starting rotation. The 34-year-old Padilla, a winner of at least 12 games five times in his 13-year career, has the best stuff and track record of a group of low-risk candidates that includes Aaron Cook and Carlos Silva.