For the first time since John Henry’s purchase of the team in 2002, the Red Sox have plunged into mediocrity.
The team hasn’t won a playoff game since 2008 and has failed to make the postseason for two consecutive seasons, the first time that has happened under this ownership group.
Theo Epstein, who built an organization that was once the envy of baseball, fled to Chicago to run the Cubs just two weeks after Terry Francona was booted as manager. Team icons Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield grudgingly retired after being offered only minor league deals and closer Jonathan Papelbon left via free agency without any counter offer being made.
The coming season will be one of transition. Team president Larry Lucchino engineered the hiring of Bobby Valentine as manager after new general manager Ben Cherington initially assembled a field of low-wattage candidates. Valentine’s enthusiasm leant a hopeful note to spring training, but couldn’t mask the team’s lack of pitching depth, both in the rotation and in the bullpen.
Like their dysfunctional predecessors of the 1980s and ‘90s, the Red Sox will have a fearsome offensive team that could tread water in the division because of poor pitching. To compete with the Yankees and Rays, the Red Sox need Clay Buchholz to reach his potential as a starter and for Daniel Bard to make a successful conversion to the rotation.
The Red Sox were on pace for 99 wins before last September’s collapse. They remain capable of such heights or could find themselves fighting to stay out of fourth place. You can make a case — and a good one — that the Sox are no better than the sixth-best team in the American League because of their pitching woes.
The Red Sox have been in decline since roaring to the 2007 World Series title, so all the change could prove beneficial. If Valentine and Cherington can work together, the slide can be stopped. But last season’s wild expectations have been replaced by the modest notion that simply making the playoffs would be a step forward.
CF Jacoby Ellsbury
Fast fact: Ellsbury needs 25 stolen bases to join Harry Hooper (300) and Tris Speaker (267) as the only Red Sox players with 200. Hooper played with the Red Sox from 1909-20 and Speaker played with the Red Sox from 1907-15.
Lowdown: Ellsbury had an historic season in 2011, hitting .321 with 83 extra-base hits, 105 RBIs, 119 runs and 39 steals. That will be hard to match, but résumé building will continue two seasons ahead of free agency.
Bobby V’s view: ‘’The numbers speak for themselves. I don’t know how you get those numbers. It’s an amazing body of work how he filled up all the columns.’’
2B Dustin Pedroia
Fast fact: Pedroia has hit cleanup 31 times in his career, batting .397 with seven home runs and 28 RBIs.
Lowdown: At 28, he’s in his prime and fully healthy after playing all season with a screw holding his left foot together. A favorite of Terry Francona’s, Pedroia’s relationship with Valentine bears watching. But expect an MVP run. Pedroia was personally offended by the events of last season and will want to carry the team.
Bobby V’s view: ‘’His ability is so good, his attitude is so consistently proper for baseball competition. I love that stuff.’’
1B Adrian Gonzalez
Fast fact: Gonzalez had only 10 home runs after the All-Star break last season and his slugging percentage dipped from .591 to .489. Being less than a year removed from shoulder surgery contributed to that. He’s 100 percent now.
Lowdown: A bargain last season at $6.3 million, Gonzalez will get $21 million this year with his new deal. That may prove a deal given his prowess at the plate and in the field.
Bobby V’s view: ‘’Adrian is one of the most consistent hitters in the game. I’ve liked everything that I’ve seen from him. A great player.’’
DH David Ortiz
Fast fact: Ortiz has the most home runs (333) and RBIs (1,094) by a designated hitter in history.
Lowdown: As other teams spread around their DH at-bats, the Red Sox forked over $14.575 million to stick with the slugger prototype. Ortiz is a good fit in this lineup, in this clubhouse and in this city. At 36, the end is coming but Ortiz remains a hitter the opposition fears and teammates cherish.
Bobby V’s view: ‘’I’ve seen his individual talents and he’s a game-changer. There are 30 teams that would want David Ortiz in the lineup.’’
3B Kevin Youkilis
Fast fact: Youkilis has a .933 OPS over the last four years. Only four players in the majors are higher: Albert Pujols (1.032), Miguel Cabrera (.974), Joey Votto (.957) and Prince Fielder (.936).
Lowdown: Youkilis was an impediment defensively last season because of injuries. This year will determine whether he can move forward as a third baseman, which in turn will affect whether the team picks up its $13 million option on him. He remains a force at the plate.
Bobby V’s view: ‘’It looks to me like Kevin is moving around a lot better than he did last season.’’
RF Ryan Sweeney
Fast fact: Sweeney has not made an error since Aug. 17, 2009, a stretch of 209 games.
Lowdown: Sweeney has a career .342 on-base percentage and is a terrific defensive right fielder. No wonder the Sox were willing to take him off Oakland’s hands. Fenway Park could help increase his mysteriously missing power, too. His ceiling may be as a platoon player with Cody Ross in right field once Carl Crawford returns to the lineup.
Bobby V’s view: ‘’Watching him, I don’t think he knows himself as well as he should, especially as a hitter.’’
LF Cody Ross
Fast fact: Ross has a career .563 slugging percentage against lefthanders, the seventh-highest mark in the majors since the start of the 2003 season.
Lowdown: A postseason hero for the Giants in 2010, Ross had a down season in 2011 and the Sox picked him up for $3 million. His righthanded power should play nicely at Fenway Park. He also is a good clubhouse presence, a needed quality.
Bobby V’s view: ‘’I really like what I’ve seen so far. That loft power can help us.’’
C Jarrod Saltalamacchia
Fast fact: Saltalamacchia threw out 31 percent of base stealers last season (37 of 83), the sixth-highest percentage in baseball.
Lowdown: Last season marked the first time Saltalamacchia spent a full year in the majors. That experience should serve him well, both as a catcher and as a hitter. A switch-hitter who is better lefthanded, Saltalamacchia is capable of 25 home runs and 80 RBIs. With Jason Varitek retired, Saltalamacchia also wants to become more of a leader.
Bobby V’s view: ‘’Salty is bigger and stronger than I realized he was. He has a real presence.’’
SS Mike Aviles
Fast fact: Aviles is a career .299 hitter against lefthanders with an .814 OPS. His righthanded power could be an important piece of the puzzle.
Lowdown: Valentine has made a career out of getting production from scrappy players previously overlooked. He and Aviles should get along famously. Aviles will likely start the season at shortstop until Jose Iglesias is deemed ready. Then look for him at second, third and even right field.
Bobby V’s view: ‘’Offensively he looks very aggressive as advertised and can hit the ball to all parts of the field with authority.’’
OFF THE BENCH
C Kelly Shoppach
Fast fact: A second-round draft choice of the Sox in 2001, Shoppach was in the organization until Jan. 27, 2006, when he was traded to Cleveland as part of the Coco Crisp deal.
Lowdown: A poor hitter for three years in a row now, Shoppach may be a placeholder until Ryan Lavarnway is ready to come up for good. Until then, he will be asked to provide good defense behind the plate while subbing for Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
Bobby V’s view: ‘’Salty is our regular catcher. But Kelly can be of great value. He knows the game and how to handle things.’’
OF Darnell McDonald
Fast fact: After hitting .195 for five months, McDonald hit .382 in September and finished the year with a seven-game hitting streak.
Lowdown: The Red Sox had ample reason to move on from McDonald last season and never did. A good spring training helped his cause and impressed Valentine. McDonald hits lefties, can bunt and run a little and plays acceptable defense. But once Carl Crawford returns, is there room for him?
Bobby V’s view: ‘’What I saw I liked, what I heard from last year, I didn’t like. I’m trying to figure out what he is with this team.’’
INF Nick Punto
Fast fact: Punto has been to the playoffs with the Twins (’06, ‘09, ‘10) and Cardinals (’11) and played in 21 postseason games.
Lowdown: The Red Sox signed Punto to a two-year deal in December, a sign of how much GM Ben Cherington felt the roster needed a versatile player with the added benefit of character. Punto, if he can stay healthy, is a solid enough backup infielder. He helped the Cardinals win the Series last fall.
Bobby V’s view: ‘’He’s going to play all the infield positions. He can make all the plays, too.’’
LH Jon Lester
Fast fact: Lester has 894 career strikeouts, second among lefthanders in team history to Bruce Hurst, who had 1,043 from 1980-88.
Lowdown: For the second straight year, he is the choice for Opening Day. Lester faltered badly last September (along with most every other pitcher), but otherwise performed to the level that has come to be expected. The Red Sox badly need him to be an ace if they are to contend.
Bobby V’s view: ‘’I’ve watched him, I’ve seen his health and his stuff. He’s one of the best in the game.’’
RH Josh Beckett
Fast fact: Since the start of the 2006 season, Beckett has 84 victories. Only Justin Verlander of the Tigers (107) and CC Sabathia of the Yankees (96) have more.
Lowdown: Beckett hasn’t had two seasons in a row with an ERA under 4.00 since 2004-05 when he was with the Marlins. He was dominant for much of last season before an ankle sprain led to a poor final month. Given the Sox’ lack of depth, a good Beckett is vital to the team’s chances.
Bobby V’s view: ‘’He’s been exactly what I hoped he would be.’’
RH Clay Buchholz
Fast fact: Buchholz has gone 42 consecutive starts without allowing more than five or more earned runs, the longest such streak for a Red Sox starter since Roger Clemens went 53 games from 1985-87.
Lowdown: Simply put, he’s the key. If Buchholz stays healthy and pitches to his potential, the Red Sox will have a rotation that can compare with the Rays and Yankees. He’s talented enough to win a Cy Young.
Bobby V’s view: ‘’I think anybody who’s going to make more than 25 starts on this team as a starting pitcher is incredibly important and I’m counting on him to do that.’’
RH Daniel Bard
Fast fact: Bard has not started a game since 2007, his first year of professional baseball. He was 3-7 with a 7.08 earned run average and 2.05 WHIP in 22 starts. All 249 appearances since have been in relief.
Lowdown: It speaks to the team’s inability to develop or acquire decent starting pitchers that Bard could be being pulled out of the bullpen and tried as a starter. Based on spring training, it could go either way.
Bobby V’s view: ‘’Daniel is a smart pitcher. He needs to work on that changeup; we need to see that. I think we will.’’
LH Felix Doubront
Fast fact: Doubront is the first Latin American player signed during Theo Epstein’s tenure to make it to the major leagues. He was signed in 2004 out of Venezuela.
Lowdown: The lefty is out of minor league options and the organization’s fervent desire is for him to become a viable contributor after several years of halting development because of injuries. The ability is there, but is the passion? He’ll get every chance to succeed.
Bobby V’s view: ‘’We’re lucky to have Felix, he’s a very good pitcher. I think he’s going to help the team.’’
IN THE BULLPEN
RH Andrew Bailey
Fast fact: Bailey has faced 682 batters in his major league career and has yet to hit one with a pitch. His 157 games without a HBP is the second-longest streak in the American League. Cleveland’s Rafael Perez has gone 158 games.
Lowdown: Replacing Jonathan Papelbon will not be easy, but Bailey is an aggressive closer with good stuff. He’s ready for the challenge. Now can he stay healthy? That was an issue in Oakland.
Bobby V’s view: ‘’Andrew throws strikes and he has the right attitude. It was a good day when we traded for him.’’
RH Mark Melancon
Fast fact: Melancon has made 332 professional appearances without a start. A closer at the University of Arizona, he was drafted by the Yankees as a reliever and never tried anywhere else.
Lowdown: The Red Sox dealt Jed Lowrie and Kyle Weiland to Houston to get Melancon, a young power pitcher who worked as a closer (20 saves) last season. The hope is that makes him suited to being an effective setup man. The switch to the AL East will be a challenge.
Bobby V’s view: ‘’He needs to keep the ball down. When he does that, he can be very good.’’
RH Alfredo Aceves
Fast fact: Aceves is 24-3 in his career, the best winning percentage (.889) for any pitcher in major league history with at least 14 decisions. Aceves is 22-2 in 105 career relief appearances.
Lowdown: He is the center of a great debate. Aceves was dynamite as a reliever last season and probably should have gotten a chance to start more than four games. But his versatility makes him perhaps more valuable in the bullpen.
Bobby V’s view: ‘’This is a guy who knows how to pitch. He may be one of the best pitchers we have. But what is the best way to use him?’’
LH Franklin Morales
Fast fact: Morales had a 1.13 ERA and a 0.69 WHIP on the road with the Red Sox after being obtained from the Rockies in May. But his ERA was 6.06 and his WHIP 1.84 at Fenway Park.
Lowdown: Morales was found to have weakness in his shoulder early in camp, then was sent back to Boston to be checked for a heart condition that proved no concern. He was better than expected last season and could have a meaningful role.
Bobby V’s view: ‘’You want somebody who can get righties and lefties out and when he’s throwing 95, he certainly can do that.’’
RH Matt Albers
Fast fact: Albers had a 2.09 earned run average and held opponents to a .213 batting average from April 1 to July 31. From Aug. 1 to Sept. 30, Albers had a 9.97 ERA and opponents hit .315 against him.
Lowdown: Let go by the Orioles in 2010, Albers was effective last season until frequent use wore him out. His sinking fastball can end jams quickly, making him a good choice for the sixth or seventh inning. He earned another chance.
Bobby V’s view: ‘’They told me to forget about his body, this guy can pitch.’’
LH Andrew Miller
Fast fact: Miller had a 1.82 WHIP, the second highest among all American League pitchers with at least 60 innings.
Lowdown: For a team that relies heavily on statistics to make sound judgments, Miller makes little sense. He is all potential with no production to back that up. But lefties who throw hard always get a second chance. If Miller can find a way to repeat his delivery, he could be an effective reliever. But he’s never done that before.
Bobby V’s view: ‘’He does a lot of things you have to like. He can be unhittable at times.’’
RH Michael Bowden
Fast fact: Bowden has spent seven seasons in the minors and pitched for teams in Florida, Delaware, South Carolina, Maine, California and Rhode Island since being drafted out of high school in 2005.
Lowdown: Bowen developed a split-finger fastball over the winter, giving him a swing-and-miss pitch that could potentially make him a helpful pitcher in the late innings. Bowden has had short stints in each of the last four seasons. This season could be his last shot with the Sox.
Bobby V’s view: ‘’I’m impressed with Michael. He is opening some eyes.’’
RH Vicente Padilla
Fast fact: Padilla worked in relief nine times for the Dodgers last season, his most relief appearances since 2001.
Lowdown: He is one of the most despised players in baseball because of his willingness to throw at hitters. But Padilla has velocity and creativity on the mound, and is able to throw a fastball by a hitter then fool him with a 59-m.p.h. curveball. For the pitching-poor Red Sox, he is worth a gamble and could be a starter.
Bobby V’s view: ‘’He’s interesting. He does some things differently but he knows how to pitch and get people out.’’
ON THE MEND
OF Carl Crawford
Fast fact: Crawford leads all active players with 112 triples. But he was limited to seven last season, his fewest since his rookie year of 2002 when he had six in 63 games in 2002.
Lowdown: Surgery on his left wrist in January knocked Crawford out of action for much of the spring. His plans for a rebound season are on hold as a result. Valentine has been playing him up, part of an organizational goal to make Crawford more comfortable.
Bobby V’s view: ‘’Carl has worked hard and I think that work will pay off once he gets into playing games. His swing will come fast.’’
LH Rich Hill
Fast fact: Hill has pitched 12 innings over 15 games since joining the Red Sox in 2010 and has yet to allow a run.
Lowdown: The Red Sox thought they had finally found a situational lefty reliever until Hill tore a ligament in his elbow last June that required surgery. He has come back strong and could return to the roster in May or June.
Bobby V’s view: ‘’Until they’re ready to play, it’s hard for me to picture what kind of role somebody will have. But he has looked ahead of schedule to me.’’
RH Daisuke Matsuzaka
Fast fact: This is the final year of Matsuzaka’s celebrated six-year, $52 million deal. Throw in the $51 million posting fee and he has cost them $2.1 million per win so far.
Lowdown: Matsuzaka will be pitching for his future once he returns around midseason. Valentine, who managed six seasons in Japan, could be his salvation after three rocky seasons in a row. If he can return to form, Matsuzaka could be a big bonus in the second half.
Bobby V’s view: ‘’All the reports are good. But he still has a ways to go.”