FORT MYERS, Fla. — The air is warm and fresh. Everybody is in a good mood. Players in the clubhouse are especially relaxed. No one is looking for snitches or rolling their eyes at the mention of the new manager.
There were not a lot of fans for the first week of Red Sox workouts. We witnessed none of the Beatlemania of 2005. The Red Sox were not visited by many members of the national media. No sign of the ESPN bus. Sox workouts were not featured on live television. There was no daily presence from members of the New York newspapers.
This must be what it feels like covering the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton every spring.
The 2013 Red Sox have reinvented themselves. Surly, entitled ballplayers have been replaced by stand-up guys. Churl has yielded to character. Larry Lucchino actually said the $170 million Red Sox are a team of “scrappy underdogs.’’
Swell, just swell. Hope springs eternal and all that.
But here’s the reality, people: The 2013 Red Sox might be really bad. Worse, they might be really boring. Anybody talking about baseball in your neighborhood these days?
Two weeks and too many hours in the Sox clubhouse left me with a couple of impressions.
The Sox are a lot more likeable. Jonny Gomes really is the latter-day Kevin Millar. Stephen Drew has the manners of a West Point cadet. We were able to coax a smile out of Jon Lester, and Jacoby Ellsbury seems to understand the amusement we have with a player who is marking his final days at Fenway like some guy in Shawshank scratching lines on the wall of his cell.
But with one (spring training) game down and seven months to go, it’s apparent that the Sox have more questions than any other team in the American League East. It is difficult to pick them anywhere but last.
They will not be as bad as last year. This isn’t going to be a Pinky Higgins renaissance. The Sox have actual major league players this year, not the Pedro Ciriaco All-Stars who made out the lineup in the final days of the Bobby Valentine train wreck of 2012.
If, in fact, things go perfectly, the Red Sox actually could contend for a playoff spot. This is 2013, and five out of 15 make it in each league and it’s almost impossible to play yourself out of contention before August. The moribund Houston Astros have joined the American League. In this spirit, an optimist can make a case for the Red Sox.
I am going the other way this morning.
Where is there any evidence that the Red Sox have improved their starting pitching? It’s the starters who have killed the last two campaigns (starting with September of 2011 and running through all of last season).
Lester is supposed to be the ace, but he is coming back from a 9-14 season in which he gave up more hits than he had innings pitched. Next up is Clay Buchholz, who always looks good but gets hurt a lot; he strained a hamstring in the very first workout of 2013. Local pariah John Lackey is the third starter and made it to the mound Saturday for the first time since the end of 2011 when he was, statistically, the worst Red Sox starting pitcher of the last half-century.
Then comes veteran Ryan Dempster, who was cannon fodder when he moved to the American League last year. Finally, there is Felix Doubront, who is 25 years old and has managed to arrive in camp woefully out of shape in two of the last three seasons.
If any of these guys gets hurt (very likely) or don’t work out, the Sox turn to . . . Franklin Morales? . . . the maniacal Alfredo Aceves?
The bullpen looks strong. Let’s give Ben Cherington some props on the relief corps. Joel Hanrahan looks like a real closer and the Sox were smart to cut their losses with Mark “Schiraldi Eyes” Melancon.
Behind the plate, the Sox have depth, but not enough prime-time quality. There is a connection between the ineffectiveness of Sox starters and the insertion of Jarrod Saltalamacchia into the starting catching role in 2011. Salty has good power, but there is a big hole in his swing (.222 with 139 strikeouts last year). David Ross looks like a solid backup who’ll get plenty of playing time.
The first base situation is alarming. Mike Napoli is an old 31, hit .227 last year, has played only 133 games at the position, and has a degenerative hip disease. Don’t be surprised to see Lyle Overbay as an alternative.
We know the Sox are set at second base (Dustin Pedroia) and third base (Will Middlebrooks), but I worry that Middlebrooks will be asked to do too much to protect David Ortiz. It might be too much for a kid with only a half-year of big league at-bats.
Drew is in his walk year and should be OK at short. But he hit .223 last year.
The outfield looks like Gomes in left, Ellsbury in center, and Shane Victorino in right. Not exactly Rice, Lynn, and Evans, is it? Gomes is a winner but is best deployed as a platoon player. Ellsbury’s power numbers were way off last year. Victorino looks like a guy whose best days are behind him. Better hope he’s not Kevin Stevens or Joseph Addai.
Finally, it’s tough to feel good about Ortiz. He turns 38 this year, and is coming off an Achilles’ tendon injury — an injury he sustained running the bases in front of an Adrian Gonzalez home run last July. Ortiz doesn’t have contract incentive (he finally got his two-year deal, a lifetime achievement award from the Sox), and he is concerned that the Sox did little to find him lineup protection.
Sorry. The juice glass is half-empty today. These guys could be really bad. And really boring. “Scrappy” doesn’t sell in Boston in 2013. Not after everything that’s happened. For $170 million, a little more prime-time talent would have been nice.