“Is this a playoff team? Probably not.” -- Boston Globe Red Sox preview section, March 31, 2013
It might seem silly now - 97 wins and an American League pennant later - but many of the preseason projections, by both the Globe and other media outlets, for this Red Sox team revolved around whether they would finish in last place for a second straight season, not whether they would reach the World Series.
Foreseeing the Red Sox as also-rans back in spring training was just one of several areas where we swung and missed. A look back at where the focus was in the spring:
Worry: Would David Ortiz ever return to form from his Achilles’ heel injury?
Ortiz sat out much of spring training with lingering effects from an Achilles’ heel injury suffered the previous July. As the spring moved on and Ortiz continued to sit on the sidelines, questions grew if he would be able to validate the new two-year contract the Red Sox bestowed upon him at age 37.
Why it wasn’t an issue: Ortiz didn’t make his season debut until April 20, but made a giant impact once he returned. He belted 30 home runs and registered 103 RBIs (reaching the 30 HR/100 RBI plateau for the first time since 2010), batted .309 and had an OPS of .959. Ortiz also became just the seventh player in MLB history aged 37 or older to bat .300, hit 30 home runs and drive in 100 in one season.
Worry: Can Joel Hanrahan handle the pressure of closing in Boston?
On paper, the Red Sox seemed to have good depth at the back of their bullpen after acquiring Hanrahan, the ex-Pirates closer, who was to be set up by Andrew Bailey, the former A’s All-Star closer. But those plans quickly went awry. Hanrahan got off to a shaky start (9.82 ERA, four home runs, six walks, 10 hits allowed in just 7⅓ innings) before discovering an elbow injury that would shut him down for the year.
The Red Sox moved on to Bailey as the backup plan, only to have him also go down for the year with a shoulder injury.
Why it wasn’t an issue: The Red Sox cautiously turned to Koji Uehara - who had just 14 career saves - as the closer in early July. Uehara then went on one of the most remarkable runs for a reliever in MLB history. Between July 9 and Sept. 17, Uehara retired 37 straight batters -- four shy of the MLB record. In the process, he helped the Red Sox solidify their hold on the AL East and increase their division lead from 3.5 games to 9.
Worry: ‘The offense could struggle to score runs’
That was the exact phrase we used to describe the Red Sox’ new-look lineup in our season preview. Several new additions had question marks, such as Shane Victorino (coming off his worst-ever season) and Mike Napoli (a hip injury caused a $34 million reduction in the deal he originally agreed to with the Red Sox). The absence of Ortiz from spring training activities also made many wonder how much of a factor he’d be in the offense.
Why it wasn’t an issue: The offense jelled in a way that few could have expected. The Red Sox scored an MLB-best 853 runs and had an MLB-best OPS of .795. Those spring training question marks turned into everyday anchors in the league’s best offense, with Napoli (23 home runs, 92 RBIs) and Victorino (82 runs scored, 15 home runs) complementing strong seasons from Sox stalwarts such as Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury.
Worry: The starting rotation remains a question mark
Jon Lester was coming off of a career-worst season. Clay Buchholz had yet to prove he could be counted on as a front-of-the-rotation stalwart. John Lackey hadn’t pitched a game in more than a year. And free-agent addition Ryan Dempster was coming off a finish to the 2012 season where he had been shellacked after pitching in the American League for the first time.
There was no reason for panic, but there was little concrete evidence that the Red Sox had a rotation that would lead them to the playoffs.
Why it wasn’t an issue: The rotation was a pleasant surprise that became one of the steadying forces of the AL champions. Lester went 15-8 and looked like an ace. Lackey pitched better than his 10-13 record (with a 3.52 ERA) suggested. Buchholz, though he missed almost three months to injury, went 12-1 and looked, when healthy, like one of the best starters in MLB. And the rotation improved over the course of the season thanks to a July trade for ex-NL Cy Young winner Jake Peavy, who would go 4-1 down the stretch for the Red Sox.
Worry: Should Jackie Bradley Jr. start the year in the minors?
A big debate in spring training revolved around whether the Red Sox should hold Bradley in the minors at the start of the season (thereby delaying his opportunity to reach free agency six years down the road) or try to capitalize on the jolt he was giving the team by putting him on the Opening Day roster. Bradley had an impressive spring in the field, at the plate and on the bases, and his inclusion on the roster seemed to add to the idea of the Red Sox turning the page from their disastrous 2011 and 2012 seasons.
Why it wasn’t an issue: Bradley made the Opening Day roster (and even starred in the opening win over the Yankees), but soon fell into a slump that led to his demotion back to the minors. He spent most of the season in the minors, so he never even earned the necessary time toward free agency that caused such debate during the spring.
Can Shane Victorino still play?
That was the question posed by Dan Shaughnessy after Victorino arrived in camp with a $39 million contract despite coming off a season in which his production seemed to regress. Victorino, whose free-agent contract was called one of the “worst” of the offseason by ESPN analyst Keith Law, had a bad spring training, which lessened expectations on him.
Why it wasn’t an issue: Victorino turned into a sparkplug for the Red Sox offensively and defensively. He hit .294 with a .351 OBP and an OPS of .801, and smacked 26 doubles and 15 home runs, which seemed to indicate his down season in 2012 wasn’t the start of a late-career slide.
Is Koji Uehara durable enough to be an effective setup man?
The Red Sox hoped for Uehara to be a key contributor to their bullpen. Yet at age 38, there was concern about how much he could be used. Uehara appeared in just 37 games in 2012 with Texas.
Why it wasn’t an issue: Uehara was in fact the durable setup man the Red Sox wanted in the first half of the season. And as Hanrahan and Bailey went down and Uehara steadily climbed rungs on the bullpen depth chart, his effectiveness and importance to the team only grew. Uehara appeared in a career high 73 games, with a sterling strikeout-to-walk ratio of 101-to-9.
Worry: Would the Red Sox finish in last place for second straight year?
In spring training, the expectations were muted. The Red Sox admitted they wanted to start off by winning back fans’ support that had waned in the previous two seasons. (Ownership even offered reduced concessions prices at April games.) The glory days of competing for the World Series every year appeared to be on hiatus. Rare was the playoff prediction that included the Red Sox in the field. Dan Shaughnessy asked if the Red Sox and Yankees would actually be fighting to avoid last place in the AL East this season.
Why it wasn’t an issue: The Red Sox started fast (20 wins in first 28 games) and never really looked back. They spent the vast majority of the season in first place, and never fell more than three games off the pace in the AL East before completing a worst-to-first turnaround.