FORT MYERS, Fla. — Are the Red Sox any good this year?
That’s what fans want to know. The Sox open the season in Philadelphia in less than a week, and there’s abundant interest in the hometown team’s prospects for 2015.
The Sox have spent money, and a lot of experts have fallen in love with them, but nobody really knows anything about what’s going to happen to the Red Sox in 2015.
They have beefed up the lineup, for sure. In spots 1-6, the Sox have what looks like a formidable batting order. Mookie Betts has emerged as a legitimate leadoff man and will be followed by Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez (“He hits the ball as hard as anyone I’ve seen,’’ said Sox manager John Farrell), Pablo Sandoval, and Mike Napoli. Strong.
The Sox have a phenom at the top. They have power from both sides of the plate. If these guys stay healthy, they are not going to be the Salami-Bat Nine they were in 2014.
However, the Sox are going to open with their starting catcher possibly lost for the season, a 40-year-old closer on the disabled list, and an Average White Band of starting pitchers who represent a “we are smarter than everybody else” ownership/front office notion that an ace is a thing of the past.
The Sox aren’t going to waste money on the Jon Lesters, Max Scherzers, and Cole Hamelses of the world anymore. A conga line of five Joe Kellys and Wade Mileys will do just fine, thank you very much.
It’s an analytical element that will be in everybody’s face when the season opens Monday in Philadelphia as the Sox face Hamels and counter with Clay Buchholz, an oft-injured righthander hoping to bounce back from one of the worst seasons (8-11, 5.34) in franchise history.
The Sox insist that last year means nothing. And they want to remind you for the millionth time that they went from worst to first in 2013.
“Worst to first” would not seem to be a winning formula for most professional sports entities, but the Sox have a lot of believers. Vegas wise guys (86.5 wins for the Sox) and professional prognosticators are largely on board with the 2015 Boston bid, and Sox/Globe owner John Henry told us Feb. 24 that the franchise has “never been better’’ — a staggering claim for a franchise that in the last three-plus seasons has perpetrated the biggest collapse in baseball history (September 2011), finished in last place twice (2012, 2014), and played an aggregate 25 games under .500 (244-269) over a stretch of 513 games.
“I like our team,’’ Farrell said. “I think we’ve got some short-term questions that we talk about a lot. We’re not a perfect team, but I like our team.’’
Farrell is all about pitching. He was a big league pitcher and a big league pitching coach. If he is not on board with the Sox’ stubborn assessment that they do not need an ace, he is certainly doing a good job parroting the company line.
“I think our rotation is going to pitch well,’’ he said. “They work quick and I’m a big fan of that. I don’t know that anything I’ve seen is a real surprise.
“Our goal is to make sure that we have five guys healthy, and except for one situation that we are bringing along [Kelly’s tight biceps], we have five guys that have big league track records. They are known commodities and have dependability, and we can work from that.’’
Normally, Farrell might be considered a man on the hot seat. His team has finished above .500 in only one of his four seasons. He has finished last twice and next-to-last once. But he goes into the season with a new contract extension and a full vote of confidence from his owner and GM.
Desperate for an answer, I went to Dustin Pedroia, the de facto captain of the team, a guy who has seen two Duck Boat parades and two last-place finishes.
Q: Are the Red Sox going to be any good this year?
Pedroia: What are you talking about?
Q: You finished in last place last year; do you feel good?
Pedroia: Yes. You feel good about your team every year. It’s just the teams that stay healthy and play good — the most consistent teams — those are the teams that are going to be there in the end and that’s what we’re trying to do. Be consistent.
Q: How do you feel about the lineup?
Pedroia: It looks great. We’ve got a lot of really good offensive players, but we’ve got to play together. Runner on second, nobody out, we’ve got to get him over. You’ve got to play team baseball offensively. That’s what leads to a lot of runs and wins.
Q: What about this idea of not having an ace?
Pedroia: You guys think that. Our thought is that multiple guys can step up and be an ace. So we have two or three of them, but don’t have them come out and try to do things they’re not capable of doing. Just be consistent and attack the zone. We have ground-ball pitchers and our guys like to work fast and we haven’t had that the last few years, so it should be good.
Q: Any predictions?
Pedroia: No. I don’t have a crystal ball.
OK, here’s a prediction: The Red Sox will improve from last year, but they will not finish first. They have a good shot at a wild card, but too much of the optimism about this team is owed to the abject mediocrity of the American League East.
Fans are going to enjoy the fortified lineup and a raft of starters who work quickly, but it’s never good to lose your catcher and open the season with your closer on the DL.
In the immortal words of Joe Morgan on the day he was fired in 1991, “These guys aren’t as good as everybody thinks they are.’’