|David Ortiz and the Red Sox have an uphill climb in 2013. (USATSI)|
The last 18 months or so could not have gone worse for the Red Sox. Their September 2011 collapse was followed by a last place finish in 2012, but the season wasn't a total loss. Boston shed more than $250 million in future payroll obligation thanks to their August blockbuster trade with the Dodgers, which sent their three highest-paid players (in terms of average annual value) to Los Angeles. GM Ben Cherington employed a much more measured approach this offseason by spreading the wealth around, opting to acquire a series of strong complementary players but not any real difference makers. Cherington also dismissed manager Bobby Valentine and replaced him with John Farrell, the former Blue Jays manager who served as the Red Sox's pitching coach from 2006-10.
1. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF
2. Dustin Pedroia, 2B
3. David Ortiz, DH
4. Mike Napoli, 1B
5. Shane Victorino, RF
6. Will Middlebrooks, 3B
7. Stephen Drew, SS
8. Jonny Gomes, LF
9. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C
Under-the-radar offseason transaction
The Red Sox traded four players for Hanrahan, but the best reliever they acquired this winter is Uehara. The 37-year-old right-hander signed for just $4.25 million after pitching to a 1.75 ERA with 43 strikeouts and just three walks in 36 innings for the Rangers last year. Sexy strikeout and walk rates are Uehara's calling card, as his career 7.97 K/BB ratio is the best in baseball history among pitchers who have thrown at least 200 innings. He can run into some homer problems, but otherwise Uehara is a dynamite setup reliever with a track record of missing bats and keeping runners off base. It's almost impossible to do better at that price.
Fantasy bounceback: Jon Lester
Clearly, something went wrong for Lester last year. His 9-14 record and 4.82 ERA were both career worsts, and his strikeout rate was his lowest in four years. But a quick look at the usual culprits -- velocity, walk rate and BABIP -- reveals no obvious cause. He was essentially the same pitcher. He just got hit much, much harder. It's kind of like what James Shields went through in 2010, when he imploded with a 5.18 ERA and 1.46 WHIP despite relatively normal strikeout and walk rates and his usual velocity. Turns out he wasn't locating properly within the strike zone. He made the adjustment and has been fine ever since. Whatever went wrong for Lester last year is similarly correctable. Perhaps John Farrell, who is back with the Red Sox as manager after serving as their pitching coach from 2006 to 2010, can get to the bottom of it. If he does, Lester's potential for high-end production makes him well worth a middle-round pick. -- Scott White [Red Sox fantasy preview]
After being a middle of the road unit last season, the Red Sox should have one of baseball's best bullpens in 2013 even if Bailey and Bard continue to battle injury and ineffectiveness, respectively. We discussed Uehara earlier, but fellow new addition Hanrahan is no slouch either. He's a two-time All Star who has gone 76-for-84 in save chances over the last two years. Tazawa was arguably the best reliever in the AL in the second half, pitching to a 172 ERA+ with 45 strikeouts and only five walks in 44 innings. Breslow held left-handed batters to an 83 OPS+ last year but Miller was even better, limiting them to a 36 OPS+ last season. Even if Aceves gets shipped out of town due to his attitude problems, the Sox still have Franklin Morales (115 ERA+ in 2012) and Clayton Mortensen (136 ERA+) to serve as depth. Bailey, Bard and Aceves aren't sure things at this point, but Boston has plenty of quality bullpen arms.
It's the same as last season: the starting rotation. Red Sox starters posted an 84 ERA+ last year, a bottom-five mark in the game. T he only addition they made this offseason was Dempster, who pitched to a 90 ERA+ in the AL after being traded to the Rangers last year. Lackey is coming back from Tommy John surgery and his 82 ERA+ from 2010-11 hardly inspires confidence. Lester has seem his ERA+ decline every year since 2008 while Buchholz struggles with consistency. Boston is banking on addition by subtraction -- Aaron Cook (77 ERA+ in 2012) and Daisuke Matsuzaka (53 ERA+) were cut loose -- to improve their rotation to a certain extent, but they're also looking for a bounceback from Lester and continued development from Doubront.
The best-case scenario for Boston is their first trip to the postseason since 2009. The financial (and managerial) fresh start leads to a more balanced team with a strong offense and dynamite bullpen while Lester, Buchholz and Lackey rebound and restore order to the team's rotation. Talent really isn't an issue for the Red Sox, it's getting that talent to live up to its potential.
A repeat for 2012? You can't do much worse than a last place finish, though I suppose Lester's performance could continue to decline while Pedroia, Lackey, Bailey, and others succumb to injury once again. Farrell was under some heat for running an undisciplined clubhouse in Toronto, an issue that reportedly popped up in Boston back in September 2011. Repeating last year would be about as bad as worst cases get.
Most likely scenario
The good news is the Red Sox have nowhere to go but up, I suppose. They added depth to their roster this winter and have plenty of financial flexibility, which at the very least should get them back on the track towards contention. I expect them to improve this summer but I just don't know how much. I could see anything from a second place finish to a fourth place finish. Anything higher or lower would be a bit of a surprise, at least to me.
Cherington made an effort to acquire strong makeup players like Gomes, Ross and Victorino this offseason to help correct what appeared to be a toxic clubhouse under Valentine. Whether those players can contribute enough in the wins column to bring the team back to respectability is another matter entirely. The Red Sox appeared to hit rock bottom several times in 2012, so 2013 will be the first step towards getting the franchise back to its previous status as a baseball powerhouse.
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