After blowing a nine-game lead last September and losing the wild-card spot on the final day of the season, there were plenty of changes in Boston this off-season. With the revelation that several prominent pitchers were drinking beer and eating fried chicken in the locker room during games, and with the notion that then-Manager Terry Francona lost the clubhouse, upper management decided to part ways with the Manager that led them to two World Series titles the past 10 years.
The Red Sox decided to go from the laid-back Francona to the intense Bobby Valentine, who brings his outgoing personality and no-nonsense approach to Beantown. One of the first rules he implemented was banning alcohol in the clubhouse and making it mandatory for players to be on the bench during games. I think “Bobby V’s” approach and his theory on holding players accountable is what this veteran team needs to get back to where they were, which was a playoff team, year-in and year-out.
The Red Sox had no problem scoring runs last year, and did very little to change the line-up. The only notables who will not return are Marco Scutaro (trade to Colorado), and J.D. Drew and Jason Varitek, who are both retired. A line-up that features Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis, and Adrian Gonzalez will score plenty.
The key is Carl Crawford. After signing a $142 million contract, Crawford had a down year in Boston, and a “normal” Crawford season will make this team that much more potent. The question mark is shortstop, where the Sox will go with all-field, no-hit rookie shortstop Jose Iglesias. It is a curious move by the Red Sox, who have not had a reliable shortstop since Nomar Garciaparra. Scutaro was providing great numbers and was under contract for one more year. It will be interesting to see whom they turn to if Iglesias struggles with the bat, as backup Nick Punto does not provide confidence.
Pitching was the sore spot for Boston last year. Josh Beckett and Jon Lester had solid years, as did relievers Alfredo Aceves and former closer Jonathan Papelbon, but the rest of the staff was far from good. Daisuke Matsuzaka only started eight games then was lost for the year to injury, and will miss a good chunk of 2012. John Lackey was terrible and will miss 2012 due to Tommy John surgery.
The injury that hurt the most to this team last year was to Clay Bucholtz, who, when not injured, is one of the premier pitchers in the American League. After being shutdown in June due to injury, the Sox hope he will be able to pitch a full season this year. Former reliever Daniel Bard will be promoted to the rotation. To compensate for losing Papelbon, the Sox traded for the often-injured and former All-Star A’s closer Andrew Bailey. When healthy, Bailey is great, but frequent trips to the disabled list have dogged him.
On paper, this Red Sox team has no excuses why they should miss the playoffs a third consecutive year, and I don’t think Manager Bobby Valentine will allow inconsistent play and unprofessionalism. The Red Sox should battle with the Yankees for the division title, and if their pitchers stay healthy and perform up to their standards, the Red Sox can start printing October playoff tickets at Fenway.