Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Monday, February 20, 2012

Red Sox Facing Series of Questions in 2012

Going into the 2012 season, the Red Sox have this trio. And then who?

For what it's worth, the new ‘Bill James Handbook’ does not project any Red Sox starter to reach 200 innings this season.

It's not a unrealistic projection.

Jon Lester is the only one among them that has fairly consistently pitched 200 innings over the last few years. Though he missed the mark last season, from 2008 to 2010 Lester eclipsed 200 innings and 30 starts. Last year he pitched just 191.2 innings, yet made 31 starts.

Josh Becket has reached 200 innings just once in the last four years. Additionally, Becket has made at least 30 starts just twice in the last four seasons, and never consecutively.

For his part, Clay Buchholz has never made 30 starts in any season and has an innings high of 173.2. Last year, Buchholz pitched just 82.2 innings.

Young pitchers are supposed to increase their innings incrementally over their first few seasons, working their way up to the 200 mark and beyond. In that regard, Buchholz has regressed. With that in mind, it's not easy to project the 27-year-old reaching 200 innings this season.

As a reliever during his three years in the majors, Daniel Bard has maxed out at 74.2 innings. Obviously, that's not even half way to 200. Of greatest concern, Bard has shown signs of fatigue down the stretch, with his walk rate increasingly as much as 400 percent in August and September the last two seasons.

With this in mind, it's hard to believe the Red Sox will enter this season with Bard slated as the No. 4 starter. And who knows who will be No. 5?

The Sox have a whole series of reclamation projects competing for that final spot. However, Aaron Cook, Carlos Silva, Vicente Padilla, John Maine and Ross Ohlendorf all flamed out in the NL. And now one or two of them is expected to recover and succeed in the AL East? That just seems more absurd than dicey.

That group also represents the depth the Red Sox will surely need when an injury ultimately occurs to one of the initial five starters.

Lefthanders Felix Doubront and Andrew Miller are both out of options. The Sox will give both of them a shot at winning that last slot in the rotation. The odd man out could then vie for a spot in the bullpen.

That bullpen will be without Jonathan Papelbon, one of the best closers in the game over the last six seasons. And it seemingly has lost Bard as well, assuming his successful transition to the rotation.

In their places are new closer Andrew Bailey and setup man Mark Melancon. The Sox will also rely on the returning Alfredo Aceves, Matt Albers and Franklin Morales. The seven-man pen will be rounded out by some combination of Bobby Jenks (whenever he is healthy and ready), Clayton Mortensen, Michael Bowden, Doubront and/or Miller.

On paper, at least, the bullpen should be young, strong and effective.

Clearly, though, the offense will once again be the Red Sox' primary strength.

It's a fair bet that the Sox will see more offense from catcher this season, particularly if Ryan Lavarnway wins a spot at some point.

After his first full season in the Majors last year, Jarrod Saltalamacchia should be buoyed by greater confidence and stamina this season, resulting in a better performance. And Kelly Shoppach should give the Sox at least as much offense as Jason Varitek provided last year (11 HR, 36 RBI, .221/.300/.423).

The Sox can likely expect equal levels of potent offense from Adrian Gonzalez and Dustin Pedroia at first and second, respectively.

Shortstop remains a mystery. Mike Aviles can hit, but will he play regularly enough for it to matter? His defense will be the key. Nick Punto should be Aviles' backup and a solid utility man.

Shortstop is a position where preventing runs may be even more important than creating them with one's bat. Though Bobby Valentine says he is looking for complete players at every position, which is a good thing, neither Punto nor Aviles can match Jose Iglesias' defensive wizardry.

That said, Iglesias batted just .235 with a .285 OBP in 101 games at Pawtucket last season. If he fared that poorly against Triple-A pitching, he'll be overwhelmed by big league pitchers. It's fair to say a big league hitter must have an OBP of at least .300 to warrant a roster spot, no matter how good he is defensively.

Iglesias has fewer than 700 minor league at-bats and should have at least 1,000 in preparation for the majors. He could be ready by mid-season. Even if he can't hit, he at least needs to work on pitch recognition and the ability to draw walks.

It's a good bet that after he recovers from wrist surgery, Carl Crawford will rebound this season, resuming his career norms offensively.

It's also reasonable to figure that Jacoby Ellsbury will regress slightly. The center fielder was playing out of his head last year, putting up numbers that stunned all of baseball. That kind of MVP-like production came out of nowhere and may not be matched again this year.

It seems reasonable to assume that the Sox will get more production from the platoon of Ryan Sweeney and Cody Ross in right field. JD Drew was like a black hole in the order last season, batting .222/.315/.302, It won't take much to improve upon that.

The key for the Sox offense may be a healthy Kevin Youkilis. Over the last three seasons, Youkilis played in 358 games; J.D Drew played in 357. That's amazing, given Drew's reputation for being delicate and often out of action.

Lastly, the Sox need David Ortiz to start and finish strong, as he did last year. The presence of Gonzalez seems to have really helped him. Observing Gonzo's approach at the plate brought out the best in Ortiz and seemed to revive him last season.

It appears that this Red Sox team will need to catch lightning in a bottle with its rotation. And it will also rely on its entire roster staying healthy. In short, the Sox will need a lot of luck just to make the playoffs, much less advance.

The Yankees, Angels, Tigers and even Rangers all got better this offseason, and all of them may be better than the Red Sox in 2012.

At this point, the Red Sox have questions at shortstop, in right field and in the bullpen. But, above all, the biggest questions are in the starting rotation. There are just three known starters at the moment, yet doubts exist even about them.

As with most teams, the Red Sox season will be determined by their starting rotation — the same group facing so much uncertainty right now.

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