Talkin Sox with Dan

Where baseball fans gather for commonsensical, opinionated Red Sox banter.

Nine Focal Points in 2012

Alright, so I’m pretty GD excited. Opening Day (in the United States) is awesome. It’s a feeling that is tough to beat. The negativity around the Olde Towne Team is justified, but, as objective as I try to be, I can’t help but be all sorts of jacked up for baseball to be back in Boston.

And I’m not even going to have the privilege of watching a single live pitch when the Red Sox fire up the 2012 season this afternoon against the Tigers in the Motor City. Working gets in the way of day games from time to time.

Last night, I checked in with Josh Johnson, the Cardinals, and the Marlins new amusement park stadium–which actually looks really nice. Baseball is back, and this guy couldn’t be happier.

——–

Back to business. Andrew Bailey has a bum thumb. So does Josh Beckett, but he is apparently fine for now. Surgery is a distinct possibility at some point down the road, which is a miserable thought. Alfredo Aceves is the closer of the Boston Red Sox. And Vicente Padilla is somewhere, sweating. With the first pitch of the 2012 season just a handful of hours away, the Sox could certainly be in a better position, but hey, it could be worse.

Here are nine points of interest to monitor throughout the season:

Bobby Valentine’s Approval Rating-Valentine is going to piss some people off. He isn’t quite as abrasive as an Ozzie Guillen-type. He’s more like an intelligent gnat. He has a little Joe Maddon in him. But instead of just having a glass of red wine in his office after a game, Valentine will trick you into buying the bottle and pouring it for him. Curt Schilling was largely off base in his premature criticism of Valentine last week in an interview on WEEI. However, there were some grains of truth in what he had to say–you just had to look hard for them. Valentine should not try to reinvent the game during his tenure in Boston. I encourage him to place his own stamp on the Red Sox, make them his team. I’m all about that. With that said, no one wants Mike Aviles leading off a ballgame. Ever. Kevin Youkilis belongs in the fat part of the lineup. Don’t even flirt with the idea of putting him at the top. In the end, it’s important to judge Valentine by the number of ballgames he wins. Try to keep that in mind. The rest is just noise.

Carl Crawford‘s Ability to Hit the Glass-He needs to rebound. Let me rephrase. He NEEDS to rebound. I’m expecting to see CC back in action during the first week in May, and it is vital for Valentine to handle his return correctly. There are three acceptable spots in the batting order where Crawford fits: Lead off, the two-hole, or the nine-hole. Look, I’m all about the idea of a guy hitting in the latter half of the lineup until he “proves” he is ready for a prime spot in the order, but that’s not the way to get the most out of the speedy left fielder. He is most effective when he feels comfortable, and he feels comfortable hitting in a part of the lineup where his speed can be utilized. I believe Valentine will excel at getting the most out of his players. Daisuke Matsuzaka and Crawford are a couple of great candidates. It is the job of the Red Sox and Valentine to put Crawford in the best possible position to succeed. Crawford will be responsible with taking advantage of that opportunity.

Alex Wilson‘s Impending Promotion-Here is Wilson’s player page from the folks at Sox Prospects. Wilson isn’t going to dial it up at a Bard-like 98 MPH, but he throws hard enough and locates his pitches extremely well. Good teams are able to bring up a player or two from their farm system halfway through the year who can contribute. Wilson could very easily be that guy for the Sox. Keep an eye on this kid who will begin the year as a starter in Pawtucket. You could see him evolve into a quality option out of the ‘pen.

Bobby Valentine’s Man-Crush on Jose Iglesias-Okay, so I share the same sort of affinity for the Cuban phenom–I just didn’t want to put it in bold writing. Mike Aviles will be at shortstop today in Detroit. That we know. I’m still not completely convinced that he is the best choice, but that’s an argument suited for a different day. The ideal scenario consists of Iglesias spending the majority of 2012 in Triple-A, remaining healthy, and receiving a ton of at-bats. However, that plan could be derailed by an injury to either Aviles or Youkilis–the latter hasn’t exactly been a model of health over the course of the past couple of seasons. A significant injury to a member of the left side of the Red Sox infield would likely prompt GM Ben Cherington to summon Iglesias from Rhode Island to Boston. Let’s just say Valentine wouldn’t put up a ton of resistance.

Jon Lester: Pony or Horse?-Alright, so pony is probably too harsh. If Lester is a pony, he is the best damned pony around. I have detailed my thoughts on the left handed pitcher. In short, he is not efficient with respect to his pitch count. He relies too heavily on his cutter and often nibbles around the plate. It is extremely frustrating because I am an absolutely massive fan of Lester and the tools he brings to the rubber. The tall lefty recently made some interesting comments during an interview on WEEI. Look, Jon, you don’t need to win 20 games to be considered elite. Instead, you do need to pitch north of 200 innings, decrease your walks, and work deeper into games. I am beyond interested to see if the Washington native finally puts together a season that leaves voters unable to leave him off of their Cy Young ballot.

Rich Hill is My Boy-There’s no point in hiding it. I love Hill like Tommy loved Walter. Hill is recovering from Tommy John surgery. Thus far, he has been making a tremendous amount of progress. When Hill is able to finally join the big club, he has the potential to serve a vital role as a lefty specialist out of the bullpen. His sidearm delivery and ability to consistently throw strikes make him quite the weapon against guys like Robinson Cano and Carlos Pena. Pay close attention to his road back to the majors.

Daniel Bard The Starter vs. Daniel Bard The Reliever-Let’s hope the former wins out. I’m not going to beat a dead horse here. I’ll make it quick. Bard wants to start. He would prefer not to close. Cherington and the Red Sox granted him the opportunity to start. He did nothing this spring to lose that opportunity. The Red Sox owe it to themselves and Bard to let the plan run its course. Bailey’s injury, however, is not good for Bard’s development as a starter. In all likelihood, there will be external and internal pressure to slot Bard back into the bullpen. It would be an easy fix, a cop out. Converting a stud reliever to starter is not supposed to be easy. If the Red Sox and Bard are equally committed to his long term success as a starting pitcher, they must not even consider moving him back to the bullpen. This will be something to monitor closely.

Jacoby Ellsbury‘s Encore-Call me a downer, but I’m not expecting another 32 long balls from Ells in 2012. I still think 24-28 home runs is within reach. Last season, Ellsbury got on base at a .376 clip. I believe that is a figure the Oregon native can improve upon. Pitchers will undoubtedly be more apt to work around the 2011 MVP runner-up. He will have the opportunity to take his fair share of free passes. The Red Sox don’t need Ellsbury to mash 30 home runs–getting on-base and applying pressure to opposing pitchers does the trick just fine. Ells had a massive year last year, and it will be fascinating to see how he responds in 2012.

Three’s Company-Everything discussed above is meaningless if Lester, Beckett, and Clay Buchholz do not perform well. In order to perform well, health is a necessity. Beckett has already begun to deal with thumb issues. Buchholz is coming off of an always ambiguous back injury. Lester is the only guy who can be described as anything close to a sure thing. With an already weakened bullpen, the Red Sox top three starters must combine to start at least 90 games and throw in the neighborhood of 900 innings. If healthy, Lester, Beckett, and Buchholz are bound to find success in 2012. They’re that talented.

And in the interest of Opening Day…

“You look forward to it like a birthday party when you’re a kid. You think something wonderful is going to happen.”- Joe DiMaggio

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