Talkin Sox with Dan

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

Archive for the category “2012 Preview”

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

Patience is Key to Bard’s Success

Daniel Bard is going to give up a lot runs over the course of not-so-many innings in 2012.

Get used to it.

It is not easy to transition from dominant reliever to starter on a team that carries lofty expectations like the Red Sox. Nothing goes under the radar. Everything is magnified. And that undoubtedly makes change of any kind more difficult in a hotbed like Boston.

Media and fans will always be around to question the choices made on and off the diamond by management. That’s part of the fun, after all. In turn, however, management must remain steadfast in the decisions they make. After announcing that Mike Aviles, not Jose Iglesias, will begin the season as the starting shortstop, it would be unfair to both parties for GM Ben Cherington or Bobby Valentine to state that Opening Day is still a week away and a lot of things can happen between now and then. It would represent doubt and a lack of resolve. The decision-makers on Yawkey Way would look rather fickle.

So it is curious that reports out of Fenway South last week indicated that Bard would be heading back to the bullpen when the Red Sox break camp. The news broke the day after the tall right hander threw five innings against the Blue Jays, allowing three runs on three hits. He walked three and fanned two.

Bobby Valentine was not impressed. According to CSNNE’s Sean McAdam, Valentine cited the low number of changeups thrown by Bard, his lack of control, and his poor efficiency with regard to the high pitch count over just five frames.

Valentine is anything but stupid. He knows that the process of a reliever transitioning to starter is not one that is generally smooth. There are roadblocks. Instead of listing Bard’s struggles in his outing a week and a half ago against Toronto as natural obstacles that are bound to occur, he used them in a way that made it seem like he was positioning Bard for a demotion to the bullpen.

And I can’t say I blame him.

Valentine is not making Fenway Park his permanent residence. This is a two-three year lease, max. So if Valentine believes that he can squeeze more productivity out of Bard The Reliever than Bard The Starter in the short term, why wouldn’t he try to make him his closer or stud set-up man?

I would.

Success for Valentine will not be measured in how the 2016 or 2017 Red Sox fare. He needs to start accumulating wins now, not later. Despite that, Valentine will realize, if he hasn’t already, that some decisions even transcend Bobby V.

Bard’s move from reliable reliever to middle of the rotation starter falls into that category. You can make a valid argument that Bard belongs in the bullpen. His repertoire is conducive to late inning, high leverage situations. He was miserable as a starter early in his professional career. I get it. But the Red Sox and Bard made the collaborative decision to give him a chance as a starter.

So what has changed since then?

The answer, in reality, is nothing. Sure, Bard has had an exceptionally mediocre spring, but that certainly should not preclude him from receiving the fair chance he was promised before pitchers and catchers reported. Bard will not be asked to be an All-Star. Instead, he will have the responsibility of being a middle of the road starting pitcher.

Let’s take a look at the projected fourth starters among the expected contenders in the American League:

Blue Jay-Brett Cecil

Indians-Josh Tomlin

Rangers-Yu Darvish

Tigers-Rick Porcello

Yankees-Ivan Nova

Rays-Matt Moore

Angels-Ervin Santana

You would be hard pressed to make a case that Bard does not compare favorably with the majority of these starters. Will he be as productive as Darvish in 2012? Probably not. Can he out perform Porcello? Absolutely. Does Bard have the type of ceiling that Moore possesses? He might.

The Red Sox brass as well as Valentine should treat Bard like Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholz. Is there any chance that either of them winds up in the bullpen? No. The same should hold true for Bard.

He is a starter now.

Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe summed it up well.

“Everyone knew converting Bard from set-up man to starter was going to require patience. To pull the plug now wouldn’t be fair to Bard”

Aces Up

I don’t care if it is July, September, October, December, or March–when one of my front line starting pitchers tosses a gem like Jon Lester did on Monday afternoon against the Phillies, I get excited. Maybe not as excited as Tim Tebow during his presser in New York yesterday, but still pretty damn excited.

Lester threw seven innings, allowed two hits, and struck out 10 batters. I first read that line at work and had to embarrassingly wipe up the puddle of drool that had accumulated on my desk.

And I hadn’t even gotten to the best part.

The tall left hander was especially thrifty yesterday in Clearwater, Fl. He needed only 88 pitches to get the job done. Lester did not give out a single free pass. He went to a three-ball count on one hitter. One.

Bobby Valentine certainly liked what he saw.

“I don’t have to describe it. You saw it. It was outstanding. That’s what he was aiming to do. The fact that he was ahead on the count, he was happy. He was throwing offspeed pitches down in the zone, his fastball explosive, that’s pretty good stuff.”

If Lester is able to replicate this type of performance consistently throughout the regular season, especially late in the year, he will finally elevate himself to the status of being a true ace. As I have written in the past, Lester is not an ace. Instead, he is a veteran pitcher who happens to be  starting the first game of the 2012 season.

Erik Bedard also shares that same honor in Pittsburgh.

The 28 year old Washington native needs to command his pitches during the regular season in the same fashion he did yesterday. When he is not throwing cutter after cutter after cutter, Lester can dominate a ballgame. However, he has exhibited a strong willingness to rely heavily on the aforementioned cutter, a lethal weapon when harnessed properly. A pitcher who leans heavily on a cut fastball is bound to hit a batter or three from time to time. It is not uncommon for Lester to put a few guys on first base by way of the walk or HBP during the course of a start. Naturally, this causes his pitch count to balloon earlier than anticipated. A true ace finishes his start by going seven solid or even pitching into the eighth inning on a consistent basis. Simply put, Lester has not been a horse.

Over the course of the past three seasons, CC Sabathia has averaged just shy of 235 innings per year. Sabathia, a Clydesdale, was in pinstripes all three of those seasons, facing the same cast of hitters that Lester opposes. Conversely, during those same three years, Lester averaged just south of 201 innings per season.

Lester is in the meaty part of his prime. Throughout the regular season, he will be expected to put up similar lines to the one he put up on Monday afternoon in Florida. As the season moves towards late August and September, the focus will be on the top half of the rotation to avenge the bed wetting performance put forth last year. Even if Lester is not a legitimate ace, he is the leader of a talented staff. It’s only March, but his performance yesterday offers a glimpse of what Red Sox followers could should see throughout the season.

Your Fifth Starter Pitches Tonight

As the Red Sox enter the dog days of spring, two questions still remain for the team that totes around quite a bulky payroll: Who will be playing shortstop on Opening Day and who will be the fifth fourth and fifth starters when the season begins? Jose Iglesias would almost certainly be readying himself to begin the year in Triple-A Pawtucket if such a large personality was not the at the helm of the club, but with Bobby Valentine as the skipper, anything is possible–even if it is not what GM Ben Cherington would prefer.

The latter question does not possess a firm answer. Throughout the course of a 162-game season, injuries occur, rotations become jumbled, and teams rarely use the same five starters. Who begins the season at the tail end of a rotation is often not nearly as important as the individuals who finish the season in those slots.

The 2012 Boston Red Sox may begin the season with Felix Doubront and Alfredo Aceves (or Daniel Bard) as the fourth and fifth starters, but neither of the pitchers will likely finish there. Instead, it certainly sounds like  Daisuke Matsuzaka will be ready sooner rather than later as he is being tabbed for a June return time. Say what you want about the buzzkill from the Eas, butthat’s good news. Two words: Contract year. The second piece to the second half of the rotation puzzle will be taking the mound this evening at Jet Blue Park as the Red Sox take on the Yankees.

Aaron Cook will certainly not be ready to suit up on April 5, but he has the opportunity to be a serious, summer-long contributor to a staff that is thirsty for someone to step up and provide valuable innings from the back end of the rotation.

If he is healthy and receives an opportunity, Cook is a guy that fans, teammates, and coaches will really enjoy.

According to Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe, in his two starts this spring “he has thrown 5 ⅓ innings without giving up a run.” Even better, the 16 outs that Cook has recorded, “eight have come on ground balls.”

Giddy up.

The downside to Cook is two-fold. First, he is not on the same pace that the other candidates for the rotation are on. Early reservations about the strength of Cook’s shoulder prevented him from getting on the mound in a timely fashion. Second, the righty inked a minor league deal with the Sox which allows him to opt out of his contract on May 1. The guy is a veteran who does not want to toil in Pawtucket for the majority of the season, waiting for a spot to open via injury. If he feels as though he can contribute on the major league level and the Red Sox are not giving him a shot, he should have the opportunity to explore greener pastures. However, as long as he continues to progress, the Red Sox will likely give Cook a chance to start.

For the Red Sox sake, I hope the 33 year old stays healthy and builds up his endurance. That would at least put him in position to be given an opportunity. He is a sinkerball pitcher who would slot nicely into the back end of a rotation that, for all of the criticism it has taken this winter, is actually quite good.

And Cook would be a welcomed commodity.

“I’m pitching to contact. I’m trying to get guys out of the box as quickly as possible and get our offense back on the field.”

Bard in Limbo

According to a report from CSNNE’s Sean McAdam, Daniel Bard could be heading back to the bullpen to begin the 2012 season.

Recently, it has seemed like Alfredo Aceves would be the one boxed out of the Red Sox rotation. McAdam’s report contradicts that belief entirely.

“One Red Sox staff member has told others outside the organization that, when all is said and done, Alfredo Aceves and Felix Doubront will have spots in the rotation, with Daniel Bard returning to the bullpen.”

Hmm. What happened to giving Bard a chance to show his mettle as a starter? Throughout the winter and spring, it has not seemed as if there was even a question as to whether the hard throwing righty would be in the rotation or the bullpen. Sure, there was competition for fifth spot in Boston’s rotation but certainly not the fourth–that was Bard’s. Times have changed, I guess.

Has Bard put together an exceptionally good spring? Not at all. But heck, the guy has thrown less than 13 innings. Is that enough to formulate an opinion? WEEI’s Lou Merloni certainly does not believe that is the case.

So for now, we will wait and see what happens. In a perfect world, Aceves and Bard would serve as cogs in the Red Sox bullpen (that would be one solid ‘pen) because John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka would be the bottom half of the rotation. However, that is simply not the case. Pragmatically speaking, one of the two will have to occupy a spot in the rotation.

If I’m choosing, it is Bard. Aceves is versatile and has an arm made of rubber. I’m pretty sure he pitched in every game from August 1 of last year until the final game of the season, or at least it seemed that way. Ultimately, I believe Bard will stick in the rotation, but we will keep you updated.

Always Fun to Forecast

We are now firmly entrenched in the latter half of March. Eight days from today the Athletics and the Mariners will square off in Japan to officially open the 2012 season. Many people, like myself, have already made a handful of different predictions involving the Red Sox this fall and winter. As we begin to stare spring in the eyes, let’s take a look at some of the issues on this ball club and make some semi-educated guesses.

Alfredo Aceves, regardless of how well he pitches during the rest of Spring Training, will be in the bullpen. It’s too bad because I’m all about meritocracy, and Ace has tossed well enough to round out the rotation for the Red Sox. Nevertheless, his value as a member of the ‘pen is greater than it would be as a tail end of the rotation starter. Does Aceves deserve the chance to start? Yes. Will he get it, at least right away? No.

Mike Aviles will be the Opening Day shortstop for the Red Sox. Yeah, yeah–I know I had said that Jose Iglesias was a good spring away from nabbing the position. Iglesias has had a good spring, but Aviles has played exceptionally well too. Iggy is the better shortstop between the two. He plays better defense and is just downright intriguing. The Cuban defector needs to show that he can handle the stick a bit better before GM Ben Cherington and company gives him the keys to the convertible. It is an integral year for Iglesias–at some point, the Red Sox will have to decide whether he is the shortstop of the future or not. I believe he is. A solid 300+ at-bats in Pawtucket will go a long way in confirming that belief.

Rich Hill will eventually prove to be an important piece in Boston’s bullpen. As Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe points out, the Milton, Mass., native is progressing nicely as he attempts to return from Tommy John surgery. I know that many of us choose to forget the miserable start the Sox had last April, but Hill was one of the few bright spots. The guy was deadly out of the ‘pen on left handed hitters. From Robinson Cano to Carlos Pena, there are a bevy of dangerous left handed hitters that call the AL East their home. Hill, if healthy, is a tricky southpaw who offers a sidearm delivery that works to neutralize tough lefties. When he is right, Hill throws strikes. It’s easy to find a lefty who comes out of the bullpen. It’s tough to find a guy who gets the ball over the plate, while using a deceptive delivery. And

Felix Doubront will begin the year as the fifth starter, but Aaron Cook will ultimately assume that role. I like sinkers. I like quick innings. I miss me some Derek Lowe. Maybe Cook will make me miss Lowe a little bit less.

Carl Crawford will continue to disappoint. Make no mistake about it–I will be rooting for CC the whole way, but I just don’t see it. He has begun swinging again, but he will not even be close to ready for Opening Day. He has a wrist injury. And that’s never good. It is likely that Crawford will come back in late April/early May and begin hitting in the latter half of the lineup, where he is notably uncomfortable. Fenway Park simply does not play to his strengths. I wasn’t a huge fan of the signing when it happened last winter, and I really don’t like it today.

Bobby Valentine will struggle to get a handle on the bullpen. Is it just me or does the Red Sox ‘pen seem a bit disorganized these days? Andrew Bailey is the closer. Mark Melancon is the set-up man. I think. Or is it Aceves? I know that there is still plenty of time left this spring to sort things out, but I think it is time to start making some decisions. Doubront, Aceves, and Andrew Miller are in a sort of purgatory between the rotation and the bullpen. If Bailey struggles early on or suffers some sort of injury, things could get ugly. I believe it is important for Valentine to begin to designate at least who will be where (rotation, bullpen). Every move he makes will be heavily scrutinized, so he needs to be sure he has the right guys in the roles that are best suited for them to succeed.

Remaking an Identity

Whether it was used in the context of consolation or with connotations of projected failure, one point has remained consistent since the end of the 2011 season: The 2012 version of the Boston Red Sox will look extremely similar on the field to last year’s team.

And that is largely true. Let’s give the diamond a once-over. Jarrod Saltalamacchia will be the starting backstop again. A healthy Kevin Youkilis will be stationed at third base. Shortstop has a statistical doppelganger to Marco Scutaro in the form of Mike Aviles. Dustin Pedroia is primed for another super solid season at second base. To Pedroia’s left is the ever-smooth Adrian Gonzalez. In right field, a platoon of the defensively astute Ryan Sweeney and soon-to-be fan favorite Cody Ross will make everyone really hate J.D. Drew. Jacoby Ellsbury will again roam the real estate in center field. Eventually, Carl Crawford will be back in the shadow of the Green Monster.

The starting pitching staff? Love ‘em or hate ‘em–the main pieces are still in place.

However, the bullpen, the special teams of baseball, has undergone a makeover. Every other aspect of the 2012 Red Sox looks extremely similar to the 2011 version. The guys sitting behind the fence in right field, on the other hand, are quite different.

Over the course of the past couple of years, fans had gotten used to the end-of-the-game routine. Eighth inning-straight gas from Daniel Bard-Ninth inning-a steady dose of fastballs and splitters from Jonathan Papelbon-Postgame-”I’m Shipping Up to Boston”. No matter how last season ended, no matter what you think of Papelbon in the wake of his comments about the intelligence of Red Sox fans–things were good. Really good.

Bard has traded the grittiness of being a bullpen guy for the routinized schedule of a fourth starter. Papelbon will close down games for the Phillies in the National League, and “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” will cease to play at the culmination of the ninth frame.

Instead, Mark Melancon, a former Yankee who was once deemed a potential successor to Mariano Rivera, will slot into Bard’s old role. Andrew Bailey, a two-time All-Star who was acquired from the Athletics, will be the new closer of the Red Sox. Bailey, a Jersey kid, will not have the Dropkick Murphy’s belting out lyrics for his entrance song.

Things are starkly different.

Alfredo Aceves has been downright dirty in game action this spring. Officially, he is competing for the fifth spot in the rotation. In reality, he will be in the bullpen serving as a guy who can flat get guys out. Michael Bowden is out of options and seems to have developed a nice relationship with manager Bobby Valentine as well as pitching coach Bob McClure. Oh, and he’s pitched pretty damn well. I’d expect him to earn a spot in the bullpen to begin the year. Vicente Padilla is a guy who is similar to Aceves. A bit hot headed? Sure. Tenacious? Oh yes. Versatile? You betchya. Let’s not forget about our old friends Franklin Morales, Andrew Miller, Felix Doubront, and Matt Albers.

The bullpen will undoubtedly appear much different than it was last year. Bard and Papelbon have had their spots replaced by Melancon and Bailey. However, the construction of a bullpen remains the same. For a general manager, like Ben Cherington, building a bullpen is a lot like playing the lottery. Sure you can pick the numbers you play, but the majority of your success depends on luck. Just as with all major league bullpens, there will be moving parts. What the Sox begin with, will not be what they end with.

In the end, it will be up to the kid from Jersey who grew up rooting for the Phillies to make fans forget about the guy who is now pitching in Philadelphia. It will be up to the guy who was once looked at as the heir apparent to the Rivera Regime in the Bronx to validate the decision that moved Bard to the rotation. It will be up to the rest of the guys to contribute when asked, throw strikes, and record outs.

After all, that is what being in the bullpen is all about.

This is Only the Beginning

Bobby Valentine has taken the Red Sox, Fort Myers, Jet Blue Park, and the month of February by storm. Sparring through the media with former Sox manager and current ESPN analyst Terry Francona, jabs at Derek Jeter over a play that happened over a decade ago, compliments to Jason Varitek for placing his catcher’s mitt into the middle of Alex Rodriguez‘s face almost eights years ago, and receiving blame for Carl Crawford‘s recent setback regarding his rehabilitation from wrist surgery. I’m out of breath.

It’s amazing what can unfold in a matter of weeks.

Despite all of the seemingly unwanted turmoil, it has actually been smooth sailing for the new Red Sox skipper. So far. Larry Lucchino Ben Cherington looks like a genius for hiring Valentine. So far. The media has taken quite a liking to Valentine. So far. Players, including the oft-irritated David Ortiz, have given their stamps of approval for the new manager. Fans of the Old Towne Team who generally possess a well-deserved affinity towards Francona (two World Championships will do that sorta thing) have also reluctantly nodded in the direction of Valentine.

So far.

As Talkin Sox With Dan discussed almost exactly one month ago, I firmly believe that if Francona had to be sent packing (and he did), Valentine was the best choice. It is natural to juxtapose Francona and Valentine, and after the way 2011 ended, it is super-easy to draw the conclusion that Valentine’s methods are better. However, I do not believe that is necessarily the case.

Are Francona and Valentine different? Certainly. Valentine is like a parent who is always around, always trying to make their son or daughter the best possible person he or she can be on that given day. Sure, that parent can be irritating, sometimes even annoying, but in the back of your mind, you know that he or she has only the best intentions. Francona was more like a caring parent who just wasn’t constantly checking with their kid. He trusted his children to be respectful and responsible without having to be constantly reminded of exactly what that meant.

Are Valentine’s methods better than Francona’s? I’m not sure. Francona’s philosophy relied upon being ready and healthy for the end of the season and, presumably, postseason play. If that meant applying less pressure to the throttle early in the season, so be it. It was the ends that mattered most, not the means. For Valentine, the ends still matter, but he is determined to change the means by which their achieved. More hands-on, more fundamentals, more work. However, it is less about Francona and Valentine and more about the buttons they push.

For eight seasons, Francona applied pressure to the same set of buttons. For seven and half seasons, the buttons worked. Late last season, the players stopped responding, and when that happens, change is necessary. Valentine represents that change.

As of today, Valentine seems like the perfect medicine for a Red Sox team that had grown complacent. He is an active teacher. He enjoys the spotlight. He can work a crowd. The guy will be working on Yawkey Way, but he belongs on Broadway.

So what does this all mean?

It means that I hope the fans who have fallen in love at first sight with all that is Bobby V this spring know what the expect this summer. He will shake things up. Baseball fans are a lot like its participants. They like routine. They cling to it. Valentine does not believe in a set lineup. Kevin Youkilis leading off? Probably not something I would do, but Valentine might. Daniel Bard getting the ball on Opening Day in Detroit? It is not out of the realm of possibility. Change is certainly on the horizon.

Just like it did with Francona, there will come a time when Valentine’s message grows stale, when the buttons he is used to pressing cease to work. I know what I’m getting myself into by advocating for Valentine. There will be more than one instance this summer when the guy leaves me at a loss for words, bewildered by whatever decision he has made on or off the field. This season, let’s make a concerted effort to not juxtapose Valentine with his predecessor. Let’s give him the season to show his mettle.

I am a believer in Valentine.

So far.

Three Misconceptions Concerning the 2012 Red Sox

1. That this little guy in the background matters (a lot)-Trust me, I would have liked to see  Roy Oswalt anchoring the latter half of the Red Sox staff. Would he have helped? You bet. Would he have taken some pressure off of Daniel Bard and his attempt at transitioning from setup man to starter? Mhm. Is the Sox staff worse without Oswalt? Yes. But if the Red Sox rotation falters, it will because Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholz do not hold up their respective ends of the bargain. Teams do not lean on fifth starters. They rotate them.

2. The lineup configuration is a concern-Look, I think it’s as fun as anyone to go back and forth arguing with some buddies as to where Crawford will hit. In the end, it doesn’t matter. The first six hitters in the Red Sox lineup are legitimate All-Stars. As I have mentioned, Dustin Pedroia is about as offensively versatile as it gets. In a perfect world, would I have him hit in the two hole? Sure. But something tells me Pedroia is going to be slotted closer to the middle part of the order. On several occasions, Bobby Valentine has downplayed the importance of having a set lineup. He will likely use many different variations. Also, Valentine has indicated that he prefers to view a nine-man lineup as bunches of smaller sets of mini-lineups–if that makes sense. In other words, the lineup may technically begin with Jacoby Ellsbury and end with Jose Iglesias (see what I did right there?). However, Valentine may see three lineups within the larger one (1-3, 4-6, 7-9). He will likely attempt to put together the best three mini-lineups he can. But here’s the point: Valentine could have Rob Gronkowski decide who hits where for the 2012 Red Sox, and they’re still going to push across north of 800 runs.

3. The Red Sox are cheap-Silly. Beyond silly. I don’t want to hear about Liverpool. I don’t care if John Henry and Co. fly to England and literally burn their money in the center of London. As long as the Red Sox annual payroll flirts with $180MM, don’t complain. If the Red Sox brass spent over a $100MM on one player last offseason and one this offseason, no one would be griping in message boards or on sports talk radio. Instead, they hired Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford last winter. Gripe about how they choose to spend their dough, just don’t tell me they don’t spend it.

Jason Varitek Makes the Right Choice

It’s never easy to let go of something or someone that reminds us of ourselves. I don’t care if it is an old practice jersey from your days on the high school basketball team, a toy given as a present when Santa Claus was still real, or a blanket that was used when there was no work, no bills, and no responsibilities.

It is simple to see why cutting ties with Jason Varitek is not easy.

But it should be. In recent years, Varitek has not been good. If you wanted to make the argument that Varitek had a place on the 2012 Boston Red Sox, we would have a serious disagreement.

Varitek will make things official on Thursday at Fenway South. The writing has been on the wall for some time. Kelly Shoppach was inked to a one-year guaranteed contract earlier this winter. With Jarrod Saltalamacchia entrenched as the Opening Day catcher and the powerful bat of Ryan Lavarnway waiting in Pawtucket, Shoppach’s signing, for all intents and purposes, marked the end of the Varitek era in Boston.

Ben Cherington handled both the Varitek and Tim Wakefield situations with the cold, objective decision-making ability that is vital to the success of a quality general manager. And it couldn’t have been easy. Many fans would have loved to see both longtime Red Sox members back for one more season, a season that commemorates the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park. For all of the negative commentary that focuses on the Red Sox brass putting public relations first, they made two shrewd baseball decisions. The roster spot that Wakefield would have occupied outweighs the production the Sox would have received. The same holds true for the Captain.

Varitek couldn’t throw out Cecil Fielder attempting to steal third base on a bad jump with a left handed batter at the plate. His bat has evolved into an abject weakness, as it should–he’s 39 years old. Despite the fact that it is easy to provide sound reasoning as to why Varitek is both an offensive and defensive liability, it is clear how someone could argue that he is still valuable to not only the Red Sox, but any major league team.

The three-time All-Star knows how to call a game. He sees things that Saltalamacchia will not pick up on in 2012. He is a seasoned veteran that knows opposing hitters as well as he knows the pitchers he works with. And that’s pretty rare.

Josh Beckett agrees.

“He’d call a pitch and I’d shake and he’d throw the same pitch down. I knew he saw something I didn’t see. Obviously he’s closer to the plate and the batter and everything. I knew then I could have conviction in that, that he saw something that he really wanted to do that with.”

There is no point in denying the truth: Varitek provides the guys who toe the rubber with a peace of mind about the pitch they are about to make more than Saltalamacchia or Shoppach will. And there is something to be said for that. Clay Buchholz may not be afraid to throw his changeup in a hitters’ count because Varitek made that decision for him. Beckett may snap his curve ball downward with more authority because he has a sincere trust when ‘Tek is on the receiving end of the pitch. It’s a fair argument, but it also comes with a counterpoint.

The 2011 Red Sox team was too comfortable. Varitek has served as less of a legitimate contributor and more of a caddy to Beckett in recent years. Varitek isn’t stupid. He knows that he hasn’t been the offensive and defensive stalwart he had been in the past. At the same time, Varitek knows (and it’s true) he could still contribute on the major league level–even as a soon-to-be 40 year old.

That’s what makes it so hard.

On Thursday, Varitek, like Wakefield did a couple of weeks ago, will stand up in front of former teammates, members of the media, and admirers to announce that he will no longer play baseball. It must be tough to make the right choice.

And for fans, it is certainly not easy.

As we discard items from our past, it often hurts. The practice jersey from high school may make its way into the trash. The toy from Christmas past will likely make an appearance in a yard sale one day. But before we let go of the blanket that was with us for so long, when things were just too good, we may tear away a piece, just to save–just in case.

Post Navigation

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.