New Red Sox GM Ben Cherington is certainly not entering into the easiest situation in Boston. Cherington faces the task of succeeding general manager icon Theo Epstein but also turning the tide on a Red Sox club responsible for one of the most infamous collapse in regular-season history.
Though helped along by the appeal of a big market like Boston, rebuilding this perennial AL East contender is no small task for Cherington and a Red Sox organization that has missed the playoffs each of the last two years. Fortunately, as I will examine in this three-part preview of the 2011-2012 hot stove season, Cherington does not need the art of the blockbuster deal his predecessor provided in order for the Sox to be successful in 2012 and beyond. In fact, it would probably behoove Cherington to play small ball in the free-agent market and favor consistency over superstar status, as inconsistency and clubhouse discontinuity led to the September collapse this year and was a subtext of the entire season. That said, though there are many areas the Sox could stand to dismantle completely and rebuild from scratch, there is the same potential for potency that the Sox had going into spring training and, with a few balanced additions, this potency should come to fruition in 2012.
To begin with, let’s look at the area that was seemingly the one major question mark going into last season:
Catcher: Unable to previously prove himself in either Atlanta or Texas, Jarrod Saltalamacchia was the only obvious option to start at catcher last season. Despite a slow start which resulted in a platoon role with Jason Varitek that continued throughout the better part of the season, “Salty” eventually caught stride and was a consistent contributor batting .235 with 16 HRs and 56 RBIs. Though he allowed a career-high 26 passed balls, he also set a career-high with 37 runners-caught-stealing, so look for Salty to be starting behind the dish again, probably with a bit more frequency, in 2012.
A free agent, I expect Varitek to also return with another one-year contract as he has expressed no desire to retire as of yet. However, given Ryan Lavarnway’s versatility as a catcher and potential designated hitter, I would expect him to have a fair chance to make the team out of spring training, pending the re-signing of David Ortiz.
First Base: Despite an injury-reduced spring training, Adrian Gonzalez paid immediate dividends through the first half of the season, but following the All-Star break, his impact dropped a bit throughout August and September. I am of the school of thought that the neck injury, which kept him out of a series in Chicago towards the end of July, was a bit more severe than the organization may have revealed. Nevertheless, his prowess at first base earned him his third Gold Glove and the admiration of Red Sox Nation.
Second Base: Business as usual here. Dustin Pedroia came back from his injury-shortened 2010 season and batted .307 with 91 RBIs while earning a Gold Glove. Did you expect anything less?
Third Base: Let it be known: I am no fan of Kevin Youkilis. A once loveable, intense, clutch Dirt Dog, Youkilis has become the Red Sox equivalent of former Yankee Paul O’Neill, whining every time he strikes out watching a hittable 0-2 pitch. On a positive note, Youkilis returned to his “natural position” at third base this year and posted a .967 fielding percentage with 15 errors at the hot corner. This was a slight drop from his production at first base, but still competitive. Though a potential bargaining chip, Youkilis’ recent injuries would probably keep the Red Sox from getting full value from other teams, so I do not see him on the move this offseason.
Shortstop: I love Marco Scutaro. He is a very good baseball player and he proved this during September, particularly in the do-or-die Game 162 against Baltimore. That said, he is not a starting shortstop. However, the Red Sox do not have many other options. My dad likes to remind me he “never would have traded Hanley Ramirez” for Josh Beckett in 2006. I tend to disagree, as Ramirez’s attitude has always been suspect despite multiple All-Star performances; but then again, it turns out Beckett is no saint either. Nevertheless, the middle infield has been lacking in defensive solidity since the departure of Orlando Cabrera. Even when serviceable defensive talent comes around (i.e. Alex Gonzalez), the offensive numbers are not competitive enough and have left large holes in otherwise impressive offensive lineups.
Cherington has already announced that Scutaro will enter spring training as the starting shortstop over Jed Lowrie, whose time in Boston, in my opinion, has been thoroughly disappointing. I still like Scutaro, I just think he is a much better option off the bench, particularly as he is getting older. As for potential starters I’m sure the Sox will kick the tires on José Reyes, but they are also grooming José Iglesias in Pawtucket. I had the opportunity to see Iglesias a few times in Pawtucket this season; give me Reyes.
Left Field: Don’t sleep on Carl Crawford. Maybe it is just the number 13, but I chalk up his performance to “A-Rod Syndrome” where a player comes into a large market and underperforms in the pressure. It is not his fault Tampa has no fans. I blame Terry Francona for not taking the time in spring training to assess how Crawford would best fit with this club and, instead, juggling his lineup daily for the first 12 games and regularly throughout the remainder of the season. I realize Crawford is a professional athlete and should be able to adjust, but I do not believe the foundation was ever established for him to be able to fall into a groove. He did have the occasional clutch performance, and I look for him to return to form in his second year in Boston.
Center Field: It didn’t get much better for the Sox this season than the performance of Jacoby Ellsbury. After an injury shortened season in 2010, Ellsbury needed to prove to many that he was not injury prone or worse, a quitter. A Gold Glove winner, a team-leading 32 home runs and a .321 batting average – including a .358 average in the month of September – more than proved the contrary. It was evident from the first game in Texas that he had put on some healthy muscle weight and was poised to become a power-hitting threat. That said, his impressive comeback has increased his trade value immensely and with the outfield prospects in the Red Sox system, Ellsbury may prove an effective bargain chip with tremendous yield, particularly entering the final year of his current contract.
Right Field: Now it gets intriguing. JD Drew is gone — proof that there is God … and that occasionally he wants to see us perform penance. Promisingly, Josh Reddick took full advantage of his opportunity as a replacement last season. Having the big league experience gives him an edge over the injured Ryan Kalish, who still needs some plate work in Pawtucket before he is ready to be a major-league contributor, but both could be on the roster out of spring training with one starting and one off the bench. Another name circulating is Grady Sizemore, who has been with Cleveland in center field since 2004. Although I have always liked Sizemore, he is injury-prone and the last two seasons have been severely hindered by the amount of injured Red Sox starters. As much as I would like to see the Red Sox save money for pitching (previews coming on Tuesday and Wednesday) and stick to homegrown talent, it would be nice to see Michael Cuddyer end up with the Sox next season in a role similar to 2009 when Victor Martinez first came to the organization. Both a first baseman and catcher, Martinez was shuffled around the infield as a catcher in place of Jason Varitek or at first base to give either Mike Lowell or Kevin Youkilis a rest. He even played DH at times. Cuddyer, having spent time at third base, would have the versatility to start in right field while also moving to third to allow playing time for Reddick especially in left/right matchups and for off days. This was the kind of thing Francona always tried to do, but never really had the bench for it.
Designated Hitter: I am of the mind that the DH role has taken on an air of versatility more so than it has in the past, where players who were designated hitters could also contribute defensively. That is not to say the DH slot is not a place where defensive ability goes to die, but this lack of versatility was particularly evident for the Red Sox during interleague play this season. The Sox spent nine days on the road in NL parks, and by game five of the trip, the need to get at bats for both Oritz and Gonzalez was resolved by sacrificing defense and putting Gonzo in right field and Ortiz at first. With that in mind, I am hoping that the Sox go after a right-handed position player with some power to balance out a predominantly left-handed lineup.
My first thought would be Albert Pujols, but I am not delusional enough to think he would end up in Boston or that he would even leave St. Louis, particularly after the season he just contributed to. Again, Cuddyer could play a similar role. Nevertheless, with the departure of Jonathan Papelbon to Philadelphia, this opens up a lot of capital for the Sox to spend on free agents like Ortiz, among others. I would reiterate that Lavarnway has also been considered as a DH, as well as a catcher. His numbers from last year are incredibly misleading as he had a string of good games at the end of the season, but he definitely shows promise. No harm in holding on to a home-grown kid and reinvesting in pitching.
Bench: Regardless of how major Boston’s offseason acquisitions were last winter, they are useless if they are not on the field. With Francona’s infamous tendency to over-manage all too often, players like Lowrie, Darnell McDonald, Mike Cameron (at the start of the season) were getting playing time over players like Youkilis and Crawford. While they can all produce at times, the lineup suffered as a result with greater production removed from the lineup and weaker protection inserted. I was never the biggest Bill Hall fan two years ago, but he was called on to fill in at nearly every position throughout the season and he did so with 22 home runs on the year. The Red Sox desperately need this help off the bench for this potent lineup to truly come to fruition in 2012.
Remember to check back next week for Part II: Bullpen on Tuesday and Part III: Rotation on Wednesday and be sure to check out some of the other season previews around the various team pages on the site.