The Boston Red Sox will start the 2012 season with some very familiar faces either retired or playing for other teams. Every spring offers hope for change. But for the 2012 Red Sox, change has already been thrust upon them. From manager to closer, 2012 marks a changing of the guard for the Red Sox.
Manager: Bobby Valentine is just what the Red Sox need right now. The players may not like Valentine’s alpha-male style, but they proved they couldn’t handle the freedom Terry Francona allowed in the clubhouse last season. Look for the Red Sox to respond well to this change in personality.
Starting rotation: If the Red Sox don’t sign Roy Oswalt look for a starting four of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Clay Buhhcholz and Daniel Bard. Aaron Cook, Vincent Padilla, Alfredo Aceves and Carlos Silva will battle for the fifth spot. Aceves was extremely effective last year and posted a 10-2 record with a 2.61 ERA in 115 IP. Although Aceves could prove to be the cream of the fifth-starter crop, the Red Sox will most likely keep him in his current role where he can pitch multiple times a week. There are major question marks with the starting five. Can Bard effectively make the transition from set-up man to starter? Even though Beckett posted a stellar 2.89 ERA last season, questions linger about his drive and ability to stay in shape. Clay Buchholz is recovering from a major back injury – can he return to form? Management will have a decision to make when Daisuke Matsuzaka makes his return around the All-Star break.
1B: Adrian Gonzalez obviously has this spot locked up. Gonzalez had his lowest HR output since the 2006 season with 27. He was still feeling some pain in his shoulder after having it worked on to repair a tear in his right labrum. While he ended the season with a great BA and strong RBI numbers (.338/117 RBIs) the Red Sox need more pop from Gonzalez. Look for his HR total to shoot back to the mid-to-high 30s as he has a full season with a healthy shoulder.
2B: Dustin Pedroia is the heart and soul of the Red Sox. Although Jason Varitek wore the big C on his jersey, Pedroia was truly the captain. Whether Valentine makes Pedroia’s captaincy official or not, Pedroia has emerged as the true leader of this team. Look for Pedroia to be a more vocal leader this season as he maintains his average stat line of .305 BA, 17 HR and 78 RBIs.
3B: Kevin Youkilis is aging and plays all out all the time. While fans appreciate his style of play, it’s exactly that style of play Red Sox management must prepare for when, not if, Youkilis is out for an extended period of time. Will Middlebrooks is the prospect to watch here. Middlebrooks spent the majority of last season in Boston’s double-A affiliate and posted strong numbers with a stat line of .302 BA, 18 HRs and 80 RBIs. Look for the Sox to keep an eye on Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez if Youkilis is out and Middlebrooks slumps.
SS: This is the position causing Red Sox fans to lose more hair than Francona. After Nomar Garciaparra, the Red Sox have been on a quixotic quest for the next shortstop. Boston will start the season with Nick Punto and Mike Aviles at short, but the prospect to watch is Jose Iglesias. If Iglesias can show even the smallest improvement at the plate in triple-A Pawtucket, look for a midseason call-up finally ending the quest once and for all.
LF: With Carl Crawford recovering from wrist surgery, the Red Sox will rely on Ryan Sweeney and Darnell McDonald in LF. Cody Ross will play RF for the first few weeks. The seven-year/$142 million question: can Crawford and his surgically repaired wrist respond from an extremely disappointing 2011? Anyone who listened to a Red Sox broadcast toward the end of the 2011 season had it burned into their brains Crawford posted the worst OBP in the history of Red Sox left fielders. Crawford has nowhere to go but up after posting career lows across the board.
RF: When all Red Sox outfielders are healthy, this position is there for the taking. Ross and Sweeney will battle it out when Crawford returns. Expect the right-handed hitting Ross to play RF more often to balance out a lineup of lefties featuring Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz, Crawford and Gonzalez. Ross will also benefit from the Green Monster and has an overall better track record than Sweeney. But Sweeney is gritty, which may make him a fan favorite
CF: Ellsbury proved his haters wrong in 2011, returning from an injury-plagued 2010 season to post an MVP-like stat line of .321 BA, 32 HRs, 105 RBIs and 39 SBs. Expect the power numbers to drop a bit, but there’s no reason to believe his average will drop, and he could easily reach 50 or more SBs.
DH: Ortiz is part of the old guard for the Boston Red Sox. With the uncertainty of Tim Wakefield and Varitek, Ortiz remains one of the final links of this generation’s championship chain. But Ortiz will be back. The only question is the cost. Either way, the Red Sox will get an Ortiz who is coming off a respectable 2011 season. The Red Sox would be happy with the production he gave them last season: .309 BA, 29 HRs and 96 RBIs. Eventually his age (36) will catch up with him, but for now, look for similar power numbers with a lower average for the aging slugger.
Bullpen: The Red Sox bullpen is going to be different this year with the loss of Jonathan Papelbon to the Phillies, and the possibility of Bard moving to the rotation.
Closer: Andrew Bailey (traded from the Oakland Athletics with Sweeney for Josh Reddick and Miles Head) said he wants to attack hitters and takes responsibility if he blows a game. Against the AL East last year, he only had one blown save and it was against the Red Sox. He’s a former Rookie of the Year and a two time All-Star. There’s no reason to believe Bailey will struggle closing out games in 2012.
Set up man: Mark Melancon (traded from the Houston Astros for Jed Lowrie.) Melancon posted strong numbers for Houston in 2011, going 8-4 with a 2.78 ERA. He also struck out 66 batters in 74.1 innings pitched. Melancon could have the perfect mental makeup to pitch in the AL East — the man swam with great white sharks in the offseason.
In the mix: Bobby Jenks (coming back from surgery), Aceves, lefty Franklin Morales and righty Matt Albers all will have roles with this team. Albers started strong last season but faded down the stretch. Jenks could never get it together last season and is a boom-or-bust guy going forward.
Watch for Rich Hill to return mid-season from the Tommy John surgery he had last May. Expect the loser of the fifth starter role to also play a factor in the bullpen.
From Valentine to Bailey, this is a new chapter in the history of the Red Sox. Fans can only hope this chapter has a happier ending than last year.
Contributor: Brian Hendrickson