Are the Boston Red Sox a sleeper team for 2012?
Last season the Boston Red Sox won 90 games and finished 1 game out of the wild card for a spot in the post season. When you take out the first and last months of the season they were the best team in all of baseball. They had the best offensive team in baseball by virtually all of the statistical categories and the only guys they didn’t bring back from last year’s starting lineup were all over the age of 35 (Marco Scutaro, J.D. Drew, Jason Varitek). They lost their 3rd starter, Clay Buchholz, midway through the season. John Lackey was ineffective last year, he will spend this entire season on the disabled list. The bullpen was actually pretty good last year and while they lost their closer Jonathan Papelbon they replaced him with not one but two strong young arms in Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon. All that considered you would expect a bounce back from the Red Sox for the 2012. Some do, but it seems like most are treating the Red Sox like a mortally wounded animal, down for the count, unable to recover.
ESPN’s Buster Olney recently named his top 5 teams in the American League. He did not list the Red Sox among them. The Angels caught all of the headlines this off-season by giving out big money contracts to big names Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. They won the off-season but let us not forget that it was the Red Sox who won the off-season last year and the Red Sox were watching from home in October. The Tigers signed Prince Fielder to a big deal. The Rangers are the defending two-time American League champions and added Japanese sensation Yu Darvish to their rotation. The Yankees are, well, the Yankees and have made some key additions of their own, including young starting pitcher Michael Pineda. The Rays are a young team with a lot of talent. The American League is truly stacked but are the Red Sox really that far off from these other 5?
I’ve heard a lot of crowing in the past week from Red Sox fans who were upset about the Tigers signing Prince Fielder. I am not quite sure why. First off the Tigers play in a one team division. Be it 4 teams or 5 to make the postseason this year the Tigers were already as sure a bet as any. They play in a division full of teams that are either mediocre or bad. Their improvement doesn’t have a profound effect on whether or not the Sox make the postseason. If the Sox lose out on the division and go for a wild card they will not be competing with the Tigers. Besides good pitching always beats good hitting, particularly in October, and if Beckett, Lester, and Buchholz are right then the Sox could beat the Tigers in a 5 or 7 game series. Lastly, and maybe the most important point, is that we have the better player at the same position, for less money even. Adrian Gonzalez is a better, more versatile hitter than Fielder and when it comes to defense Fielder is not even in the same universe as Gonzalez. Gonzalez is a gold glover while Fielder perennially has one of the worst fielding percentages for starting first basemen in the league.
It seems to me that both the national media and even our own fan base are undervaluing our players. Maybe they deserve it. One thing that’s obvious is that the problems of last year came from the clubhouse. It will be different this season. Terry Francona is out and Bobby Valentine is in. I love Francona but maybe complacency had set in with him in the clubhouse and a change will do the guys good. Also coming in are high energy guys like Nick Punto, Cody Ross, and Kelly Shoppach. They can add an element to the clubhouse that was lacking last year. Josh Beckett and Jon Lester are the two guys left who had the circle drawn around them in regards to the beer and chicken fiasco. They are two of the most competitive pitchers in baseball and seem to have plenty of motivation to turn things around. Theoretically you must win between 92-94 games to get one of those wild cards. Can the Red Sox not make up 2-4 wins from last year? Are they other teams in the American League that much improved that you will have to win more games than that?
Could the Red Sox fall back flat on their face after the debacle of last year? I suppose they could but I am not expecting it. To be honest if they play like the team they were between May and August of last year for a full season there won’t be anybody ahead of them in the standings by the end of the year. Not Pujols and the Angels, Fielder and the Tigers or even Jeter and the Yankees. Last year all of these great expectations were heaped on the shoulders of the Sox. Maybe they had trouble handling them. This season it seems like they won’t have so many expectations from outside of their own clubhouse. Maybe that’s good or maybe it doesn’t even matter. Whether or not they are on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s baseball preview issue I think you see a team come into Spring Training next month that’s going to be ready to win.