Let’s start with the bad news. As I wrote the other day, the Sox are 1-5 on the season, and given last year’s start and last year’s conclusion, 1-5 feels like crap.
The good news: Boston has won the home opener every year since 2005. So, there’s that.
I got onto a Youkilis tangent in my last post, but there are other questions about this team aside from Youk’s health and productivity. Without further ado…
1. Starting Pitching. In case anyone missed the first week of the season, Jon Lester has already shown that he is the Number 1, the closest thing we have to a true ace. (That anyone wanted or needed Josh Beckett’s blessing in order for Lester to get the ball for Game 1 is just weird, but there were actual Globe articles about it.) It seems like the Knights of the Keyboard have been portending a “breakout” or Cy Young year for Lester every year since ’07, and somehow he’s come up a little short, or way short, every time. An All-Star? One of the best lefties? Yes. Cy Young? Not yet. He’s certainly in his prime, and he should be motivated as hell to show the world that last September was an anomaly. We shall see. After Lester, the rotation is composed of very good pitchers and some intriguing question marks—or maybe it’s more accurate to say it’s composed of very good pitchers with question marks draped ’round their necks like the ancient mariner’s albatross. The obvious question with Clay Buchholz is whether he can pitch a full season and get back to his 2010 form, when he was second in the A.L. with an ERA of 2.33 half a run better than the next guy, David Price, and just 0.06 runs behind King Felix. Oriole legend Jim Palmer once said that Buchholz had the best stuff in the A.L. We need to see that stuff, and we need to see it every five games for a full season. (I’m assuming we’ll never again see Buchholz pinch running, as he’s liable to break his leg after tripping over his own helmet.) With Josh Beckett, there are questions of health and of character. He has two World Series rings and has been a pitching phenom since high school, but there’s a reason John Lackey was given Josh Beckett-like money to come to Boston: they had almost identical career stats. Seasons like ’07, when Beckett was runner-up for the Cy Young and absolutely dominant in the postseason, tend to overshadow the so-so years, perhaps because Beckett has never been a top money maker. So in some ways Beckett has gotten a pass when he’s been hurt, ineffective, ornery, downright dickish, or all of the above. Since last September’s collapse and the chicken-and-beer stories, however, his pass has been revoked. Beckett may find himself shipped out of town, A.J. Burnett style, if his attitude or his performance are sub par. Beyond the “big three” of the rotation, we have Felix Doubront and, for now, Daniel Bard. Doubront is a talented lefty who apparently ate or loafed his way out of relevance last spring. I saw him face Ivan Nova in a Portland-Trenton matchup back in 2009, and one could see why both guys were projected to start in the majors. But he’s unproven, so he’s a question mark. Bard is a question mark because the injury to Andrew Bailey means the bullpen ain’t what it was supposed to be, and Bard is a recent magna cum laude graduate of that bullpen. GM Ben Cherington seems intent on keeping Bard in the rotation to maximize his value, but one has to wonder how long Bobby Valentine will be comfortable with Melancon and Aceves finishing games. But Bard is also a question mark because he flamed out (like everyone else) at the end of last year and he’s been mediocre so far as a starter.
2. Bullpen. The issues are obvious: The durable and dominant Papelbon is gone, and his would-be replacement, Andrew Bailey, is out for a few months with a bad thumb. Vandeusen thought Mark Melancon would replace Bailey, but Valentine and/or Cherington opted for Alfredo Aceves, who was extremely effective out of the pen last year but took three appearances to record his first out of 2012. Melancon has been ineffective as well, to the point where he predicted and experienced sleepless nights. Will someone come out of the blue and be Hideki “I’d like to be called Okaji but you guys will call me Oki” Okajima circa 2007? Will the pen survive without bringing Bard back into the fold? Could the offense be so explosive that Valentine could adopt the “closer by committee” approach that almost worked in 2003? Will Aceves get fed up with being jerked around so much?
3. Can Jacoby Ellsbury do it again? For whatever reason, the conventional wisdom is that Jacoby Ellsbury will come back to Earth and put up smaller numbers than he did last year. I guess the idea is, he’ll regress to the mean. Maybe. If that happens, the offense that was so explosive for the majority of last year will be compromised, with Youk looking older and slower and the bottom half looking too Salty and Sweeney and Cody. Ellsbury has Scott Boras in his year about Wertherian/Crawfordian free agent money, so maybe there’s hope that Ellsbury will remain an MVP contender instead of becoming the next Grady Sizemore.
4. Adrian Gonzalez. Aside from wondering if Adrian Gonzalez will be smart enough not to blame losses on “God’s will,” I wonder if his shoulder is totally fine and if he might show power in both halves of the season. (Anyone think there’s the slightest chance he’ll get anywhere near a Home Run Derby again?) I love watching his swing and his glove, and given the money doled out for Albery Pujols, Joey Votto, and Prince Fielder, A-Gon could end up being a bargain.
5. Duh—Carl Crawford. Can he get healthy? Is his wrist problem a minor one, or will it derail his career the way the same wrist problem derailed Mark Derosa’s career? And if healthy, can he clear his head of the pressures—of his outrageous contract, of John Henry saying he didn’t want him, of the usual Boston mental mayhem—and wreak havoc on the basepaths that way he did as a
Ray? And what about his fielding? There isn’t a single aspect of Crawford’s game that won’t be under the microscope if/when he suits up this spring.
6. Dice-K 2.0. Most fans have written off Daisuke Matsuzaka as a trans-Pacific marketing scheme gone horribly wrong, or just another East Asian pitcher who came here with too many innings on that arm and too much stoicism in that face. But reports of his progress in recovering from Tommy John surgery suggest that his velocity and the movement on his pitches are back, and he could end up being a significant part of the pitching staff sooner than anticipated. If I’m Scott Boras, I want Dice-K to ease his way back into the game so he can get another contract after this year, but I also want him to pitch sooner rather than later so he can get another contract after this year. Dice-K seems like a guy who is so eager to prove the haters wrong that he’ll pitch as soon as possible, and the Sox don’t have much to lose by unleashing him as soon as he says he’s ready. I’m hoping he is the surprise of the season. This team will need a few of those.
7. Catching. Longest last name in MLB history, a.k.a. Saltalamacchia, is the primary catcher, with journeyman and former Sox prospect Kelly Shoppach at backup. Both have stunk it up so far, which means Ryan Lavarnway could end up back in the Show pretty soon. It could be a tough year for Sox catchers, especially if Beckett or others appear to miss, as Mike Felger puts it, their “binky,” former captain Jason Varitek.
8. Curt Schilling. How much more are we expected to endure?
9. The Hangover. Terry Francona is reportedly boycotting Fenway’s 100th birthday party because he’s still hurting from last year’s Bob Hohler article, in which unnamed Sox sources discussed pills and marital problems that, by implication, had some role in the Sox’ collapse. Beckett et al will hear about fried chicken and beer until the Sox make the playoffs. John Lackey’s return is lurking somewhere on the horizon. Carl Crawford, as mentioned above, has claimed it’s all good with John Henry, but can that be true? The degree to which the hangover from last September lingers in the clubhouse or on the field—or in the hearts and minds of Red Sox Nation—will be a big question until the team can right the ship.
10. Killing the Kitsch. Can we put “Play Ball!” and “Sweet Caroline” in the past? Turn over a new leaf? On the former question, I guess I’ll find out in about ten minutes.