February 10, 2013

KEVIN THOMAS ON BASEBALL: Sox hoping for a change

By KEVIN THOMAS Maine Sunday Telegram

Last year, when the Boston Red Sox began spring training, the word summing it all up was "curiosity."

This year, we will use two words:

"Optimistic, maybe."

Pitchers and catchers reported to Fort Myers, Fla., on Sunday as the Red Sox look to recapture the glory years of just a few seasons ago. To do so, Boston ended the one-year experiment known as Bobby Valentine and brought back former pitching coach John Farrell, now as manager.

And Boston has shunned the expensive long-term contract approach for big-name players and returned to its approach of developing young players while finding others to fill holes.

Besides there being a whole new coaching staff and several new players (half of the 40-man roster has changed since last February), many of Boston's concerns are similar.

Looking at this space last year, we identified nine issues heading into 2012 spring training:

1. Valentine.

2. Daniel Bard.

3. Jose Iglesias.

4. A fifth starter.

5. Right field.

6. A bullpen makeover.

7. Battles for jobs.

8. Injuries.

9. Catcher.

Valentine, the man picked by ownership to replace Terry Francona, managed Boston to a 69-93 record and was abruptly relieved of command.

Bard was to become a starter last season. It proved disastrous (5.24 ERA) and now Bard is trying to return to his dominant relieving ways.

Iglesias, the gifted fielding shortstop who was rushed through the minor league system -- starting in Portland in 2010 -- competed with Mike Aviles for the starting job and lost out. When Aviles was sent to Toronto in the deal for Farrell this offseason, Iglesias looked like a starter in 2013. Then Boston signed free agent Stephen Drew, and Iglesias won't even be competing for the job.

The fifth starter turned out to be Felix Doubront, who moved up to No. 4 when Bard faltered. Doubront (11-10, 4.86) showed positive signs. He is a more solid No. 5 this year, behind Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, free agent Ryan Dempster and rehabbed John Lackey.

Right field became Cody Ross' position. While he was a bright spot last year (22 home runs), Boston was not ready to commit a big contract for him, and Ross got a three-year, $26-million deal with Arizona. But the Red Sox were willing to give a three-year, $39-million deal to Shane Victorino.

The bullpen makeover was flawed last year when newly acquired closer Andrew Bailey and set-up man Mark Melancon were, in order, injured and ineffective. Now Boston is trying again, with Melancon traded and Bailey demoted to set-up man behind newly acquired Joel Hanrahan.

The roster battles last year sorted themselves out, with relievers Michael Bowden and Matt Albers and outfielder Darnell McDonald eventually traded or released.

Among those returning from injury last year were Buchholz, third baseman Kevin Youkilis, outfielder Carl Crawford and reliever Bobby Jenks. Buchholz had an up-and-down season (11-8, 4.56). Youkilis was briefly hurt again, allowing for the arrival of Will Middlebrooks (and Youkilis' trade to Chicago). Crawford never really got healthy and was traded. Jenks was broken down from Day 1.

The catcher question last year concerned the first season without Jason Varitek. Jarrod Saltalamacchia hit 25 home runs but batted .222, and threw out only 18 percent of base stealers. Backup Kelly Shoppach was dealt and prospect Ryan Lavarnway struggled (.157).

This year

1. Farrell takes over for Valentine. Farrell appears to command respect and is a solid communicator -- two factors missing last year in the manager's office.

2. The starting rotation is set with Lester, Buchholz, Dempster, Lackey and Doubront. Looks good on paper, but Boston's starters ranked 12th in the American League in ERA (5.19) last year. Lester, the presumed ace, was 9-14 with a 4.82 ERA. No guarantees here.

(Continued on page 2)

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