BANGOR, Maine — Last year at this time, there was almost a giddy attitude among Boston Red Sox fans as spring training loomed.
They had obtained two of the game’s top offensive players in first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and left fielder Carl Crawford to go with an already strong nucleus.
But the 2011 season became a blemish in Red Sox lore when a historic 7-20 collapse in September cost them a playoff spot that had seemed all but sewn up.
In the aftermath, general manager Theo Epstein left to join the Chicago Cubs; manager Terry Francona, who guided the Red Sox to two World Series titles and snapped the 86-year drought in doing so, was let go; and closer Jonathan Papelbon signed with Philadelphia.
Ben Cherington is the new general manager; Bobby Valentine has replaced Francona as the manager; and former Oakland closer Andrew Bailey heads up the list of candidates to replace Papelbon.
Bailey is one of several off-season acquisitions.
There are a lot of question marks this time around but Red Sox radio play-by-play men Joe Castiglione and Dave O’Brien said this is still a team that can be formidable if its starting pitching holds up.
“It’s still a very, very good offensive team,” said O’Brien at the ninth annual WZON Hot Stove Banquet at the Bangor Civic Center on Tuesday night. “The one thing that happened last September and the bulk of the summer concerned the starting rotation and how durable they were.
“Jon Lester had a disappointing season and Josh Beckett had a bad second half. Down the stretch, Beckett was only giving the club five or six innings [per start] as was everybody else [in the rotation] and that’s just not good enough.
“Beckett has the rebuilding of his reputation at stake this year. He has to show he’s a legitimate stud No. 1 pitcher and he has a long way to go to do that,” said O’Brien. “There’s no reason Lester shouldn’t be vying for 20 wins a year with his stuff but he got off track somewhere along the way and they couldn’t correct him. Those guys probably weren’t in great shape at the end of the season but the Red Sox have done a lot of things with their training staff and medical staff in the off-season.”
Lester and Beckett each had earned-run averages over 5.00 in September and were two of the pitchers accused of drinking beer and eating fried chicken in the clubhouse during games in which they weren’t scheduled to pitch.
O’Brien said the injury suffered by 2010 All-Star righthander Clay Buchholz, who didn’t pitch after June 16, probably cost the Red Sox the American League East division title.
“He’ll be healthy as will the other two [Beckett, Lester] and there aren’t many staffs that can say right away that they have three starters capable of 17-, 18-win seasons,” said O’Brien.
Castiglione said the late-season collapse shouldn’t have been a surprise because the Red Sox were in the bottom third of the American League in ERAs all season.
“You can’t win with ERAs like that,” said Castiglione. “[The pitching] was covered up a little bit by the offense because it was so good.”
Castiglione has known fellow Connecticut native Valentine for 30 years and called him a “very, very smart guy.”
“He’ll do a great job. He’s a pretty good motivator who knows how to handle different personalities. We’ll see a slightly different brand of baseball. When you have speed like Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford, you have to take advantage of it,” said Castiglione.
Francona’s players rarely bunted and used hit-and-runs but Valentine’s players will use both, according to Castiglione.
“He’s going to be more creative managerially. You’ll see more activity on the bases,” said O’Brien. “He’s one of the best strategical and instinctual managers in the game. He’ll steal you seven or eight wins a year.”
O’Brien feels Crawford will bounce back from a season in which he hit only .255 and had an on-base percentage of just .289.
“He’s 30 years old and in the prime of his career. There’s no reason to think he won’t bounce back. Maybe a different personality in the manager’s office will do him a lot of good.”
Daniel Bard, the set-up man for Papelbon, is apparently going to get a shot to become a starter but O’Brien and Castiglione recalled when Papelbon’s experiment as a starter lasted just two weeks in spring training several years ago.
“The kid [Bard[ throws 99 [mph]. To me he seems like a closer,” said O’Brien, who feels Bard needs to be “more consistent with his slider.”
Castiglione predicted that the Red Sox will make more moves before the start of the season.
“The final roster isn’t set yet. It’s going to be interesting to see,” said Castiglione.
But O’Brien said don’t expect any blockbuster moves.
“It’s going to be a fiscally conservative year for the Red Sox,” said O’Brien.