For the first time in more than a decade, the Red Sox enter spring training unburdened by lofty expectations, the usual hype replaced by a touch of apathy.
After a 93-loss season in 2011, few pundits are calling the Sox a playoff team.
General manager Ben Cherington disagrees.
“I believe we will contend,” Cherington told the Boston Herald. “There is no reason we shouldn’t contend in 2013. But we also want to build something really good for a long time. We’re confident we will.”
Much of the team’s fortunes will depend on their starting pitching. Last year, the starters posted a 5.19 ERA, fourth-worst in the majors. Of that group, only right-hander Ryan Dempster was added during the offseason.
The Red Sox are counting on bounce-back seasons from lefty Jon Lester and right-hander Clay Buchholz, both of whom fell far short of their ace-like potential last season. They’re also banking on right-hander John Lackey making an impact as he returns from Tommy John elbow surgery. Lackey didn’t pitch last season.
While the rotation features questions, the bullpen is a source of strength. With the addition of closer Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Bailey shifts into a set-up role. New manager John Farrell has several seventh- and eighth-inning options, including Bailey, Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa and possibly Daniel Bard.
Elsewhere, the Red Sox have undergone an extreme makeover, with as many as five potential newcomers in the lineup on any given day. First baseman Mike Napoli, shortstop Stephen Drew, right fielder Shane Victorino, left fielder Jonny Gomes and catcher David Ross all signed as free agents.
Napoli could make the greatest potential impact, assuming he stays healthy. He was diagnosed with a degenerative hip condition that caused the Red Sox to reduce his contract to a one-year, $5 million deal after an initial three-year, $39 million offer. As a power hitter, he slots into the middle of the order and could provide a right-handed complement to lefty-swinging David Ortiz.
Mostly, though, the Red Sox are seeking a return to normalcy after the tumultuous Bobby Valentine era. He has been replaced by Farrell, the former Red Sox pitching coach, who has a strong working relationship with Cherington.
“We acknowledge the expectations may be different, for good reason coming off the year we had,” Cherington told the Herald. “But in a way it’s less important to us. 2012 was sobering. It sort of gets you back on track. We’re more uber-focused on what we need to do to get things right for the long term than we are worried about what everybody is saying.”
— DH David Ortiz continues to make progress as he attempts to come back from a strained right Achilles that sidelined him for the final two months of last season. But he admits he may need to take things slow at the start of spring training. “I’m not completely recovered, but I’m going to be ready to go for Opening Day,” Ortiz told WEEI.com. “(Doctors) say I’m going to have my days I’m not going to feel that well. I haven’t had those yet, but I haven’t started the hard stuff.” Ortiz reportedly has been hitting, but he has yet to do many intense running drills. The Red Sox re-signed Ortiz to a two-year, $26 million contract that includes incentives related to the health of his Achilles.
— RHP John Lackey is expected to take a spot in the rotation after missing all of last season while recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery. Lackey has lost at least 15 pounds and reported to camp early. He was maligned in 2011 when, while pitching with an injured elbow, he went 12-12 with a 6.41 ERA. “Pitching better and us winning will cure a lot of things,” Lackey told the Boston Globe. “This is a results business. I haven’t had good results. The fans want to see me pitch well.” Lackey had surgery in October 2011, so he will have had more than a full calendar year to recover.
— RHP Daniel Bard remains an asset for the Red Sox. Only 27, he recorded a 1.93 ERA in 73 appearances in 2010 and went 25 appearances without allowing a run in 2011. During that stretch, there wasn’t a more effective set-up man anywhere in the majors. But after becoming a starter last season, Bard lost his triple-digit velocity, his command, and ultimately his confidence. He went back to the bullpen during a two-month exile to the minors then allowed runs in five of six outings upon his return. And now, as Bard tries to prove he has recovered from his lost season, he must emerge from a field of 11 relievers vying for seven seats in the bullpen. Unlike most of those pitchers, he still can be sent back to the minors without clearing waivers, so for the first time since 2009, Bard has come to spring training without any guarantee of a job. “I know I have some things to prove,” Bard said. “But I also know that I feel good right now. I know that in the past, when things have felt good, it takes care of itself.”
— LHP Felix Doubront made 29 starts and logged 161 innings last season, 73 1/3 more than he threw in an injury-filled 2011 and 31 2/3 more than his previous career high, set in the minor leagues in 2008. So, it’s worth wondering whether Doubront may experience any residual effect from such a greatly increased workload. “There shouldn’t be anything that would indicate we’ve got to be conscious of one specific thing,” manager John Farrell told the Boston Herald. “He’s gone through our organization’s offseason throwing program. He’ll be monitored like every other starting pitcher, but I don’t think there’s anything that says, just because of that increase in (innings), you’ve got to be overly conscious of anything.” Doubront didn’t exhibit any physical issues, other than routine fatigue, late last season. He also finished strong, posting a 3.08 ERA while allowing 16 hits and striking out 31 in 26 1/3 innings over four starts against the playoff-bound New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles and the contending Tampa Bay Rays.