One year after the Red Sox lost 93 games and endured their worst season in almost a half-century, not even the Mayans would predict they will make the playoffs.
Ben Cherington respectfully disagrees as his team preps for its season opener at 1:05 p.m. Monday against the New York Yankees in the Bronx.
“I believe we will contend,” the Red Sox general manager told the Boston Herald this spring. “There’s 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.”
Along those lines, the Sox brought back former pitching coach John Farrell to replace deposed manager Bobby Valentine and turned over nearly one-third of their roster in the offseason, signing seven free agents to contracts that don’t exceed three years. The idea: Build a team that will compete in a wide-open American League East while keeping the door open for several budding prospects, most of whom remain at least another year away from the majors.
One thing is clear: Much of the Red Sox’s fortunes will rest with their starting pitching. And although they had one of the worst rotations in the majors last season, they added only righthander Ryan Dempster to a group that includes holdovers Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront and John Lackey, who is returning after missing last season while recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery.
In particular, the Sox are banking on Lester and Buchholz returning to their All-Star forms from 2010 and the first half of 2011. And in spring training, both pitchers were exceptional, sparking hope for a revival.
“It’s just a confidence builder going into the season,” Buchholz said. “The stretch we have to start the season (13 consecutive games against AL East opponents), it’s going to be the best thing to have some confidence going into it. It’s definitely different from the last couple of springs. It’s good to see the work going into it is paying off a little bit.”
Pitching has come into even greater focus for the Red Sox because of the early-season toll that David Ortiz’s slow-to-heal Achilles injury will take on the lineup. Ortiz was unable to play this spring after dealing with inflammation in both heels and will start the season on the disabled list.
Most alarming, though, is the fact that the Red Sox don’t have a timetable for his return.
As long as Ortiz’s powerful bat is absent from the middle of the order, the Sox figure to rely even more heavily on pitching and defense to win games. As a result, they took a long look in spring training at 22-year-old outfield prospect Jackie Bradley Jr., who played for the Portland Sea Dogs last season and who has emerged as a leading candidate to make the team despite not yet playing above the Double-A level because of his defensive excellence and a superb spring at the plate.
“Do I think he’s ready? I think he’s proven,” right fielder Shane Victorino said. “He’s gone out in spring training and given himself every opportunity to be on the big-league team.”
Bradley’s surprise spring is emblematic of the breath of fresh air in Red Sox camp.
For the first time in years, expectations are low. And after the darkness of the one-year Bobby V Era, the Red Sox are eager to move forward under Farrell and return to the postseason for the first time in three years.
Bradley earning spot
Bradley likely will make the opening day roster, as the Red Sox told non-roster invitee Ryan Sweeney they wouldn’t purchase his contract. Bradley was hitting .441/.521/.644 with two homers, 12 RBI and two steals after 59 spring at-bats through March 28.
“I didn’t really set any expectations coming in,” Bradley said. “I came into spring training not even a thought to make the team. I just wanted to come in and play hard and show I improved from last year. Hopefully I’m doing that.”
Sweeney hit .217/.308/239 in 46 at-bats this spring.
Bard heading to Portland
Righthanded releiver Daniel Bard, who had a 6.75 spring ERA through Thursday after a nightmarish 2012, will open the season with Double-A Portland. “This is strictly about continuing to rebuild his delivery and not so much sheer performance,” Farrell said. “We feel like once his delivery is consistent and he repeats, the results should take care of itself. That being the focal point, we felt it was a better work setting for him at Portland (than at Triple-A Pawtucket).”
Drew return uncertain
Shortstop Stephen Drew, hit on the helmet by a pitch March 7, went on the seven-day concussion disabled list three weeks later when he still hadn’t recovered. The move was backdated to March 27, but it’s uncertain when Drew will be able to return. “There’s peaks and valleys along the way, even though the valleys are getting shallower,” manager John Farrell said March 28. “In general, there’s less symptoms, but yet there are still symptoms.”
Lester set for opener
Lester, who enjoyed a strong spring, will pitch opening day, Farrell announced Wednesday. He’ll pitch Monday against the Yankees and lefty CC Sabathia. Lester went 3-0 with a 0.75 ERA in 24 Grapefruit League innings. He went 9-14 with a 4.82 ERA in 33 starts last year.
“The way he was lined up, he was probably targeted all along,” Farrell said. “At the same time, we didn’t want that to be a focal point. His work that was needed and the adjustments that he’s continued to reinforce and repeat on the mound were the priorities.”
Sox set goal for Ortiz
–DH Ortiz’s latest setback, a case of inflammation in both heels, will force him to start the season on the disabled list, a fact that has been known for the past two weeks. So, the Red Sox have set a more modest spring-training goal for Big Papi: Get back on the field before camp breaks Saturday.
“The one thing we’d like to see would be to see him on the field in some capacity, whether that’s running the bases, whether that’s taking BP on the field,” Farrell said. “That would be a reasonable goal, a reasonable step.”
As of Monday, it had been two weeks since Ortiz was shut down from baseball activities. He has gone through a strength and conditioning program that includes running on an underwater treadmill and taken swings off a tee and soft-toss in the controlled environment of an indoor batting cage. But he has not yet attempted to run the bases or even take batting practice, the Red Sox wanting to take extra caution to not push him too hard too quickly.
“As we’ve put certain things out there, if it alters, then it can be perceived maybe differently or more negatively than it is,” Farrell said. “We’re working off David’s tolerance and his ability to ramp up the intensity.”
Projected Red Sox roster
Starting pitchers: 1. LHP Jon Lester, 2. RHP Clay Buchholz, 3. RHP Ryan Dempster, 4. LHP Felix Doubront, 5. RHP John Lackey
Bullpen: RHP Joel Hanrahan (closer), RHP Andrew Bailey, RHP Koji Uehara, LHP Andrew Miller, RHP Junichi Tazawa, RHP Alfredo Aceves, RHP Clayton Mortensen.
Lineup: 1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury, 2. RF Shane Victorino, 3. 2B Dustin Pedroia, 4. 1B Mike Napoli, 5. 3B Will Middlebrooks, 6. DH Jonny Gomes, 7. C Jarrod Saltalamacchia, 8. LF Jackie Bradley Jr., 9. SS Jose Iglesias.
Reserves: C David Ross, INF Pedro Ciriaco, OF/1B Daniel Nava, OF/1B Mike Carp.