The Boston Red Sox have had a series of well-documented struggles in the past two years. No Bostonian can forget the epic collapse of 2011. Many media pundits referred to the Red Sox as the greatest team in history. Going into September they had a seven-game lead over the New York Yankees. Then of course Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Jon Lester were shelled on a regular basis, leading to a 7-20 record. Manager Terry Francona was fired and General Manager Theo Epstein took a job with the Chicago Cubs. Reports were coming out from everywhere that pitchers were drinking beer, playing video games and eating fried chicken in the clubhouse and even the dugout during games.
It seemed as if the Red Sox had hit rock bottom. Then 2012 happened.
The Red Sox did almost nothing to address any of the problems that led to their 2011 collapse. They brought back all of the clubhouse problems. Beckett had not lost any of the very visible 25 pounds he put on during the 2011 season. Lackey, who would not pitch all season, was still a regular in the clubhouse and was photographed with a beer-dispensing hat in Fenway Park. Lester, who was a hero to many after beating cancer, suddenly had a sullen and standoffish attitude with the media. He even began talking in a Texas accent, which was strange considering he was born and raised in Washington state.
The most visible change was at manager, with Francona being replaced with the flamboyant Bobby Valentine. Ownership was sending a clear message that the collapse was Francona’s fault, not the players. The 2012 season was the team’s worst since 1965. Big name free agents didn’t produce. Carl Crawford was a complete disaster that the Red Sox were paying over $20 million a year. Adrian Gonzalez underwhelmed in 2012 and was at the center of a player rebellion directed at Valentine. Beckett’s waistline and ERA continued to grow, as did Lester’s. The team hovered around .500 for most of the season before once again imploding late in the season and finishing with a 69-93 record.
Not surprisingly the expectations for this season are low. The current Las Vegas over/under line for wins is 82.5. This is an absurdly low figure though for many reasons. For starters, the last time the Red Sox finished below this number was 2001, when they finished with 82 wins (in a 161 game season). They no longer have the star-studded lineup, but they have a team that matches up very nicely with many smaller market teams. Jacoby Ellsbury is in a contract year. He has to produce numbers similar to his 2011 season (.321 BA, 32 HR, 105 RBI, 39 SB) if he wants to get paid. Dustin Pedroia is a steady and reliable former MVP. The addition of veterans Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino give them added speed and power. Victorino in particular can’t be any worse than Crawford was. Will Middlebrooks will be playing his first full season as a starter. After hitting 15 home runs and 54 RBI in under 300 at-bats Middlebrooks could potentially be a 30-100 middle of the order bat that Kevin Youkilis provided for so many years. Prospect Jackie Bradley Jr. looks to make an impact if veteran Jonny Gomes doesn’t work out. Jared Saltalamacchia is an above average catcher, backed up by one of the top prospects in the Red Sox system, Ryan Lavarnway.
Most importantly is the “addition by subtraction” theory. Beckett is the first name that comes to mind. Not only was he a terrible pitcher for the past year and a half, but his bad attitude was contagious. He continued to gain weight and refused to take any accountability for the team’s struggles. While injured last year he took impressionable young pitcher Clay Buchholz golfing with him. When asked about golfing while injured, he informed the media that he only had 18 days off a year and it was none of anyone’s business what he did on those days. The absence of Beckett and the addition of Francona’s pitching coach John Farrell as manager will fix these problems. Look for Lester, Bucholz and even Lackey to have rebound years. The addition of veteran Ryan Dempster solidifies the pitching staff, as does the addition of Joel Hanrahan as a shut down closer.
Over 82.5 wins for the Red Sox? Yes, please.