There's not a lot of optimism surrounding the Red Sox right now. After their 2011 collapse, the team made minimal adjustments in the offseason, and will return to Fenway Park with some makeshift solutions around the diamond. This is not the same beautifully composed team we thought we had this time last year.
It also, however, is not a mediocre bunch of players, and it seems like this is something all-too-often forgotten by the doomsayers. Throughout the roster, the Red Sox feature some of the best players in the game, and are not so bankrupt at any position that there's cause for despair. Let's re-evaluate things with a more objective eye, and ask ourselves-especially those of you predicting another year without playoffs-whether it's really so impossible for this group to get things done.
For a few months there, it looked as though the Sox had truly hit gold with Jarrod Saltalamacchia. When August began, the Sox' young catcher was hitting .265/.329/.482, but then came the fall. Going 24-132 after August 1, Saltalamacchia isn't exactly the sort of defensive catcher who can survive such a decline. While the Sox are willing to give him another shot-and the addition of the defensive-minded, lefty-mashing Kelly Shoppach provided a solid complement for cheap-he's got to be feeling Ryan Lavarnway breathing down his neck.
The combination of Jarrod Saltalamacchia's potential, the possibility that the platoon works out, and the general lack of quality amongst catchers keeps the catchers from a failing grade, but it's certainly not a strength of the team.
First Base: A
It's not an A+ because Albert Pujols exists and Adrian Gonzalez has a few questions to answer about the health of his shoulder and a high 2011 BABIP (though the former could very well compensate for regression in the latter). But, other than that, Gonzo is about as good as it gets. Power, discipline, tons of contact, and a top glove to boot.
Second Base: A+
Dustin Pedroia was superlative in 2011. The best second baseman offensively according to wOBA and defensively by UZR, it's hard to find an argument for anyone else. With his foot proven healthy, there's no reason the 2008 MVP should be supplanted by any other second basemen in 2012.
I'm a bigger fan of Mike Aviles that most, but I still expect we'll be missing Marco Scutaro some come July. Still, it was only a few short years ago that Mike Aviles was the exciting young rookie bursting onto the scene with the Royals. While he's not been able to match that since-and it's no surprise given the massive .357 BABIP it required-Aviles had a good finish to the season with the Sox, and could take advantage of the Monster. With Nick Punto there to compensate for his questionable defense in late-game situations, this might not be a disaster.
Third Base: B+
Not long ago, Kevin Youkilis would've been an A himself, but having missed 100 games over the past two years and seen his offense go downhill some in 2011, it's not so easy to count on Youkilis for a top-flight performance anymore. He was still a good player last year, even though he's not nearly so good at third as he was at first, but he'll need a good year to return to elite status.
Right Field: B-
Cody Ross and Ryan Sweeney aren't big, exciting names in right field, but of all the positions the Red Sox have had to piece together with spare parts this year, it's this one which has the chance to shine. Both Cody Ross and Ryan Sweeney seem tailor made for Fenway park, with Ross already abusing the Sox' faux Monster in JetBlue park and Sweeney regularly lacing hits to the opposite field out in Oakland. Throw in some strong platoon splits for Ross against lefties and Sweeney against righties, as well as Sweeney's terrific glove in the outfield, and you've got a combination which could provide quite a bit of value.
Center Field: A
By many accounts, Jacoby Ellsbury should have been last year's MVP. The only question is whether or not he can keep it up now in 2012. A massive burst of power turned any leftover criticism for the center fielder's injury-plagued 2010 season into adoration, as Ellsbury knocked a team-leading 32 balls out of the park, finishing the year with a fantastic line of .321/.376/.552. Throw in a stellar defensive campaign which saw Ellsbury shed many of the problems he'd had with reading the ball off the bat, and there's no better center fielder in the game-just so long as it wasn't all one big fluke. Another big year, and Ellsbury cements himself as one of the best players in the game today.
Left Field: Incomplete
2011 just was not Carl Crawford's year. Injuries, a nearly season-long slump at the plate, and mediocre defense in left has resulted in Crawford being viewed in many fans' eyes as out newest albatross contract, right on the heels of John Lackey.
The good news is that this has happened to Carl before, albeit not as dramatically back in 2008. The next two years, Crawford reestablished himself with the best seasons of his career. It's not encouraging that he'll likely miss opening day with a wrist injury, no, but with Crawford there is at least some hope that the Sox will get what they paid for in 2012. Until they do, though, it's best just to tag him as incomplete and move on.
Designated Hitter: A+
As a pure DH, there's nobody better in the game right now than David Ortiz. Finally returning all the way back to the Papi of old, Ortiz' line of .309/.398/.554 completely eclipsed that of any other regular DH in the American League. If the Rangers decide to move Mike Napoli over anytime soon it could be a different story, but for now Ortiz stands alone amongst the positionless.
Starting Rotation: B
We all know the story here. An amazing front-3 with Buchholz, Beckett, and Lester followed by uncertainty. Can Daniel Bard cut it in a starting role? Can they scrape together a fifth man from the scrap heaps? Right now, Vicente Padilla and Felix Doubront would seem to be the most likely candidates, but a good spring training performance from the likes of Alfredo Aceves or Aaron Cook could possibly sway Bobby Valentine. Either way, it's a group that would have looked a lot better with even just a Paul Maholm thrown in, but if the Red Sox can pull off in 2012 what the Yankees did in 2011, then all the more power to them.
The Red Sox have quietly put together a very strong group of relievers over the offseason. Andrew Bailey is no Jonathan Papelbon by any means, but if he trusts his stuff in Fenway Park should be able to adequately replace the flamethrowing closer. Mark Melancon is a strong setup man behind him, while the likes of Franklin Morales and Alfredo Aceves provided surprisingly good performances in 2011. The back end is where things get a bit sketchy, with the likes of Matt Albers and Scott Atchison hanging around hoping for a shot along with the still-injured Bobby Jenks and hopefully fast-recovering Rich Hill, whose curveball looked like a wipeout pitch last year. That bunch should sort itself out as the year goes on, however, leaving the Sox with four-to-six solid options for the later innings. Add in the slew of starter candidates, and you'll probably find a decent long man in the bunch as well.
Of course, this same article written last year-when things went so dramatically wrong-would look even rosier, right? Not necessarily. Carl Crawford would draw high marks, yes, but Jacoby Ellsbury would be a question mark himself. Jarrod Saltalamacchia would seem an even bigger question at catcher, and Jason Varitek wouldn't exactly bring much to the plate as much as he is adored. The rotation had just as many question marks in it between Beckett, Daisuke, and Lackey, and the bullpen was relying on Bobby Jenks to pick up the slack for an apparently declining Jonathan Papelbon.
Yes, the Sox need to be better than last year, not just equal, but there's so much that can't be predicted in March. Breakout seasons, injuries, huge declines, and just plain random luck. If the Sox start winning some coin flips, we might be looking back at any early-year despondence and wondering how we didn't see a World Series contender in this group.