OPENING DAY - SMILE, ITS JUST A FEW WEEKS AWAY
It's hard to believe, but opening day for the Boston Red Sox (March 31 at Camden Yards) is just over three weeks away. We've spent a lot of this Spring Training talking and writing about the young "players of the future" for the Sox...and there are some exciting prospects.
Some of the young players are expected to have a big impact this season, as the Sox try to defend their crown as World Series Champions (goose bumps!). A solid mixture of youth and experience is critical to the continued growth of any team, and this years roster should again have both.
Today we'll take a look at what's new behind the plate and in the infield along with what impact the loss of some key players - Jocoby Ellsbury, Jarrod (Salty) Saltalamacchia & Stephen Drew - could have.
There is no doubt Salty played a key role in the 2013 pennant winning season. He had a solid year, hitting 14 HRs with 65 RBI while batting a respectable .273. While his HR count dropped from 25 in 2013, both his batting average & RBI count were career highs. There is also no doubt that Boston's decision makers were ready to move on when they made no attempt to keep him in beantown.
The farm system has two outstanding young defensive catchers in Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart, so behind the plate should be covered (but not blocked under the new rules!) for years to come.
If the 23 year old Vazquez shows he can hit major league pitching this spring, you may very well see him in a Red Sox uniform before the year is out. Unless something unusual happens he will start the year at AAA Pawtucket. Sox catcher David Ross has said that Vazquez reminds him of Yadier Molina, who is considered the best defensive catcher in the game. Not bad company!A.J. Pierzynski - The fiery 38 year old veteran is the short term replacement for Saltalamacchia and should be equal or better offensively. In 134 games with Texas last year, 119 behind the plate he hit .272 with 17 HRs and 70 RBI. On defense he is a big step up from Salty.
The only question about Pierznyski is his temperment. He's that guy you hate when he plays for the opponent, but love when he is on your team. He has been known to get in the face of anyone, including his own teamates. It will be interesting to see how well he jells in a clubhouse that was extremely close in 2013.David Ross - Another seasoned veteran, Ross' defense and ability to get the most out of a pitching staff are well respected in baseball. One of the most popular "Bearded Boys of Beantown," Ross was part of the glue that kept the Sox from having any long losing streaks last year.
He did suffer two concussions that kept him out of action periodically in 2013 and ended the season playing in 36 regular season and 8 post season games. The writing was on the wall for Saltalamacchia when Ross got the start in 8 post-season games, while Salty starter 10.Ryan Lavarnway - In 2011 Lavarnway was considered the catcher-to-be for the Sox. He had an outstanding year in the minors, hitting .290 with 32 HRs and 93 RBI. His defense was questionable, but almost everyone predicted a bright future for the youngster.
To date, those minor league numbers haven't translated to hits in the "show." Playing for short periods over the past 3 years, he has hit just .208 with 5 HRs and 34 RBI in 269 ABs. Now 26, this could be his make or break year with the Sox. This spring he has tried to increase his value by playing 1st base as well as catching.
Sox infield coach Brian Butterfield has been working overtime this spring to develop a solid defensive unit. He has spent extra time with Will Middlebrooks, who had a tough game Wednesday, and Xander Bogaerts while also spending time with Lavarnway and Nova at 1st base.
The right side of the infield will be as solid as last year, with Mike (Still one of the Bearded Boys) Napoli holding down 1st and Dustin Pedroia at 2nd. Pedroia won a Gold Glove last year and Napoli should have, so things are well covered both on offense and defense. Mike Carp, Danial Nava and Lavarnway will provide back-up for Napoli as needed. The left side of the infield is another story.
A large number of Sox fans felt no remorse when Stephen Drew turned down the $14 million, one year contract the Sox offered. The majority actually felt relief, as that opened the door for heralded rookie Xander Bogaerts at shortstop. Despite much hype from his agent, Scott Boras, he has had no takers so far and there is still an outside chance he may return to Boston...but if he does don't expect it to be for $14 million.Xander Bogaerts, SS - If Bogaerts lives up to his potential (I actually hate that word) the Red Sox have a gold mine for the future at SS/3B. Just 22 years old, he came to the majors last year pre-ordained as a future All-Star. When Manager John Farrell was slow putting him in after his call up, he was ostracized. When finally getting in the line-up, Bogaerts seemed to be comfortable and ready to prove his worth.
Cool under pressure, he immediately showed a discipline at the plate that is almost unheard of with young players. Playing in 18 games with 44 ABs, he hit .250, but to any observer his skills were obvious. Farrell showed his growing confidence in his young phenom by having him play in 12 play-off games, where he batted .296 with an OPS of .893. Defensively he is still improving and there has been talk of him ultimately playing 3rd... which is where he played in Wednesday's spring game vs. St. Louis.Will Middlebrooks, 3B - Will the real Will Middlebrooks please stand up. In his first 41 games with the Red Sox, Middlebrooks batted .326 with nine home runs and 34 RBI, the most RBI to start a career for a member of the Red Sox since Walt Dropo recorded 37 RBI in his first 41 career games dating back to 1949-50. He had an outstanding rookie season (.288/15HR/54RBI) before he broke a bone in his right hand when he was hit by a pitch in a game on August 10, ending his season.
Expectations were high for Middlebrooks last year. The combination of lingering effects from his broken hand, pressure to perform up to 2012 and a possible sense of entitlement led to a dissappointing performance. After a discouraging start, where he showed no plate discipline, he was sent back to Pawtucket with no timeline to return to the majors. After 45 games at AAA he returned and finished the season with the Sox. His final 2013 major league statistics were nowhere near what Boston expected and his ability to rebound in 2014 is critical to their success in 2014.Jonathon Herrera, INF - A jouneyman infielder for Colorado since 2008, the Sox acquired him from the Rockies for Franklin Morales and Minor League right-hander Chris Martin. Herrera, 29, gives Boston general manager Ben Cherington what he has been looking for -- a player who can provide depth on the left side of the infield.
It will be interesting to see what other infielder breaks camp this year. Middlebrooks' performance could dictate how much depth the Sox need. Keep your eye on rookie Garin Cecchini, another highly touted minor leaguer who is expected to start the season playing 3B for Pawtucket.
The biggest loss from last years championship team is, without a doubt, Jacoby Ellsbury. There is no certainty as of today who will take his spot leading off. The "Merry-Go-Round" has included Jonny Gomes, Daniel Nava & a host of others this spring. Ultimately, it will probably fall to Shane (I almost said Vereen Patriot's fans!) Victorino, but that's not a lock yet. The loss also puts a lot of pressure on Jackie Bradley Jr. to step in offensively and be even close to the player Ells was. The signing of Grady Sizemore will help relieve some of that pressure, if he can stay healthy. Defensively, Bradley Jr. is considered outstanding with a better arm than Ellsbury. Look for the possibility of Victorino moving to center (where he has won a Gold Glove) if Bradley & Sizemore struggle.
SO, WHAT'S NEW
The 2014 Boston Red Sox will not be the same as 2013. That's a fact, not an opinion. With three new positional players - Pierzynski, Bogaerts and Bradley Jr. - starting, it will take a while to get a feel for this year's team. The batting order is still in a state of flux, with no sure lead-off hitter ready to start the season.
With the strength of their starting and relief pitching to carry them early the rest of the line-up should shake out by the end of April. The early days of the season may cause some frustration for Red Sox Nation, but by September they should be in-the-hunt once again.
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