Improved health key to Red Sox's season
Boston needs to address back end of rotation, shortstop roles
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Stow the chicken-and-beer jokes. They've been old for months now. More important, they miss the point. The activities in the clubhouse will have much less impact on the 2012 Red Sox than what goes on in the training room.
The Red Sox may have a more harmonious clubhouse mix than the 2011 version. Their manager may well be the right man for the scenario. But none of it will matter if the team isn't good enough, or if it can't stay healthy. And conversely, if the rebuilt bullpen stays leak-proof, the rotation stays healthy and the question marks in the lineup are answered positively, the Red Sox could hate each other and still make it to October.
"I'm very encouraged with the great health that we've had here in camp so far," said manager Bobby Valentine, "and I'm always concerned about something going wrong in that [area]."
Clubhouse chemistry matters, but it doesn't matter more than performance or health. And for all the talk about the new atmosphere around Boston's camp, for all the attention that Valentine has garnered, the most important questions that face the Red Sox are practical and prosaic.
There's uncertainty at two lineup spots and there are at least some health and performance questions at two more. The back of the starting rotation is unsettled. The bullpen has been made over in a major way. Meanwhile, the Yankees drastically upgraded their greatest weakness, their starting five, while the Rays are excited about their reconstituted lineup and another year of experience for their young stars.
A happy Red Sox team with half a lineup and three-fifths of a starting rotation will finish third or even fourth and unhappily head for the golf course. If they're at each other's throats, but punishing pitchers one through nine and getting quality starts five times a week, they'll be in the postseason.
"I think we know how talented we are," said new addition Nick Punto. "On paper it looks great. We need to go out there and play the game. I've got a good vibe. It's going to be a good year. It will be a good team. That's what's important."
The rotation is the greatest issue and the greatest mystery. Boston tried to upgrade its starting pitching over the winter, but it couldn't get a deal done with Roy Oswalt.
Jon Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz should make up a formidable front three to match nearly any club in the league. But Buchholz is coming back from a significant injury, while Beckett, and to a lesser extent, Lester, saw their performance fade in the second half. Many around the Sox are convinced that if only Buchholz had been healthy, Boston would have played in October instead of Tampa Bay.
"The biggest thing that happened was Buchholz getting hurt," infielder Mike Aviles said. "Anyone can argue until they're blue in the face, but Buch's an outstanding pitcher. He's an ace on almost any staff."
And yet, the front of the rotation is much clearer than what's going on at the fourth and fifth spots. Daniel Bard is favored to win the fourth spot, but he hasn't started since he was pitching in the California League in 2007. Alfredo Aceves might be the best choice for the five spot, but the Sox are reluctant to take him out of the bullpen, leaving a wide-open competition with contenders old and young.
Admittedly, nearly every team in baseball has uncertainty in the No. 5 spot in the rotation. But in New York and St. Petersburg, the clubs have too many Major League starters, not too few. The Red Sox may also have such an abundance, but if they do, they don't know it for sure yet.
Then there's the lineup, so daunting-looking a year ago. The core remains rock-solid, with star-level contributors in Adrian Gonzalez, Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz. But there's no clear favorite at shortstop, with Aviles and Punto vying for the job. The right-field mix, with Cody Ross and Ryan Sweeney, features two useful complementary pieces who will hope to form a high-level whole. Jarrod Saltalamacchia is not a star, but he is a potential power bat at catcher.
The questions are on the left side. Carl Crawford is coming off a miserable year and dealing with a left wrist injury, the scariest physical issue a hitter can have. And while Red Sox fans may not want to admit it, it's fair to wonder about Kevin Youkilis as well. The franchise mainstay hasn't played 140 games since 2008, and he's coming off his least effective season since '07. A down year at age 27 is probably just a down year. A down year at age 32, for a player with health problems, could be the beginning of a decline phase.
There's a common thread through many of these worries, and it's health. The matter of "healthy enough" always goes hand-in-hand with "good enough." That was a massive problem for the 2011 Red Sox (and the '10 Sox, for that matter), and any run at glory for the '12 edition necessarily requires improved health.
And if they are healthy, many of the other concerns will sort themselves out. A healthy Crawford will likely be better than he was in 2011. A healthy Youkilis is probably an effective Youkilis. And a healthy Buchholz for a full year is a difference-maker -- and surely would have been last year as well. Regardless of what's going on in the clubhouse during games.
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.