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Red Sox are an enigma this spring
FORT MYERS, Fla.
Two scenes from Sunday helped illustrate why it is so difficult to figure out the 2013 Boston Red Sox.
What was this, 25 MRIs for 25 players?
“Man on a mission,” one scout said, adding that Lester will be even better as he refines his command. “Expect a big year for him.”
So, who are the ’13 Sox?
Maybe, as club president Larry Lucchino proclaimed, they will be “scrappy underdogs,” a laughable concept for a team with a payroll of $150 million-plus.
More likely, they will evoke a phrase for which former general manager Theo Epstein once was condemned, and experience a “bridge year.”
Either way, the Red Sox are in something of a no-lose position. For once, expectations are relatively low. If the Sox exceed those expectations, great. If not, the team wasn’t supposed to be good, anyway.
For now, the condition of Ortiz’s heel is troubling, and the starting pitching is encouraging. But the most interesting thing about the Sox is that they are developing a new wave of young talent, one that could rival the group that helped them win the 2007 World Series.
It might be a stretch to think that center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr., shortstop Xander Bogaerts, right-hander Allen Webster and others could make the same impact that Lester, closer Jonathan Papelbon, center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and second baseman Dustin Pedroia did in ’07.
But third baseman Will Middlebrooks already is in place, and left-hander Felix Doubront and righties Rubby De La Rosa and Matt Barnes also could be part of future rotations.
Meanwhile, none of the Sox’s recent free-agent acquisitions — righty Ryan Dempster, outfielder Shane Victorino, first baseman Mike Napoli, left fielder Jonny Gomes, catcher David Ross — required a commitment of more than three years.
What was it Epstein said after the 2009 season?
“We’re kind of in a bridge period. We still think that if we push some of the right buttons, we can be competitive at the very highest levels for the next two years. But we don’t want to compromise too much of the future for that competitiveness during the bridge period, but we all don’t want to sacrifice our competitiveness during the bridge period just for the future. So we’re just trying to balance both those issues.”
Many interpreted Epstein’s comments as a willingness by the Red Sox to be less competitive. But as it turned out, the Sox signed free-agent right-hander John Lackey to a five-year contract that offseason and third baseman Adrian Beltre, outfielder Mike Cameron and shortstop Marco Scutaro to shorter deals. They later awarded right-hander Josh Beckett a five-year contract extension.
They then won a mere 89 games, triggering a push the following offseason for the “sexy guys” that Epstein referenced in former manager Terry Francona’s book, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and left fielder Carl Crawford.
Bridge years, sexy guys, none of it worked. The Sox have gone three straight seasons without making the playoffs, and their fans have grown increasingly skeptical. Lucchino already has said that the team’s streak of 793 consecutive sellouts is likely to end in April.
What will happen if the Sox stumble early, despite playing 17 of their first 26 games at home? Will attendance take a tumble? And will ownership again freak out if the team proves a season-long disappointment, and make another series of questionable investments in an attempt to lure back fans?
The Red Sox are on the right track, if they can just stay the course. Their relatively tame off-season indicates that perhaps they are learning to be disciplined, if three-year, high-dollar deals for Dempster and Victorino even fit that description. But difficult choices lie ahead.
Ellsbury, a potential free agent, is likely a goner. Lester is under club control through ’14, Pedroia through ’15. But regardless of whether they sign extensions, one thing has become clear this spring — several of the team’s top prospects could become cornerstones.
Start with Bradley, who is batting .444 with a 1.139 OPS in 45 plate appearances in Grapefruit League play.
The growing debate over whether Bradley should make the Opening Day roster is largely spring-training fodder. Bradley is not on the 40-man roster, so if the Sox keep him, they will need to demote him for only 20 days total over the next six years to delay his free agency until after the 2019 season.
That shouldn’t be so difficult. And if Bradley proves he can hit tougher pitching over the final two weeks of camp, then is so brilliant that he stays in the majors for good, well, the Sox can worry about his service time later. Frankly, all teams would welcome such a problem.
Bogaerts, currently playing for the Kingdom of the Netherlands at the World Baseball Classic, is the team’s No. 1 prospect, according to Baseball America. He speaks four languages and “lights up a room,” according to one Sox official. Perhaps most important, his footwork might be good enough for him to remain at shortstop.
Then there is Webster, who had command issues with the Dodgers but is the talk of Red Sox camp. He throws his sinker 95-99 mph, and his secondary stuff, in the view of the Sox official, is better than former major league pitcher Kevin Brown’s. Gomes says of Webster’s changeup, “You don’t even know what it is, it’s so nasty.”
Webster, like Bradley and possibly even Bogaerts, could make an impact this season. Heck, the Sox might even surprise if Ortiz gets healthy, if Lester, Lackey and righty Clay Buchholz return to form, if all of the free-agent additions with postseason experience help reverse the team’s culture.
It’s a bridge year, all right. But the bridge should lead to a decent place, if not right away, then certainly in the future.
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