After ending a generations-long World Series drought in 2004, the Boston Red Sox had become an annual staple of October baseball.
However, there has been a noticeable trend since capturing their second title in 2007. In 2008, the Red Sox lost the American League Championship Series in seven games. In 2009, they were swept out of the ALDS in three games. And more recently, and notably, Boston has failed to make the postseason cut in each of the last two years.
The way last season ended was particularly tough to swallow. On the final night of the regular season, Boston, needing a victory over the last-place Baltimore Orioles to capture the AL Wild Card, took a 3-2 lead into the ninth inning. That lead would vanish in the bottom of the ninth, as the O's rallied for two runs off closer Jonathan Papelbon to win in walk-off fashion. On that same night, the Tampa Bay Rays knocked off the New York Yankees to claim the wild card and put the stamp on Boston's unthinkable collapse.
As recently as Sept. 3, the Red Sox led the Rays by nine games in the wild card race and were all but assured a trip to the postseason. Instead, they dropped 20 of their final 27 games to become the first team in the history of Major League Baseball to blow a nine-game lead in September and fail to make the playoffs. It also marked the first time the team missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons since a three-year postseason hiatus from 2000-02.
In the wake of that late-season meltdown, Boston's offseason was a whirlwind. The team parted ways with manager Terry Francona amid some controversy about pitchers drinking beer in the clubhouse and playing video games during games when they were not pitching. In addition, general manager Theo Epstein left to become the GM of the Chicago Cubs. Epstein's right-hand man Ben Cherington stepped into the open GM gig, and former New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine was lured away from his TV analyst job to replace Francona.
Cherington won't have a whole lot of wiggle room, as he inherits a rather depleted farm system and a roster with quite a bit of dead money. Left fielder Carl Crawford, who was signed to big dollars a year ago, is recovering from wrist surgery and is expected to miss the early portion of the season. First baseman Kevin Youkilis had his 2011 campaign cut short due to hernia and hip injuries, and he has been dealing with back stiffness of late.
Infielder Marco Scutaro was traded, Papelbon left for Philadelphia in free agency, and right fielder J.D. Drew was not retained after playing out his hefty five-year, $75 million contract. Moreover, veteran catcher Jason Varitek and knuckleballer Tim Wakefield both announced their retirements.
Indeed, there has been quite a bit of turnover from top to bottom, and that will be a key storyline entering a new season. Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Red Sox, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 FINISH (90-72) - Third Place (AL East)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Andrew Bailey (RP), Mark Melancon (RP), Nick Punto (IF), Ryan Sweeney (OF), Kelly Shoppach (C), Cody Ross (OF)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Jonathan Papelbon (RP), Marco Scutaro (SS), Tim Wakefield (SP), Jason Varitek (C), J.D. Drew (OF), Josh Reddick (OF),
PROJECTED LINEUP: Jacoby Ellsbury (CF), Dustin Pedroia (2b), Adrian Gonzalez (1b), Kevin Youkilis (3b), David Ortiz (DH), Carl Crawford (LF), Jarrod Saltalamacchia (C), Ryan Sweeney (RF), Mike Aviles (SS)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Jon Lester (LHP), Josh Beckett (RHP), Clay Buchholz (RHP), Daniel Bard (RHP), Alfredo Aceves (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Andrew Bailey (RHP)
MANAGER: Bobby Valentine
BATTLE FOR THE BACK OF THE ROTATION
The front end of the rotation figures to be a strength with right-hander Josh Beckett and lefty Jon Lester still in the fold. Each of those two put together strong campaigns in 2011 but faded badly in September, along with the rest of the team.
No. 3 starter Clay Buchholz seemed to put it all together in 2010 (17-7, 2.33) but a back injury limited him to just 14 starts last year and the ailment was not surgically treated in the offseason. Still, Buchholz was ready to pitch by the end of the year and the team is hopeful he can return to form. His questionable status, while critical, may pale in comparison to the back end of the rotation.
That's because Boston has $25 million tied up to starters Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lackey, both of whom face long recovery timelines after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Their absences leave two slots up for grabs in the starting rotation.
To try and fill those spots, the team brought in veteran right-hander Vicente Padilla, although he was hampered by a hamstring injury and has since fallen out of contention. Fellow right-hander Aaron Cook is a candidate but has struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness over the past few seasons. Consequently, those last two slots may end up falling to relievers Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves. Bard handled the transition with mixed results throughout the spring but appeared to get more comfortable the more he pitched, perhaps putting to rest some recent rumors that Valentine was considering moving him back to the bullpen.
WHAT ABOUT THE BULLPEN?
Papelbon was an All-Star closer in four of his six seasons in Boston, but he'll now be closing games for the Phillies. To try and fill that void, the front office inked former Oakland A's closer Andrew Bailey as well as young right-hander Mark Melancon, who spent last year as the Houston Astros' closer.
Those signings could turn out to be as vital as any, not just because they have the potential to form one of top back end duos in the league, but also because Bard and Aceves could wind up starting. If that happens, it will obviously have a domino effect on the 'pen.
Also impacting the team's short relief corps is the not-so-promising status of former White Sox closer Bobby Jenks, who is currently on the 60-day disabled list as he recovers from multiple back surgeries and a pulmonary embolism. More recently, he was arrested for a DUI hit-and-run. There are also some questions about who will handle long relief. Matt Albers, Franklin Morales and Felix Doubront are still around, although they were part of a relief corps that Francona virtually ran into the ground last September. Doubront spent a chunk of the spring challenging Aceves for a rotation spot.
If Valentine has any hopes of making a lengthy playoff push in his first go- around, he'll need to handle the bullpen better than Francona did last year. But first, he needs to figure out who is starting and who will be pitching in relief.
IS THIS A WORLD SERIES-CALIBER TEAM?
As far as Red Sox Nation is concerned, that is the ultimate question. Playing in the ultra-competitive AL East, it's a question that is not easily answered. After all, Boston won 90 games last year and 89 the year before, yet failed to make the playoffs in both seasons.
Have the Red Sox truly improved with the offseason signings? Can they stay healthy? Those are among the chief concerns, although few factors contributed to the team's collapse last September more so than the struggles of the back end of the rotation. The front office tried to address that issue by signing veteran journeymen like Cook and Padilla to low-risk deals, but Valentine appears more inclined to give a look to a reliever, and possibly two.
How the pitching roles play out could ultimately be the biggest factor in the team's success this season. For example, Bard, while solid in relief, is still adjusting to things like how to go about his pre-game routine, how to approach each start mentally, and the like.
With the pitching-rich Tampa Bay Rays and the offensive-minded New York Yankees not fading out of contention any time soon, the Red Sox can ill-afford another season filled with questions beyond their first two or three starters, not to mention an unsettled bullpen.
X-FACTOR: CARL CRAWFORD
Crawford's debut season in Boston could not have gone much worse, and he'll likely begin the 2012 campaign on the shelf. For a guy looking to live up to the hype of his eight-year contract, that scenario is certainly less than ideal.
Last winter, the Red Sox felt comfortable signing Crawford to such a contract because they thought they were getting a four-time All-Star in his prime. Instead, Crawford struggled out of the gate, hit a career-worst .255 for the year and saw his on-base percentage -- one of his most critical stat lines -- dip below .300 (.289). To put that last number in contrast, over his eight previous seasons in Tampa, Crawford boasted a career .340 OBP.
Moving forward, it's complicated to put a finger on what would be considered a feasible rebound season for a player who will turn 31 in August. For example, does he still have the speed to steal 50 bags in a season, something he has done five times in his career but has totaled only 65 steals over the last two years combined?
Red Sox Nation may still be holding out hope for vintage Crawford, but more realistic goals would probably include staying healthy and improving on his numbers from last year. After all, he posted a career-worst strikeout rate of nearly 20 percent a year ago, which would seem to indicate he put a lot of pressure on himself to make things happen in a new environment. Perhaps batting lower in the lineup could help Crawford's mindset and restore some confidence.
When the stakes are high, as they always are for a team of Boston's caliber, it's easy to look past what's already in place and instead focus on the potential shortcomings. But make no mistake, the Red Sox are locked and loaded.
Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez both won Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards last year, the only American League players to do so. In fact, Ellsbury won the league's Comeback Player of the Year award and finished second in the MVP voting, as he became the first player in Boston's long history ever to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases in a single season. Gonzalez was the opposite of fellow newcomer Crawford, as he tied for the league lead in hits (213) and was second in batting average (.338) after signing a mega-deal the previous winter.
For the Red Sox to get back to the postseason, they'll need another big year from those two, although replicating last season's numbers may be a bit optimistic. The team will also need to count on a few less heralded players. One of those guys is new shortstop Mike Aviles, whom the front office hopes can hold the fort until highly-touted infield prospect Jose Iglesias is ready to be called up from Triple-A.
While there are some notable roster battles playing out, there is also a new regime featuring Cherington as the general manager and Valentine as the new skipper. Francona's fate was sealed when it became clear he had lost control of the team, although it will be interesting to see whether the clubhouse culture does indeed change under Valentine's watch.
This year also marks the centennial celebration of Fenway Park, MLB's oldest ballpark. Of course, the Red Sox rang in that 1912 season with a World Series title, which would be their last until 2004. For Boston fans, it would be fitting to cap Fenway Park's centennial season with another world championship. However, the front office may have an eye toward 2013, when they figure to have the financial flexibility to be major players in free agency.