2012 Red Sox Player Preview: Dustin Pedroia

Pedroia is the heart and soul of the Red Sox clubhouse

Consistency is key for any athlete in any sport.  If nothing else a manager or a coach would just love to have any player that is consistent year in and year out.  Throw in leadership and attitude and you’ve got a hell of a player in your locker room.  That’s Dustin Pedroia to a T.  Hard-nosed, passionate, vocal, and consistent.  What you’ve seen is what you’ll get with Dustin Pedroia.  He’ll never lead the league in home runs or stolen bases but he’ll give you consistent production in every statistical category, including defensive metrics.

Here’s a look at Pedroia’s 2011 season (career highs in parentheses):

Games: 159 (159, 2011)
Average: .307 (.317, 2007)
On-Base Percentage: .387 (.387, 2011)
Slugging Percentage: .474 (.493, 2008 & 2010)
On Base plus Slugging (OPS): .861 (.869, 2008)
Home Runs: 21 (21, 2011)
Runs Batted In: 91 (91, 2011)
Runs: 102 (118, 2008)
Doubles: 37 (54, 2008)
Walks: 86 (86, 2011)

2012 Outlook:

As you can see above Pedroia had career highs in 5 offensive categories listed in 2011.  He also had a career high 26 stolen bases last season.  Pedroia hasn’t even reached his offensive prime years (ages 29-31) as he will be 28 years old this coming season.  Amazingly Pedroia played in more games last year than any other season despite taking a day off to get his knee scoped during June.  The lingering effects of his 2010 leg injury seemed to have subsided as the year went on and he looked more stronger and more confident at the plate.  It made for what was probably his most productive offensive season.  Pedey still has the disaster of last year on his mind, he recently told NESN that he’ll never forget 2011.  That should prove to be more than sufficient motivation for Pedroia to put together another M.V.P. caliber season.

Pedroia is just entering the prime of his career

Pedroia had another stellar year defensively last season as he won his second career gold glove.  The only second baseman in the American League to have a higher fielding percentage than Pedroia’s .990% was the Angels’ Howie Kendrick who had a .992%.  Pedroia has become an elite defender and along with Adrian Gonzalez makes up for one of the best right sides of the infield in the majors.  You could expect Pedroia to be a plus defender again this season.  What will be watched closely during the year will be his chemistry with new shortstop Mike Aviles.  Pedroia has spent  alot of time in practice with Aviles.  Turning over a double play is harder than it looks and you need to have chemistry with your middle infield mate.  Pedroia seems to be making sure that him and Aviles will be ready by opening day.

Obviously one of the biggest factors this year will be how Pedroia handles his leadership duties.  Him and David Ortiz are the undisputed leaders in the Red Sox clubhouse but things got away from them last season.  It looks like everyone is ready to make amends this year and it will be up to Pedroia and Ortiz to be the voices in what you would have to believe will be a more intense clubhouse this year with the addition of manager Bobby Valentine.  Pedroia’s relationship with Bobby Valentine is also very important as he was former manager Terry Francona’s closest clubhouse confidante.  Valentine and Pedroia are very similarly and should make for two peas in a pod.  I don’t see any issues arising between the two.  Even if Pedroia doesn’t like how Francona was treated last year he’s not the kind of guy to let it be a distraction to what he does on the field.

Pedroia will try to anchor a clubhouse that was in turmoil last year

Pedroia will likely put up similar numbers to what he put up last season.  Maybe he’ll have a few less home runs.  Maybe he will hit a few more doubles.  That’s the thing about Pedey, he’ll always be consistent.  His worth to the team however is much more than that.  He is the engine that makes the train go.  With the retirement of Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield his presence in the clubhouse should be even more pronounced and I’m guessing that he won’t have a problem with that at all.  For all intents and purposes Dustin Pedroia is the face of the franchise.

Dustin Pedroia is the least of the Red Sox’ spring training worries.  He’s going to produce.  He’s going to lead.  He’ll probably be an All-Star and will probably be in contention for a gold glove at the end of the season.  Not of that will matter to Pedey unless the Sox are playing deep into October.  And you can bet your ass that Pedey will give it all he has in order to get them there.

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Sox’ beer ban gets some unexpected criticism

The Red Sox announced over the weekend that beer would be banned in the clubhouse as well as on planes on the last leg of a road trip for the upcoming season.  This is a move that surprised absolutely no one.  Obviously for every action there is a reaction and after the PR hit that the Sox took for all of the talk about beer and chicken in the clubhouse last season the obvious reaction was to remove that possible distraction altogether.  Was it a PR move?  Absolutely it was.  Still it was surprising to hear their former manager say as much just a few days after the reports of the rule change.

Terry Francona appeared on the Mike and Mike Show this morning on ESPN radio this AM and said exactly that.  He said it was a PR move and made thinly veiled suggestions that it will probably end up being more of a guideline than a rule (which, by the way, I don’t buy).  While he’s right that it was a PR move to announce the rule that doesn’t make it a bad thing.  The rule didn’t have to be made public but it was the smart thing to do with the Boston sports media swimming around Fort Myers like sharks looking for blood.  Announcing the step was just another way to try and move on from last year.  The questions from the media are certainly beginning to get tiring.  If anything it speaks to the difference of Valentine and Francona as managers.  Francona is not a disciplinarian and it was well known that he was not much of a “rules guy” in the clubhouse.  Valentine is different and ultimately that’s why he was hired in the first place.

Francona’s comments were modest in nature compared to the comments made by Rays manager Joe Maddon.  Maddon took some not-so-thinly veiled swipes at the Sox when he defiantly announced that his club would not ban alcohol in the clubhouse.  Good for you Joe.  Maddon even cited the Volstead Act when criticizing the Red Sox stance on alcohol in the clubhouse.  People say that it was a case of Maddon being Maddon but I see a lot of things that could be considered direct shots at the Red Sox clubhouse.  It’s clear to me that Maddon, and likely by extension his players, have little to no respect for the competitive nature of the Red Sox players.  I hope someone is taking note of this in the Red Sox clubhouse.

It should be noted that the Sox are the 19th team to ban alcohol in their clubhouse.  That leaves only 11 teams left that actually do allow alcohol to be consumed in their clubhouse.  This was not unprecedented action that was initiated by the Sox brass.  They are just keeping up with the times.

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2012 Red Sox Preview: The 5th Starter

The Red Sox start spring training with no clear #4 or #5 starter.  Daniel Bard will be given every opportunity to earn the #4 starter role and Daisuke Matsuzaka might be the longer term solution for that last spot but he still needs a few months to get healthy.  That leaves a cast of 6 or 7 guys to vie for the #5 spot out of camp.  The Sox brought 4 veterans into camp on minor league deals and 2 more guys from last year’s squad will get a chance to win the job.  Alfredo Aceves also has a shot but I think his versatility will make it hard for Bobby Valentine and co. to take him out of the bullpen where he’s been so valuable.  Here is a look at the 6 guys vying for that final rotation spot.

Carlos Silva, 32 years old, 10th major league season

2010 stats (he didn’t pitch in 2011) and career highs in parentheses

Games Started: 21 (33, 2004 & 2007)
Innings Pitched: 113 (203, 2004)
Win-Loss Record: 10-6 (14-8, 2004)
ERA: 4.22 (3.44, 2005)
WHIP: 1.274 (1.173, 2005)
Batting Average Against: .273 (.273, 2010)
Strikeouts/9 Innings: 6.4 (6.4, 2010)
Walks/9 Innings: 1.9 (0.4, 2005)

2012 Outlook

Silva may have the most past success of any of the guys going for the 5th spot but he didn’t pitch in the majors at all in 2011.  He spent the first few months of the season in the Yankees minor league season but was released in June.  He’s not really a power pitcher.  He pitches to contact and his career .302 batting average against might not play well in the AL East.  Still he is an innings eater.  He has good control as evidenced by his 1.7 BB/9 rate.  He’d certainly be a guy, if healthy, that could go a solid 6 or 7 innings and really save the bullpen, something that the Sox had trouble with last year.  His biggest issue is the fact that he is not very versatile and has little value to the Sox if he’s not a starter.  The fact that he’ll be rusty coming off of a dormant second half of last season may put him in a tough position to make the team.

Padilla hopes to join Josh Beckett and co. in the Sox rotation

Vicente Padilla, 34 years old, 15th major league season

Games Started: 0 (33, 2006)
Innings Pitched: 8.2 (208.2, 2003)
Win-Loss Record: 0-0 (15-10, 2006)
ERA: 4.15 (3.28, 2002)
WHIP: 1.385 (1.084, 2010)
Batting Average Against: .226 (.226, 2010 & 2011)
Strikeouts/9 Innings: 9.3 (9.3, 2011)
Walks/9 Innings: 5.2 (2.3, 2002 & 2010)

2012 Outlook

Padilla is a power arm so he could be a candidate to come out of the bullpen if he doesn’t start.  He could be an attractive candidate for the initial 5th starter’s role if Bobby V. is comfortable with Dice-K’s rehab and can use Padilla to start for a few months and then transition him to the bullpen.  He could also be used in the bullpen out of the gate and as insurance if one of the other guys outperforms him in spring training.  Last year was a good primer for him as he made all 9 of his appearances out of the bullpen.  It was a good news/bad news situation.  He struck out a lot of guys but he also walked a lot of guys.  There are a couple red flags on Padilla.  The first is that he has said all along that he wants to start and might not be happy with a bullpen role.  Before last year he was a full-time starter since 2001.  The other thing is that he has had attitude problems in the past and his Red Sox career didn’t start well when a warrant was issued for his arrest for failure to pay child support.  Ben Cherington went to great lengths to improve the clubhouse atmosphere and Padilla might not be the best fit, particularly if he wants to make a big stink about not starting should he lose out on the rotation slot.

Aaron Cook, 33 years old, 11th major league season

Games Started: 17 (32, 2006 & 2008)
Innings Pitched: 97 (212.2, 2006)
Win-Loss Record: 3-10 (16-9, 2008)
ERA: 6.03 (3.67, 2005)
WHIP: 1.691 (1.337, 2007)
Batting Average Against: .326 (.279, 2007)
Strikeouts/9 Innings: 4.5 (4.5, 2011)
Walks/9 Innings: 3.4 (1.7, 2005)

2012 Outlook

Cook was downright awful last season.  It was his worst season in the pros.  2010 wasn’t all that much better.  Before that he was a rock in the Rockies’ rotation for a good 5-6 year stretch.  Getting out of the thin air in Colorado could possibly do Cook some good.  He is not a strikeout guy, he pitches to contact.  He’s lived off of his sinker for his career and, as Sox fans know from watching a guy like Derek Lowe, if his sinker is on he could be very effective for long stretches.  The last two seasons obviously set off big red flags and you wonder if Cook has anything left in the tank.  If the Sox staff could get him right and he could find his sinker again, he could be a sleeper for the final spot.  A lot of his success might hinge on how Kevin Youkilis and Mike Aviles look on the left side of the infield.  Cook could be helpful but he needs to get himself right somehow because if he pitches like he did the last two years in spring training he’s not going to make it to Fenway.

Ross Ohlendorf, 29 years old, 6th major league season

Games Started: 9 (29, 2009)
Innings Pitched: 38.2 (176.2, 2009)
Win-Loss Record: 1-3 (11-10, 2009)
ERA: 8.15 (3.92, 2009)
WHIP: 1.940 (1.234, 2009)
Batting Average Against: .364 (.255, 2009)
Strikeouts/9 Innings: 6.3 (7.0, 2008)
Walks/9 Innings: 3.5 (2.7, 2009)

2012 Outlook

The reasons that Ohlendorf was so attractive for the Red Sox to sign to a minor league deal this off season are probably the reasons that Ohlendorf is the underdog to win the 5th starter’s spot.  Ohlendorf has an option left, meaning he can be called up and sent back down 1 more time.  He also is under team control until the end of next season.  Ohlendorf is in a good position to come into camp and just start to buy into the team’s organizational philosophy and try to find himself in AAA for a while.  Like Cook he was horrible last season but he is still young and there is potential there.  Ohlendorf seems to be more of a long term project and he could prove to be a valuable piece that can be stashed in Pawtucket for at least this season.

Andrew Miller looks to jump into the Sox rotation this year

Andrew Miller, 26 years old, 6th major league season

Games Started: 12 (20, 2008)
Innings Pitched: 65 (107.1, 2008)
Win-Loss Record: 6-3 (6-3, 2011)
ERA: 5.54 (4.84, 2009)
WHIP: 1.815 (1.600, 2009)
Batting Average Against: .302 (.273, 2009)
Strikeouts/9 Innings: 6.9 (7.9, 2007)
Walks/9 Innings: 5.7 (4.7, 2008)

2012 Outlook

Andrew Miller is one of those maddening pitchers to watch.  If he could improve his control and cut down his walks he could legitimately be a top of the end rotation guy.  The problem is throughout his career he has yet to figure it out.  His walk/9 rate has been above 4 1/2 throughout his entire career which is horrible.  When he hits his spots he is very tough to hit.  New pitching coach Bob McClure has talked about how he has seen flaws in his footwork and is trying to fix that during spring training.  If Miller could get himself right he could be a huge asset to the Sox rotation.  It would be interesting to see Miller and Daniel Bard, who were the aces of the staff when they were together at North Carolina, pitching together in the Red Sox rotation.

Felix Doubront will try to put his injury issues behind him this season

Felix Doubront, 24 years old, 3rd major league season

Games Started: 0 (3, 2010)
Innings Pitched: 10.1 (25, 2010)
Win-Loss Record: 0-0 (2-2, 2010)
ERA: 6.10 (4.32, 2010)
WHIP: 1.953 (1.480, 2010)
Batting Average Against: .316 (.270, 2010)
Strikeouts/9 Innings: 5.2 (8.3, 2010)
Walks/9 Innings: 7.0 (3.6, 2010)

2012 Outlook

Doubront is another high-ceiling guy.  He was injured coming into camp each of the past two seasons and didn’t come in at optimal shape.  He missed a lot of time last season in the minors with shoulder problems.  If he’s healthy he may finally be able to emerge as a starting option for the Sox’ big league club.  Doubront has great stuff and, like Miller, if he can harness that stuff and keep the ball near the plate he can be very effective.  His control is not as bad as Miller’s and his shoulder played a factor last season.  He’s a guy that can strike people out and it’s always good to have another tough lefty in the rotation along with Jon Lester.  We’ve already heard good things with the Sox brass regarding Doubront for his work in camp and he’ll have every opportunity to win the job this spring.

By the end of spring training I see both big young lefties being the last two standing.  Experience is one thing but when you talk about pure stuff Miller and Doubront are the best of the bunch.  Also neither of these guys have any options left so they would need to put them through waivers if they wanted to send them to the minors.  I think both Miller and Doubront make the squad and Padilla has an outside shot at making the team as a reliever too.  I’ll check back with a progress report on all of these guys towards the end of the spring.  Next week I’ll preview some of the mainstays such as David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia.

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World’s most overhyped job fair gets underway in Indianapolis

This guy is way too short to play in the NFL

The NFL has become a media mogul in recent years.  A few years ago the NFL Network decided to air the combine live.  It makes sense, you’ve got a whole network and 24 hours a day of programming to fill, why not show these guys working out.  The thing is that the combine results may not necessarily mean much in the long run.  Last year when Cam Newton came out and threw the ball he didn’t look so good.  Nevertheless the Panthers made Newton the first overall pick in the draft and he went on to light up the league in his rookie of the year season.

Andrew Luck has not decided yet as to whether or not he will take part in throwing drills at the combine.  Players who have already had their draft expectations set generally do not do any more than they have to at the combine but Luck might work out anyway.  I say he should do it.  This is live national TV, it’s time to give the people a show.  It’s not like he’s going to be able to shy away from the spotlight any time soon anyway, being Peyton Manning’s replacement and all.  And speaking of Peyton Manning doesn’t the media realize that new Colts GM Ryan Grigson will not be the guy making the call on Peyton Manning?  That will, of course, be Colts owner Jim Irsay.  Yet that didn’t stop reporters from asking him about Peyton Manning repeatedly during his pre-combine press conference.  Give the guy a break.  He is stepping in to re-build a team that was one of the best in the AFC for the past decade.

I also got a kick this week out of guys saying that Robert Griffith III would have problems if he measured anywhere under 6’2″.  Does an inch or two really make the difference between a good pro and a bad pro?  In 2001 an ultra talented QB from Purdue measured in at 5’11″ at the combine and many teams were scared off.  How could a guy that small conceivably be successful in the NFL?  I’d say that after 11 seasons Drew Brees has answered that question quite well.  But don’t worry, it’s a moot point because RG3 measured in at that magical 6’2″ number this morning.

This guy is too slow for the NFL

But the combine has the 40 yard dash and that’s cool, especially when the NFL Network’s Rich Eisen runs it in his suit.  God forbid you can’t have a talented football player unless he runs fast in the 40 yard dash.  9 years ago at the combine a defensive end from Arizona State who broke the NCAA sack record ran a horribly slow 40 yard dash and his draft stock plummeted.  That was reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs who has made 5 Pro Bowls in his 9 years with the Baltimore Ravens.

The combine is more of a meet and greet for players, agents, and teams.  It also is a great chance for small school and under the radar talents to show that they have the athleticism to play at the next level.  A lot of the drills are meaningless and the result will have little impact on the draft slot that many of these players ultimately fall to.  Yet many, including myself, will turn on the TV on Saturday afternoon and watch these guys run their drills.  I guess they’re doing something right.

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Ryan Braun saga is a referendum on the media and “unnamed sources”

Last December ESPN reporter Mark Fainaru-Wada broke a story that reigning National League M.V.P. Ryan Braun had tested positive for a banned substance.  This was the first time since the MLB implemented their more extensive drug testing program in 2006 that a players’ name was leaked before the process had run its course.  66 players have previously been suspended for failing a drug test and 13 players had appealed and lost the decision.  The identity of the 13 players who appealed is not known because the information is not public and their names were not leaked.

Ryan Braun, the reigning N.L. MVP, had his suspension overturned

Braun’s appeal was sustained because the person who had the sample placed the sample in his refrigerator over the weekend because he thought FedEx was closed on Saturday.  Obviously that was extremely dumb and opens up a lot of questions regarding MLB’s drug testing program in general.  The fact of the matter is that the science of testing for performance enhancing is still relatively new and it would be incredibly hard to prove that the sample wasn’t somehow complicated by sitting in some random guy’s fridge for a few days.  Now the MLB is facing criticism over its drug testing policy.  Successful appeal or not, Ryan Braun’s image has taken a hit.  That happens in situations like this but it needs to be acknowledged that the process was meant to go on behind the scenes, not publicly like Braun’s case was presented.

At the end of the day these “unnamed sources” who leak these stories to the press need to be held accountable.  Certain reporters, like Fainaru-Wada, have little concern over things like the Constitution of the United States and would sell out their own mothers to get a good story.  The truth is the story doesn’t exist if the very private information is not leaked.  Fainaru-Wada spent 18 months in prison for leaking grand jury testimony during the BALCO investigation during his time with the San Fransisco Chronicle.  It is, of course, a federal offense to leak grand jury testimony but Fainaru-Wada did it anyway.  And why not?  He served his 18 months in federal prison and then got a job at ESPN, the biggest sports media company in the world.  Once again he violated the privacy afforded a player to go through the process.  It turns out this time that Fainaru-Wada made a boo-boo.  It turns out Braun’s sample was compromised and there is no way of knowing that Braun’s elevated testosterone level was the result of performance enhancing drugs or from some bad mayonnaise left in some guy’s refrigerator.

Fainaru-Wada served time in prison for publishing leaked grand jury testimony and not revealing his source

So what did we learn from this mess?  First off there may be some serious flaws with MLB’s drug testing.  Or it could have been a one-time thing when a less than intelligent guy makes a really dumb decision.  Ryan Braun might have cheated but then again he might not have at all.  Or maybe the lesson is that we should let these things play themselves out before we start to cast stones.  It might not make for the sexiest story but don’t you think it makes more sense for all involved to not report on the story until you’ve got all of the facts?

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2012 Red Sox Player Preview: Jarrod Saltalamacchia

Saltalamacchia enters his 2nd season as the Sox' primary catcher

Many were surprised at the start of spring training last year when the Red Sox were seemingly ready to hand the primary catcher’s job to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, whom they had traded for at the trading deadline in 2010 and spent the last few months of that season in Pawtucket.  Saltalamacchia was a big time prospect in the Braves organization and was the centerpiece of the trade that sent first baseman Mark Teixeira from the Texas Rangers to Atlanta in July of 2010 but toiled in the Rangers organization for 3 years until the trade to Boston.

Salty was not an All-Star by any means in his first year as Red Sox catcher but he did show that the risk the Red Sox took on him might be worth the reward in the long run.  Salty was solid at the plate for much of the regular season but tailed off towards the end as the increased work load caught up to him.  He also had a disappointing end to the season after he got hit in the shoulder by a foul tip in the 3rd to last game of the season and had to sit out the crucial final 2 games for the Sox.  Saltalamacchia’s work behind the plate was decent enough and he should be better this year with a year in the organization under his belt.

Here’s a look at Saltalamacchia’s 2011 season (career highs in parentheses)

Games: 103 (103, 2011)
Average: .235 (.266, 2007)
On-Base Percentage: .288 (.352, 2008)
Slugging Percentage: .450 (.450, 2011)
On Base plus Slugging (OPS): .737 (.737, 2011)
Home Runs: 16 (16, 2011)
Runs Batted In: 56 (56, 2011)
Runs: 52 (52, 2011)
Doubles: 23 (23, 2011)
Walks: 24 (31, 2008)

 

2012 Outlook:

As you can see above Salty set career highs in many offensive categories last year.  He did deal with fatigue problems as the year went on.  He played 101 games at catcher last season, 18 more than his previous career high of 83 in 2009 in Texas.  Saltalamacchia’s numbers suffered in September as the fatigue set in.  By the end of August Salty was hitting for a respectable .252 batting average.  After a 11 for 68 month of September Salty lost 17 points on his average to finish at .235 for the season.  Hopefully after the extended work at catcher last season Saltalamacchia has worked up his durability and his body will hold up at the plate for a full season.  One thing that was encouraging last season was his increase in power and the fact that he didn’t lose that late in the season.  His 16 home runs were a career high and even in September 3 of his 11 hits were long balls.  He also had career bests in double, triples, and RBI last season.

Salty was in the top half of the league at catching base stealers last season

Defensively Salty was much improved over his train wreck of a performance behind the plate in his time with the Rangers.  Still there is much room for improvement at the backstop.  Saltalamacchia was having trouble just getting the ball back to the pitcher a la Rube Baker from the movie Major League II towards the end of his stint with Texas.  The Sox coaching staff worked with him on it in the minors after the trade and he came out looking a lot more confident in 2011.  He had A LOT of passed balls though, 26 to be exact.  That was 10 more than the Mets’ Josh Thole, who came in 2nd with 16 passed balls.  Remember that Saltalamacchia had to catch Tim Wakefield’s knuckle ball last year.

Saltalmacchia was much improved throwing runners out last season.  He threw runners out at a 31% clip which was above the league average.  In fact only 4 catchers who started as many games as Salty behind the plate had a better caught stealing %.  He went through a few stretches last year in which he had some accuracy troubles getting the ball down to 2nd but with the high caught stealing % that tells you when he is accurate he is very good at catching runners.  Hopefully he got enough confidence in throwing the ball last year that the accuracy issues will disappear in 2012.

Saltalamacchia did a decent enough job with the pitching staff last year and he’s coming in this season with a full year of working with the staff under his belt.  He should be particularly comfortable with staff ace Jon Lester, who he caught almost all of last season.  He also got extensive work with Clay Buchholz before Clay’s injury last season.  Salty only caught Josh Beckett a handful of times and will likely split the duty with Kelly Shoppach this season.  Saltalamacchia will also use a lot of wisdom that was bestowed on him last year by veteran Jason Varitek.  Saltalamacchia looks back fondly on his time spent with Varitek and he surely learned a lot, particularly about the current pitching staff, that should help him in the future.

Salty will try to make Red Sox Nation forget about Jason Varitek in 2012

It will be an important year for Saltalamacchia as even a modest improvement in most of his numbers will likely signal that he has a long term future as catcher of the Red Sox.  If he improves on his 2011 numbers and shows some increased durability you could expect Salty to be a similar offensive player to Varitek in his prime.  That is more than adequate for a catcher hitting in the bottom third of the lineup in this day and age.  Of course the way the pitchers respond to Salty will be important as well but he seems to already have a rapport with Jon Lester and will hopefully be able to spend some time with Beckett, who he only caught twice last season, in spring training.

The Saltalamacchia experiment was a risky one but I think you could confidently say “so far, so good” after year one.  We will need to see him do it for more than one season though.  That’s why 2012 is a crucial year for Salty.  If he stays consistent and improves his durability it looks like the experiment will be a success.  One thing about Salty early in this camp is that he is getting glowing reviews regarding his leadership skills among the younger pitchers and catchers.  That is an important trait for a catcher to have and is part of what made Jason Varitek such a success during his time in Boston.  If that part of Tek’s game rubbed off on Saltalamacchia last season the 26-year old may be in for a very bright future.

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Red Sox Player Preview: Jon Lester

Lester will look to wipe the stink off of last September this season

2011 was Jon Lester’s first year of being the unofficial ace of the Red Sox staff.  He made his first opening day start and, with the exception of his opening day start in Texas, had the best start to a season in his career.  However by the end of the 2011 season he was being talked about more for what he did off of the field than what he did on it.  It was a change for Lester who had been a Boston hero since his triumphant return from cancer treatment following the 2006 season.

Lester comes into 2012 with something to prove.  He wants to prove that he is the same guy that Red Sox Nation fell in love with 5 years ago.  He wants to prove that he can be a leader for this rotation and team.  He wants to prove that he can be a good teammate.  He wants to prove that the things that happened in 2011 are in the past.  To do that he needs to stay healthy and his arm should do the rest.

Here’s a look at his 2011 stats (with career highs in parentheses)

Games Started: 31 (33, 2008)
Innings Pitched: 191.2 (210.1, 2008)
Win-Loss Record: 15-9 (19-9, 2010)
ERA: 3.47 (3.21, 2008)
WHIP: 1.257 (1.202, 2010)
Batting Average Against: .234 (.220, 2010)
Strikeouts/9 Innings: 8.5 (10.0, 2009)
Walks/9 Innings: 3.5 (2.8, 2008, 2009)

2012 Outlook:

As I said, Jon Lester has a lot to prove this season and he started by showing up to spring training over a week early and leading voluntary player workouts with the group that had arrived in Fort Myers ahead of schedule.  Lester sat down with the media on the first official day of camp and took responsibility for what happened in the clubhouse last season and pledged to be a better teammate (The Globe’s Peter Abraham has an excellent write-up on his Q&A here).  Lester has said and done all of the right things since he arrived at Fort Myers a few weeks ago.  Still it comes down to action and Lester will need to show it on the mound as well.

Lester has been an early and eager participant at Sox camp this year

One thing that you might forget about Jon Lester in the wake of last year’s collapse is that he’s been a consistently good pitcher over his career so far.  Last year his .625 winning percentage was the worst of his 6-year career.  That means his 15-9 record from last season was his least productive.  Lester spent time on the D.L. last July and did not pitch well in September but his numbers generally stayed consistent with his career averages when he was healthy.  Lester was an All-Star for the second time in as many years last year and has become one of the premiere left-handed pitchers in the American League along with the Yankees’ C.C. Sabathia.  Lester just needs to come in, stay focused, and keep healthy and he should be able to anchor the Sox rotation again this year.

One thing going for Lester this year to look out for is the “Age 28 factor”.  Lester, along with rotation mate Clay Buchholz, will be entering the year at the age of 28, an age that many of the elite pitchers enjoy their most successful seasons (I crunched the year 28 numbers in this blog I did about Buchholz last month).  Former Sox aces Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, and even current rotation mate Josh Beckett all had their best statistical seasons at age 28.  If Lester replicates their successes at this age might he reach the now elusive 20-win plateau?

There will also be a new approach this year as an organization in regards to the pitching staff.  Bobby Valentine is now the Red Sox manager and Bob McClure is his new pitching coach.  McClure will be Lester’s 3rd different pitching coach in as many seasons.  The Sox staff seemed to respond to John Farrell when he was pitching coach but Curt Young seemed to have trouble connecting with the Sox’ staff last season.  McClure started to take steps to make sure he didn’t have the same problems almost immediately after being hired by Valentine and the Sox (WEEI’s Alex Speier went over McClure’s off-season preparation in this blog).  McClure has been in touch with all the Sox starters’, including Lester, since December and has worked to create a rapport with the pitchers as early in the process as possible.  That should help Lester and co. feel comfortable with McClure and more importantly buy into the process that he is preaching as pitching coach.

Lester and Saltalamacchia enter their second season as battery mates

He also will be entering his second season with battery-mate Jarrod Saltalamacchia.  Salty caught Lester in most of his starts last year and figures to be his primary catcher again this season.  Saltalamacchia comes into camp with a full year of catching Lester under his belt as well as a full year of tutelage from catcher Jason Varitek, who had become very familiar with Lester over the years.  There should be some added chemistry in Lester and Salty’s pitcher/catcher relationship.

The key to Lester this year will be health.  He has many things going for him that says he will have a big year if he stays healthy.  He has the motivation to wipe the stink off of the 2011 Red Sox, the age where many pitchers enjoy the greatest success, and a new manager and pitching coach to mesh with.  Lester had been pretty durable in 2009 and 2010 so I’m hoping that the health problems of last season were a one-time thing.  It seems to me that if Lester stays healthy he will pitch like an ace and be in contention for a Cy Young at the end of the year.

Lester surely hopes to be opening a series in October but that will depend a lot on what his rotation mates do through the course of the season.  Theoretically Lester should be the last guy in the Sox’ rotation that you need to worry about heading into the season.  And I think that will ultimately be the case.  Expect a big year from Jon Lester.  Check back tomorrow for my player preview of starting catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

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Random Sunday Sports Thoughts

Today is reporting day for pitchers and catchers for the Red Sox in Fort Myers.  Baseball season is on the horizon and we are getting for the stretch run in hockey and basketball.  Here are some (almost) mindless sports thoughts for a Sunday morning/afternoon.

  • Wakefield ended 17 great years in Boston on Friday

    Tim Wakefield was classy until the end.  Wakefield closed out his Red Sox, and baseball career on Friday evening with a press conference in which Wake carried himself the same way he did for 17 years in Boston.  Wakefield brought it for 17 years for the Red Sox and carved out his own little place in Boston baseball lore.  Thank you Tim.  I saw you pitch live at Fenway more than maybe I wanted to but you did a lot for the organization, including win 2 rings.  I’m not sure if you can think of a better successor to Mike Andrews as chairman of the Jimmy Fund than Wakefield.

  • Listening to Bobby Valentine talk this morning it sounds like this truly is an evaluation period for everyone on the roster.  It sounds like Jose Iglesias has a legitimate shot to be the Sox’ every day shortstop.  Things that happened last year will probably be addressed but it seems to me that Valentine will make his own impression on the players by what he sees himself in the clubhouse and on the field.
  • My bold prediction on the first day of Sox’ spring training – Daniel Bard and Felix Doubront round out the rotation to start the regular season.
  • If fans in L.A. start hearing about Angels camp being “Camp Tranquility” just an FYI, that’s not necessarily a good thing.
  • Miguel Cabrera's transition to third base will be one to watch

    Some of the more interesting storylines heading into camp outside of Boston – how will the defending champs fair with former catcher Mike Matheny replacing Tony LaRussa, one of the most decorated managers of all-time, as manager of the Cardinals?  He did retain some key guys such as Jose Oquendo and Mark McGwire from LaRussa’s staff.  Also will be interesting to watch Miguel Cabrera’s transition from first base to third in Detroit camp.  He was never a good defensive first baseman so third base could be an adventure.  It looks like there is a clown show coming to Athletics camp this week as well and his name is Manny Ramirez.

  • In non-baseball news, the Andrew Luck show, I mean the NFL Scouting Combine is this week in Indianapolis.  The guy with the least amount of pressure on him might be Robert Griffith III, the consensus #2 QB to be taken in the draft.  Although he can conceivably go anywhere from picks #2-#6 to at least 3 different teams the focus will squarely be on future Colts’ quarterback Andrew Luck as he works out for scouts in what will become his home stadium next season.  RG3 can just go out there and do his thing.
  • Negotiations with pending free agents should kick into gear next week in Indy.  There’s a lot of talent out there unsigned.  Ray Rice, Marshawn Lynch, Matt Forte, Drew Brees, Vincent Jackson, Wes Welker, Jermichael Finley, Mario Williams, Cliff Avril, and Chris Carr just to name a few.  Negotiations between teams and free agents have been modest so far but teams and agents use the scouting combine to kick off serious talks.  The Buffalo Bills jumped ahead last week by exchanging numbers with the agent for WR Stevie Johnson and they hope to close the gap this week in Indy.
  • Is anyone else sick of Linsanity already?
  • Kevin Garnett and company are starting to show their age.

    The Celtics are looking their age already.  It’s tough to see them making a deep run into the playoffs this year.  They desperately need yo get younger next season.

  • I can’t believe that it’s time for bracketology already.  The bright side to that is it means that spring is right around the corner.
  • The Bruins are starting to get beat up.  They could use some reinforcements at the trading deadline but it seems like a situation like last year where they need to tinker rather than make a major move.  I still feel that this team can compete for another championship with their current core, they just need to add some guys in some tertiary moves.  They struck gold last year with Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley.
  • For years it seems they’ve been trying to make a TV show about professional sports that is enjoyed by both fans and players alike.  Sure there was Friday Night Lights but that was a show about high school sports.  ESPN tried the controversial “Playmakers” years back but players thought the portrayal of edgy behavior of athletes off the field, while maybe accurate, was the part of the game that wasn’t for fans to see.  Danny McBride, Jody Hill, and Will Ferrell had a great idea a few years ago – make a parody so over the top that both players and fans would get a kick out of it.  They created Kenny Powers, an ignorant, insensitive, and masochistic cariacture, who was one of the best relief pitchers in baseball before bottoming out.  Tonight starts the third and final season of Eastbound and Down.  It’s probably the best sports comedy ever on TV.  Check it out at 10:00 PM EST if you have HBO.  Here’s a little Kenny for you:

 

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Wakefield cashed in on his second chance opportunity

Hats off to Tim Wakefield on a stellar career

Tim Wakefield retired today after 19 seasons in the major leagues.  He made his Major League debut in 1992 at the age of 25 with the Pittsburgh Pirates.  After helping the Pirates to the 1992 NLCS by going 8-1 with a 2.15 ERA Wakefield regressed in his second year, going 6-11 with a 5.61 ERA.  Wakefield was cut in spring training before the 1994 season and he wound up sitting out that year.  The Boston Red Sox called in 1995 and gave him a second chance at the majors.  17 years, 186 wins and 2 World Series rings later I think it’s safe to say that the Sox’ gamble that off season paid off.

Wakefield was key in helping the Red Sox win the American League East in his 1st year with the Sox, going 16-8 with a 2.95 ERA in 27 starts.  Wakefield would go on to win at least 12 games in each of his first 4 seasons with the Sox, including a career high 17 in 1998.  He would once again pitch in the post season that year for the Sox.  Wakefield would hit a rough patch and won only 6 games each in 1999 and 2000.  He got up to 9 wins in 2001 but had 12 losses.  Wakefield’s fortunes changed along with the rest of the franchises however when new ownership arrived in 2002.  Wakefield was back up to 11 wins in 2002 against only 5 losses.  His 2.81 ERA in ’02 was his lowest in any single season for the Red Sox.

Wakefield celebrates the 1st Red Sox World Series win in 86 years

Wakefield and the Sox returned to the post season in 2003, helped by his 11-7 record and 4.09 ERA.  Wakefield made two starts in the ALCS against the Yankees and won them both but it was his relief appearance in Game 7 that he is remembered for.  With Game 7 in extra innings and the Sox bullpen spent manager Grady Little turned to Wakefield to give the Sox some innings.  Wakefield promptly gave up a walk-off home run to Yankees 3rd baseman Aaron Boone to send the Red Sox home and the Yankees back to the World Series.  Wakefield and the rest of the team came in determined in 2004 and Wakefield went 12-10 with a 4.87 ERA.  Once again the Sox were back in the playoffs and playing the Yankees in the ALCS.  Wakefield was out of the starting rotation for the series but he made 3 relief appearances.  None was more important than a pivotal Game 5 which went 14 innings.  Wakefield pitched the last three innings, holding the Yankees at bay until David Ortiz hit his second walk-off hit in as many nights in the bottom of the 14th.  The Sox went on to win the series and Wakefield celebrated on the very mound that he had given up the walk-off home run to Boone a year earlier long after the stadium had closed and the lights went out.  Wakefield started the Sox 1st World Series game since 1986 against the Cardinals in Game 1 of the World Series.  Wakefield didn’t get the win but the Sox did and went on to sweep the Cardinals and win their first World Championship in 86 years.

Wakefield salutes the crowd after his 200th, and final, career win

Wakefield had one of his best seasons in 2007 with a 17-12 record and a 4.76 ERA.  He could not pitch in the World Series however due to injury and ceded his start to cancer survivor Jon Lester, who won the clinching game of the 2007 World Series.  Wakefield made the 1st All-Star game of his career in 2009 at the age of 42 and had a 11-5 record before an injury ended his season.  Wakefield never really recovered fully from that injury and his effectiveness dwindled in the last few years.  When the Sox decided not to retain him after the 2011 season Wakefield decided to call it quits.  He will have a press conference to announce his retirement tonight at 5:00 PM in Fort Myers.

Not everyone gets a second chance like Wakefield did with the Sox and when Wakefield got that opportunity he more than took advantage of it.  He won an even 200 games for his career.  Only three players, Carl Yastrzemski, Ted Williams, and Dwight Evans, logged more service time as a member of the Red Sox.  Only two pitchers, Rogers Clemens and Cy Young, had more wins as a member of the Red Sox.  At the time of his retirement Tim Wakefield was the winningest active pitcher in the Majors.  He’ll never be a Hall of Famer but he’ll always be remembered for what he contributed to the Boston Red Sox.  A post season hero, a consistent performer, and one of the all-time great guys in the community.  Not bad results for a second chance opportunity.

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Bills’, Johnson’s poorly crafted gamesmanship coming to a head

Since the end of the season the Buffalo Bills’ brass and impending free agent wide receiver Stevie Johnson’s representation have been saying all of the right things.  Johnson’s agent C.J. Laboy has expressed interest to get a deal done while at the same time acknowledging that the Bills have been slow to engage in serious negotiations.  Bills’ GM Buddy Nix has reiterated all along that the Bills want Stevie back, that the issues regarding his benching in the season finale are behind both him and coach Chan Gailey, and that they plan on negotiating with Johnson in good faith.  Both sides are saying what they need to in order to keep their leverage while making it known that both sides have an interest in getting a deal done.  It turns out the negotiations have begun to turn fruitful.  Per Rodney McKissic of the Buffalo News both sides have exchanged new contract proposals and talks are primed to heat up at next week’s NFL scouting combine.

It may be a Happy New Year after all for Johnson if he signs an extension with the Bills

There could be several reasons for the sudden increase in dialogue between the Bills and Johnson’s camp.  The first is that the wide receiver market may be beginning to work itself out with the dialogue, or lack thereof, between other impending free agent wide receivers and their current teams.  Recent reports suggest that both Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson and Saints receiver Marques Colston will hit the open market.  Other potential free agent receivers that could possibly be hit with the franchise tag are the Eagles’ DeSean Jackson, the Patriots’ Wes Welker, the Chiefs’ Dwayne Bowe, and the Colts’ Pierre Garcon.  If one of the teams that need a #1 receiver fill their slot without Johnson teams that are looking for a complement could opt for a free agent who would take less money such as the Giants’ Mario Manningham, the Saints’ Robert Meachem, or the Rams’ Brandon Lloyd.  There are also veterans such as the Colts’ Reggie Wayne, the Packers’ Donald Driver, and the Steelers’ Hines Ward that could hit the open market as well.  All in all the receiver market is looking like it is about to get flooded and that was before Randy Moss announced his return to the NFL this week.

GM Buddy Nix has made it a priority to re-sign his own guys

The other reason is the realization that the Bills and Johnson are the best fit for each other.  Despite the week 17 benching Johnson has a good relationship with coach Gailey.  He also has a good relationship and great chemistry with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who himself just signed a 6-year contract extension.  He has also taken a leadership role with younger receivers David Nelson and Donald Jones.  Johnson also seems to be comfortable in Buffalo and has already become the first receiver in Bills’ history to have back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons.  At the age of 25 Johnson is already 16th on the Bills’ all-time receptions list with 170.  He only needs 108 catches to crack the top 10 which would take less than two healthy years to attain.  He’s also 19th on the Bills’ all-time receiving yardage list and is a third straight 1,000-yard season away from cracking the top 10 there as well.  Say he signs a 6-year extension, he would likely be at or near the top of all of the Bills’ receiving categories by the end of the contract.  He could carve out his own legacy in Buffalo and if the team turns into a winner he would be a key component, something that seems to be weighing on the mind of Johnson.  The bottom line is that Johnson was a 7th round pick out of Kentucky in 2008 and bid his time while he played behind the likes of Lee Evans, Terrell Owens, and Josh Reed and it was Gailey who had the confidence to make Johnson the offense’s primary aerial weapon when he took over before the 2010 season.  None of that is lost on neither Johnson’s camp nor the Bills.

If Johnson was re-signed it would be the 8th starting or key special teams player to be re-upped by Buddy Nix and co.  At this point with momentum firmly on their side things look optimistic for a deal to be struck.  Still things can go wrong in any negotiation and the process is far from over but both sides seem to want it.  With motivation and momentum now on their side however its hard to see this thing going south.  I’d say that it this point I expect Stevie Johnson to be a Buffalo Bill next year and likely many more to come.

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