2012 Red Sox Player Previews: The Prospects

The Red Sox have made a habit if trading or buying the core of their teams for the past 15-20 years.  Theo Epstein had one stretch towards the beginning of his tenure in which he stocked his minor league system with players like Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz, and Jacoby Ellsbury who make up the current core of the team.  Theo seemed to have one last hurrah as the Sox system has been left with 4 position players that will likely start the year in Pawtucket and one or all of these players may see major league time before the year is up.  Here’s a look at the 4.

Shortstop Jose Iglesias

Red Sox SS Jose Iglesias

Here’s a look at Iglesias’ 2011 season in Pawtucket:

Games: 101
Average: .235
On-Base Percentage: .285
Slugging Percentage: .269
On Base plus Slugging (OPS): .554
Home Runs: 1
Runs Batted In: 31
Runs: 35
Doubles: 9
Walks: 21

As most all Sox fans know by now Iglesias is quite the defensive whiz.  The Sox brass knew as soon as they signed him after he defected from Cuba that he had superior defensive skill and hoped they could groom him into a more complete player in their system.  After incumbent starting shortstop Marco Scutaro was traded in the off-season it created an immediate opportunity for Iglesias to compete for the starting job.  Iglesias impressed fans and manager Bobby Valentine in Fort Myers with his defensive skills and gave fans a glimpse of the future double play duo of Iglesias and Pedroia.  In the end it was decided that Iglesias had not developed the offensive part of his game enough to keep him with the big club for the beginning of the season.  In particular Iglesias had developed a habit of swinging early in counts to avoid getting behind into breaking ball counts.  The organization will continue to work with him to break this habit and further develop the rest of his offensive game while Mike Aviles gets his crack at the starting shortstop job.  Make no mistake though, Iglesias IS the shortstop of the future.  I am not exaggerating when I say that Iglesias will be competing for a Gold Glove within his first few seasons in the league.  Once Iglesias entrenches himself at short for the Red Sox expect him to be there for a very long time.

Catcher Ryan Lavarnway

Red Sox C Ryan Lavarnway

Here’s a look at Lavarnway’s 2011 season in Portland and Pawtucket:

Games: 116
Average: .290
On-Base Percentage: .376
Slugging Percentage: .563
On Base plus Slugging (OPS): .939
Home Runs: 32
Runs Batted In: 93
Runs: 75
Doubles: 23
Walks: 57

Lavarnway is probably the biggest surprise in the Red Sox organization. He was a virtual unknown at the beginning of last season but his 32 home runs between Portland and Pawtucket put him on the map. Lavarnway was called up to the big club twice last year and did not disappoint. He hit .231 with 2 home runs and 8 RBI in 17 games and gave the Red Sox some key at-bats at the end of last season in Baltimore. He is the opposite of Iglesias in that his hitting seems to be major league ready but his defense is suspect. Lavarnway was often times used as a DH in both Pawtucket and Boston to get him in the lineup and that may have stinted his development at catcher. To Lavarnway’s credit he seemed to spend a great deal of his own time in the off-season working on his defense and catching instructor Gary Tuck has raved about his improvements in spring training. Lavarnway also got himself into better shape during the off-season and that is something that helped fellow catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia improve his defense behind the plate. Still I think he could use a bit more defensive seasoning.  Just remember how atrocious the defense at catcher was at times for the Sox last season. One thing that is interesting is that Theo Epstein could not for the life of him develop someone at two positions during his tenure in Boston – shortstop and catcher – and two guys are on the cusps of the majors as he’s walking out the door.

Third Baseman Will Middlebrooks

Red Sox 3B Will Middlebrooks

Here’s a look at Middlebrooks’ 2011 season in Lowell, Portland, and Pawtucket:

Games: 116
Average: .285
On-Base Percentage: .328
Slugging Percentage: .508
On Base plus Slugging (OPS): .834
Home Runs: 23
Runs Batted In: 94
Runs: 62
Doubles: 26
Walks: 26

Middlebrooks is the only guy on the list that has not yet played in the majors. He is only 23 and burst onto the scene last season by jumping all the way to Pawtucket after starting the season in Single A Lowell. All tolled he hit .285 with 23 home runs and 94 RBI between all three levels last season. He is also a plus defender, which is a premium for a third baseman. He is farther off than Iglesias and Lavarnway but if pressed could be a candidate to come up to the big club if things go horribly wrong in the Red Sox infield. Still he is not that far off and he could be ready after a full season in AAA. If you look at the tea leaves there are two possible ways to facilitate a spot for Middlebrooks next season. The first would be to let Youkilis walk and give Middlebrooks the third base spot. The second would be to let David Ortiz walk and shift Youk to DH to make way for him. Obvious neither veteran is about to give up their spot but you have to start thinking about how Youkilis’ hip will hold up on the hot corner. In any event Middlebrooks’ debut is on the horizon.

Outfielder Ryan Kalish

Red Sox OF Ryan Kalish

Here’s a look at Kalish’s 2011 season in Lowell and Pawtucket:

Games: 24
Average: .228
On-Base Percentage: .291
Slugging Percentage: .293
On Base plus Slugging (OPS): .585
Home Runs: 0
Runs Batted In: 0
Runs: 11
Doubles: 6
Walks: 9

I would likely have been writing a standalone preview for Kalish as the starting right fielder had he not injured his shoulder trying to make a diving catch last season. Kalish has the most extensive major league time of anyone on the list.  Unfortunately he had to have surgery on his ailing shoulder in the off-season and he will not be able to play in games at the outset of the season. He hit .252 with 4 home runs and 24 RBI in 53 games with the big club in 2010. When he is fully healthy and in the Sox’ starting lineup he will probably be a comparable player J.D. Drew without all of the hate since he’ll only make a fraction of the salary. Kalish is a guy that you know will develop into a fan favorite a la Trot Nixon but he should focus on recovering from his injury so he can make the maximum impact upon his return. The presence of Cody Ross should lessen the need for Kalish to rush back to the big club.

It’s rare to have 4 guys who seem like can’t miss prospects that high in your system and particularly rare for a big market club.  A “can’t miss” guy in AAA is a lot more can’t miss than a “can’t miss” guy in low A ball obviously.  These guys will a play an important part in the future.  Maybe not all this season but at some point.

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2012 Red Sox Player Preview: Mike Aviles

Aviles won the starting SS job in spring training

Let me be the first to congratulate Mike Aviles on being named the Red Sox starting shortstop for the 2012 season.  While Aviles wrapped up the starting spot this past week he finds himself caught in an auspicious position between replacing a solid starter for the past two years in Marco Scutaro who was seemingly traded out of town on a whim this off-season and place holding for star prospect Jose Iglesias who as early as last weekend was still in contention for the starting job.  Aviles spent his whole career thus far in Kansas City so the 31-year old will probably enjoy his first full campaign in a big market like Boston.

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

Games: 91 (110, 2010)
Average: .255 (.304, 2010)
On-Base Percentage: .289 (.354, 2008)
Slugging Percentage: .409 (.480, 2008)
On Base plus Slugging (OPS): .698 (.833, 2008)
Home Runs: 7 (10, 2008)
Runs Batted In: 39 (51, 2008)
Runs: 31 (68, 2008)
Doubles: 17 (27, 2008)
Walks: 13 (20, 2010)

2012 Season Outlook:

Aviles 2011 numbers might be a bit deceiving as he hit much better in Boston than in Kansas City.  He hit .317 for the Sox after being acquired at the trade deadline.  He logged a fair amount of innings in the absence of Kevin Youkilis at 3rd base late last year.  It seems as though the big city spotlight did not intimidate Aviles a bit.  Aviles is not a power hitter who will give you a bunch of home runs and RBI but he is a solid hand at either the top or the bottom of the lineup.  His patience leaves a bit to be desired but he has hit well in the lead-off position during the spring and it will be interesting to see whether or not Bobby Valentine puts him there early in the season, especially since Carl Crawford won’t be ready yet.

Aviles' defense will be in the spotlight all season long

The big thing for Aviles will be his defense.  Aviles is no stranger to shortstop, he played 178 games there in his first two seasons in the league, but he had shifted more to playing 2nd and 3rd base in the last three seasons.  His range could be an issue and the Red Sox biggest downfall last year may have been their defense.  With guys like Clay Buchholz, Felix Doubront, Daniel Bard, and even Aaron Cook who rely heavily on ground balls possibly all in the rotation at one point or another defense will be key, particularly in the middle infield.  That’s where a guy like Iglesias comes in.  This guy is ready to come in and play Gold Glove caliber defense from day 1 and just needs the hitting aspect of things to catch up with him.  If Aviles becomes a liability in the field at short who is to say that Iglesias offensive deficiencies aren’t easier to overcome than Aviles’ defensive issues?  Of course all of this right now is just hearsay and Aviles might do just fine at short.  It’s just that he hasn’t been asked to do it consistently in a while.

At the very least, if Iglesias does eventually usurp Aviles during the season, then you have a very reliable super-sub on your hands who can play virtually every position on the diamond.  Aviles was working out in the outfield during the off-season when the Sox still had Scutaro on the roster.  He can play all infield positions and can also be relied on in the corner outfield spots.  He can come into games late to lay down a bunt or give you some solid base running.  Writing this paragraph almost makes me wish that Iglesias did make the squad because Aviles could be very reliable on the bench but he earned the starting spot and he deserves to play himself out of it.

Aviles is a hard worker and will be a versatile player for the Sox

Aviles is one of those solid clubhouse hands that the Sox have been trying to build the team with.  He has value to the Sox as a starter or a back-up so he will be a pretty important guy on the team.  It’s not hard to feel good for Mike though, he spent 5 years in the Royals organization before he finally made it to the bigs in 2008 at age 27.  He busted his ass for 3 1/2 seasons for a directionless Kansas City franchise and was shipped over to Boston to play for a team that is in championship contention every season and has made the most out of his opportunities here.  He is the type of guy that you feel good about when the Sox make a run deep into the playoffs and maybe even win a championship.  So was the guy he replaces but hopefully he’ll have better luck than him.  He may be a starter or a bench guy but he will bring his A-game wherever he plays.

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Book Review: When The Game Was Ours

I did my first review back in January (A Song Of Fire And Ice) and I’m just getting around to my 2nd review of the Magic and Bird biography written by Jackie MacMullan which I finished a few weeks ago.

2nd book – When The Game Was Ours

Written by Jackie MacMullan

This is a must read for any Boston or LA sports fan, or even just a Magic and/or Larry fan in general.  I was born in 1981 and Bird was a broken down player by time I knew what I was watching as a basketball fan and obvious my most vivid recollection of Magic was “The Announcement” when I was 11 years old.  Also the Olympics which were recanted with some great stories in this book but I’ll get to that in a little bit.

When you start reading the book and it chronicles Bird and Magic playing together as back-ups on a college national team it hits you (at least if you weren’t around for the start of their rivalry) that these guys had been going at it since they were basically out of high school.  They were two kids recruited by some of the same schools, played against each other in the finals of the NCAA tournament and then were each drafted to long time rivals on either side of the United States and proceeded to help build simultaneous dynasties that faced each other in 3 championship series.  They also had their last hurrahs (save a forgettable 1996 Magic comeback) at the 1992 Olympics with the Dream Team in Barcelona.  They should have gone into the Hall of Fame together and the would have had Magic not come back to play for the Lakers in 1996.

As people probably know Magic and Larry didn’t have much of a relationship in their early days playing each other.  While Magic was easy going Bird was rigid and an intense competitor and Magic was put off by Bird’s attitude.  Bird didn’t want to know Magic, he didn’t want to be friends with him and Magic took that personal but it wasn’t personal to Larry, it was just they way he thought it should be.  The two didn’t become friends until they got together for a Converse commercial at Bird’s ranch in Indiana.  The commercial almost didn’t take place as the two players kept making outlandish requests in order to facilitate the deal.  Bird requested that the commercial be filmed at his place in Indiana convinced that Magic would reject.  Magic broke the stalemate by agreeing to do the commercial in Indiana, much to the surprise of Bird and the chagrin of the Lakers faithful and in particular his head coach Pat Riley.  While filming the commercial Bird and Magic spent quality time together and the rest, as they say, was history.

As a Celtics fan this book is especially enjoyable because of the stories that Bird shares about his time in Boston.  Bird wasn’t exactly a media sweetheart during his playing career so it was cool to hear him kick back and tells some stories about the good ole’ days.  Two stories stuck out the most, both of them occurring the night of two of Larry’s three championship wins.  The first was in 1984 after the Celtics had just beaten the Lakers.  Bird and fellow Celtic Quinn Buckner were in a van trying to get back to their cars at Hellenic College in Brookline to drive them back downtown for a post-game celebration at a bar called Chelsea’s in Faneuil Hall.  While they sat in gridlock traffic Bird decided that he was sick of waiting and they would get the cars later.  He and Buckner exited the van and started walking back towards downtown on Storrow Drive.  Some fans noticed them and stopped and yelled at Larry Legend.  He told them to keep quiet and asked for a ride back to Faneuil Hall.  The bewildered fans drove Bird and Buckner back downtown and the driver asked if they could join them in the bar.  “Sorry, champions only” was Bird’s response.  The second story is from 1986, after Bird’s 3rd championship.  His back had begun to act up by then and he was older and been through it before so he went home early after a short night of celebrating.  His teammate and one of his closest friends on the team, Bill Walton, showed up at Bird’s house to celebrate.  Larry told him he was going to sleep but Walton said that he didn’t care, that he just wanted to sit in Larry’s kitchen and listen to the Grateful Dead all night.  Sure enough Bird woke up the next morning and when he went downstairs he found Bill Walton, alone in his kitchen, listening to the Grateful Dead with an almost-empty bottle of Wild Turkey on the table in front of him.

The announcement section was an interesting part as well but that stuff has been re-hashed over and over again.  A few of the interesting facts that the book gives you from Bird’s perspective – Bird said he had never not wanted to play a game until the one after Magic’s announcement.  It was the only game in his career that his heart wasn’t in.  The other was that Bird said he was as devastated when he heard the news about Magic’s HIV as he was when he first found out that his father had committed suicide back when he was in high school.  That illustrates just how close they had become.

Another great part of the book is the chapter that chronicled the Olympics.  Magic soaked up the spotlight while Larry tried to stay out of it.  He would sneak out the side door of the hotel and travel incognito to go watch the Team USA baseball games.  They chronicled the intense debates of basketball supremacy between Bird, Magic, and Michael Jordan and how Bird would tell Charles Barkley and the others to shut up when they tried to interject because they’d never won a championship.  One other popular theory among basketball fans, particularly ones from Boston in the 80’s, that is basically validated by both Bird and Johnson in the book is that Isaiah Thomas was indeed one hell of an asshole.  It’s actually what cost him a shot at being on the Dream Team.

This book is really a must for everyone who was caught up in the rivalry between the C’s and the Lakers in the 80’s.  It gives you a behind the scenes look at two of the most iconic athletes of the era and outlines a relationship that you will likely never see again in sports.  If you a reader and you like sports go out of your way to get this one.

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Schilling gets Red Sox Hall call

Former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling only spent the final 4 of his 20 seasons pitching in the majors in a Red Sox uniform but he surely made those 4 seasons count.  Schilling was acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks in a trade following the 2003 season in which the Red Sox lost Game 7 of the ALCS to the Yankees.  The Red Sox had a major league offense but needed serious upgrades in the pitching staff.  Pedro Martinez had gone through the prime of his career with a host of decent to average #2 starters.  Finally in Pedro’s 7th season with Boston the Sox acquired Schilling to pair with Martinez.

Schilling was looked at as the savior from day 1 in Boston

Schilling was automatically considered to be the savior of not just the Red Sox pitching staff but the entire team in 2004.  He made his presence felt immediately when he shut down the Orioles for the Sox’ first win of the season two days after Pedro had been rocked by the revamped Baltimore lineup on national television.  Schilling didn’t stop there and ended the season with an incredible 21-6 record with a 3.26 ERA and 203 strikeouts in 226 and 2/3 innings pitched.  What was more amazing than the actual numbers was that Schilling was 37 years old and had spent the previous 13 years of his career in the National League.  The Red Sox once again clinched the American League wild card and Schilling started Game 1 of the ALCS against the Angels in Anaheim.  Things were going smooth for Schilling and the Red Sox in Game 1.  The Sox won 9-3 behind Schilling’s 6 and 2/3 innings but Schilling tore a tendon sheath in his right ankle while covering 1st base and his status for Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against the New York Yankees was uncertain.

Much to the delight of the Yankee Stadium faithful Schilling’s ankle hampered him in his Game 1 ALCS start.  Schilling gave up 6 runs and couldn’t get out of the 4th inning.  The Sox were down in the series 0-1 and would lose the next two to go into a 3 game hole and it looked as though Schilling wouldn’t be needed for the rest of the series.  After starts from Derek Lowe and Pedro both resulted in extra inning wins in Boston the Sox went back to New York down 3-2.  Schilling had his ankle tendons sutured (don’t ask me exactly what that means because I still don’t know).  All I know is that it held his ankle up enough that he could pitch comfortably and gave the cool side effect of bloodying up his sock to not only give him a tough guy moment that would forever live in Boston sports lore but also a literal Red Sock.  The Sox won the game 4-2 behind Schilling’s 7 innings of 2-run work.  The Sox won game 7 and went on to the World Series where Schilling’s bloody sock made an encore in the Sox’ 6-2 game 2 win.  Schilling went 6 innings and gave up a run on 4 hits.  The Sox won the series in 4 games.  Schilling had become the missing piece to a world championship, just as had been predicted by many pundits prior to the season.

The bloody sock became a historic symbol of the Red Sox 2004 championship run

Schilling’s ankle injuries spilled into the 2005 season and when he was finally healthy at the end of the season the Sox inexplicably scheduled him to pitch Game 4 of the ALDS against the White Sox, a game that never happened due to the Sox getting swept.  Schilling returned to form in a healthy 2006 with a 15-7 record and a 3.97 ERA but the Sox failed to qualify for the post season.  Schilling’s 2007 season was once again hampered by injury and he was limited to only 24 starts.  He finished with a 9-8 record and a 3.87 ERA.  He had help this time around however as Josh Beckett was pitching like a Cy Young candidate and Jon Lester came up and pitched well down the stretch.  The Sox once again qualified for the postseason and Schilling once again flourished in October, going 3-0 in 4 starts.  He gave up 8 runs in 24 innings and helped the Sox to their 2nd World Series title during his 4 year stint in Boston an achievement that was almost unthinkable when he was acquired.  Schilling signed a contract for 2008 with the Red Sox but was never healthy enough to pitch and his last career start was his World Series start against the Rockies.

Schilling only spent 4 seasons in Boston but racked up 53 wins, 574 K’s and a 3.95 ERA in the regular season coupled with a 6-1 record with 29 Ks and 19 runs given up in 45 2/3 innings.  Obviously not many pitchers could say that they have won multiple championships with the Red Sox in the last 90 years, as a matter of fact Mike Timlin would be the only other guy.  Schilling was supposed to be the savior and that’s exactly what he became.  The Red Sox won the World Series in both postseasons in which Schilling started a game.  Personally he may have been a blowhard and over-opinionated but it’s what he did on the field that he will be remembered for.  I don’t really care what his politics are regardless of his need to shove them down everyone’s throats at every turn.  But what he did on the field was near magical.  There may never be a greater Boston sports prop than the bloody sock.  Schill may have only spent 4 years in a Red Sox uniform but he earned every penny and eventually a spot in the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame.

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2012 Red Sox Player Preview: The Bench

The bench is always an important part of a baseball team.  The Red Sox have a mix of guys in their starting lineup who have either been everyday stalwarts like Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, and David Ortiz who rarely miss time or have guys like Kevin Youkilis, Carl Crawford, and Jacoby Ellsbury who have all missed significant time in the past few seasons.  Certain spots are more important than other and for the Sox it is important to have a dependable backup infielder and a few solid outfield options with what they have in the starting lineup.  Here’s what they’re working with this season on the bench:

Catcher Kelly Shoppach

Red Sox C Kelly Shoppach

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

Games: 87 (112, 2008)
Average: .176 (.261, 2007 & 2008)
On-Base Percentage: .268 (.348, 2008)
Slugging Percentage: .339 (.517, 2008)
On Base plus Slugging (OPS): .607 (.865, 2008)
Home Runs: 11 (21, 2008)
Runs Batted In: 22 (55, 2008)
Runs: 23 (67, 2008)
Doubles: 3 (27, 2008)
Walks: 19 (36, 2008)

2012 Season Outlook:

Shoppach was brought in for one reason – defense.  Last year’s #2 catcher, Jason Varitek, was abysmal when it came to throwing base stealers out and Jarrod Saltalamacchia struggled early on as well.  Shoppach is well regarded as one of the best defensive catchers in the game and had the highest percentage of catching would be base stealers of all catchers in the American League last year.  Shoppach’s production with the bat will be minimal (he has hit under .200 in each of the past two seasons) but he will give you the occasional pop (he’s been in double digits in home runs in 3 of the past 4 years).  The Red Sox will likely play Shoppach almost exclusively against left-handed pitching, which he hits considerably better, so that should limit the liability he brings on the offensive side.  Depending on how starter Jarrod Saltalamacchia is going defensively, you may see Shoppach come into the game as a late inning replacement particularly if the club finds a spot for both him and fellow catcher Ryan Lavarnway on the 40 man roster.

Utility Infielder Nick Punto

Red Sox IF Nick Punto

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

Games: 63 (150, 2007)
Average: .278 (.290, 2006)
On-Base Percentage: .388 (.388, 2011)
Slugging Percentage: .421 (.421, 2011)
On Base plus Slugging (OPS): .809 (.809, 2011)
Home Runs: 1 (4, 2005)
Runs Batted In: 20 (45, 2006)
Runs: 21 (73, 2006)
Doubles: 8 (21, 2006)
Walks: 25 (61, 2009)

2012 Season Outlook:

Punto had a nice little season last year with the world champion Cardinals.  Don’t expect him to repeat his offensive success however as he moves from the NL Central to the AL East.  Punto was once a solid supersub who could fill in for long periods of time at any position but at 34 he is more of a traditional utility infielder type now.  Punto’s biggest asset is his versatility in that he can still play all four defensive positions very competently.  He would allow the Red Sox to carry only the one back-up infielder but if youngster Jose Iglesias makes the squad as the starting shortstop then he will share the backup infield duties with mike Aviles.  Expect Punto to take virtually all of the back-up innings on the right side of the infield as well as a fair share at third base, particularly if Youkilis’ injuries flare back up.  Punto will never be an everyday player, if one of the Sox infielders go down long term expect Aviles or Iglesias to take that role, but Punto will give you the little things like a good bunt or solid base running.  He’s a good guy to have around.

Outfielder Ryan Sweeney

Red Sox OF Ryan Sweeney

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

Games: 108 (134, 2009)
Average: .265 (.294, 2010)
On-Base Percentage: .346 (.350, 2008)
Slugging Percentage: .341 (.407, 2009)
On Base plus Slugging (OPS): .687 (.755, 2009)
Home Runs: 1 (6, 2009)
Runs Batted In: 25 (53, 2009)
Runs: 34 (68, 2009)
Doubles: 11 (31, 2009)
Walks: 33 (40, 2009)

2012 Season Outlook:

Sweeney came over to the Sox along with Andrew Bailey in the trade that sent Josh Reddick and others to Oakland.  Sweeney is one of those guys that you look at and see a great player but all you really get is a decent sub.  He’s got a tall frame like that of a power hitter yet he’s never hit more than 6 home runs in a season.  He’s hit for pretty decent averages in his career though and he’s got some patience at the plate.  I’d expect that Sweeney will start the season in a platoon with Darnell McDonald in Carl Crawford’s spot in the outfield.  After Crawford comes back he’ll likely spell Cody Ross in right field against some right handed pitchers.  Sweeney is a dime a dozen guy in the outfield but he is a good fielder as opposed to Reddick, who was atrocious in the field, and the Sox needed a left handed outfielder off of the bench while prospect Ryan Kalish continues to recover from last season’s shoulder injury.  No offense to Sweeney but I hope we don’t see too too much of him after Crawford is back healthy.

Outfielder Darnell McDonald

Red Sox OF Darnell McDonald

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

Games: 79 (117, 2010)
Average: .236 (.270, 2010)
On-Base Percentage: .303 (.336, 2010)
Slugging Percentage: .401 (.429, 2010)
On Base plus Slugging (OPS): .704 (.766, 2010)
Home Runs: 6 (9, 2010)
Runs Batted In: 24 (34, 2010)
Runs: 26 (40, 2010)
Doubles: 6 (18, 2010)
Walks: 14 (30, 2010)

2012 Season Outlook:

McDonald had a rough start last year after having a very solid 2010.  McDonald logged a lot of playing time in ’10 with Ellsbury’s and Drew’s injuries and seemed to struggle being put back into a reserve role in ’11.  McDonald looked to be on the bubble with the acquisition of Cody Ross and Sweeney but he seemed to get at least a temporary stay of execution when Carl Crawford was injured and Marco Scutaro was traded away.  McDonald seems to be responding this spring with his back against the wall, hitting .467 thus far in camp.  I like McDonald, he’s played hard in the past few seasons with the Sox and seems like a great team player.  I’d like to see him stick but when the club is healthy I’m not sure the numbers game will work for him.  Here’s hoping it does though.

We’re still waiting to hear on the shortstop position and there are a few young guys who may yet make an impact and I will cover them in a separate preview.

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Random Sunday Sports Thoughts

Some random thoughts on the last Sunday in March…

  • I’m enjoying this March Madness more than I have for the last few years.  Maybe it’s because I paid a bit more attention during the season but there have also been a lot of great storyline.  Ohio University went on a hell of a run.  As much as I’ll never be a Rick Pitino fan you’ve got to give it to him and his Louisville team for its run to the final four.  There’s been a lot of stand out performances from both well-known and not-so-well-known players from around the country.  There is a 1, two 2s, and a 4 seed in the Final Four.  It is not as varied as the field was last year in the Final Four but I expect some really good basketball this weekend.  I originally had Michigan State beating Kansas in the finals.  Kentucky looks awful tough though, I say Kentucky over Kansas next Monday night.

    Louisville coach Rick Pitino is headed to another Final Four

  • Baseball season is a little over a week away (three days if you are a fans of the A’s or the Mariners).  I suppose there is a lot of unanswered questions on paper for the Sox.  I’m not sure about the reports of dissension between Bobby Valentine and Ben Cherington.  It seems like Bobby V. is content with leaving Iglesias and Lavarnway in AAA for the start of the season and let the veterans, Aviles and Shoppach, play themselves out of their jobs if they must.  As for the rotation I am sure that Ben and Bobby both agree that the best two will fill out the rotation.  From what I’ve seen the only slam dunk is Felix Doubront, who has been very solid all spring,  but right now I have Bard, Cook, Aceves in that order heading into the final week for the 5th start.
  • I’m interested to see how the bullpen comes together in the final week of spring training.  The Sox avoided a potential big injury when Franklin Morales’ medical issues were cleared up in Boston.  He’s poised for a big season out of the Sox pen this year.
  • So Peyton is in Denver, Tebow is in New York, Luck is going to Indianapolis, and RG3 is headed to Washington.  In the long run we may be saying that the Broncos got the best of this exchange if they can cash in what’s left of Manning’s productivity into a few deep playoff runs and maybe a championship.  I think RG3 will be a hell of a pro player but until the Redskins show some structure they’ll have to prove to me they can build a contender around him.  I think Luck will be great but that organization is basically re-starting from scratch.  I’m not sure what the hell the Jets are doing to be honest.
  • Ochocinco says he has "unfinished business" but may have to do it from rather far down on the Pats' depth chart

    Ochocinco restructured his deal to remain with the Patriots for 2012 at a reduced $1 million salary.  With Welker and Branch back in the fold and Brandon Lloyd and Donte Stallworth joining them, it looks as though Ochocinco may be the most expensive cheerleader on the Patriots roster next season.

  • For those talking about the Bills becoming the Redskins or the Cowboys for giving out a monster contract to former #1 pick Mario Williams and a slightly above market contract to fellow DE Mark Anderson remember this – the NFL allowed teams to rollover salary cap from the previous year starting this off-season.  The Bills rolled over almost $20 million in room which they used to sign two guys at a position of great need (and a position that the Bills brass was less than thrilled at re-stocking with talent from this year’s NFL draft) as well as a plethora of their own guys.  The big market squads used to call out teams like the Bills for being cheap and sitting on revenue sharing money.  I see a very specific strategy in which the team built up its assets for three seasons to position themselves to supplement the core for the contending team almost all in one off-season.  It is very similar to what Danny Ainge did when he took over the Celtics.
  • I’m glad to see Celtics swingman Mickael Pietrus escaped from his scary injury on Friday night with apparently only a concussion.  Pietrus says that he hopes to be back playing soon.  He’ll wind up being an important player for the C’s during the stretch run and playoffs but I hope he makes sure he takes care of himself before thinking about basketball.

Next week I’ll have a big baseball preview and recap of the Final Four.

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2012 Red Sox Player Preview: Clay Buchholz

Buchholz is looking to bounce back from an injury-plagued 2011

I wrote earlier in the off-season that Clay Buccholz was the forgotten man in the Red Sox rotation.  I suppose that it is easy to forget that Buchholz was absent during the biggest collapse in Red Sox history but if he is recovered from the stress fracture in his back he should be in for a bounce back season.  Again it is easy to forget the strides that he had made in 2010 and early in 2011.  Buchholz was becoming a more complete and confident pitcher.  If he has his health this year then Buchholz may turn into one of the better #3 starters in the American League.

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

Games Started: 14 (28, 2010)
Innings Pitched: 82.2 (173.2, 2010)
Win-Loss Record: 6-3 (17-7, 2010)
ERA: 3.48 (2.33, 2010)
WHIP: 1.294 (1.203, 2010)
Batting Average Against: .241 (.226, 2010)
Strikeouts/9 Innings: 6.5 (8.5, 2008)
Walks/9 Innings: 3.4 (3.4, 2011)

2012 Season Outlook:

Buchholz had a phenomenal year in 2010.  His 2.33 ERA was a top of the rotation stat.  He wasn’t as good in the early going last year but he also wasn’t that far off either.  He was also likely trying to pitch around the effects of the stress fracture in the early going last season.  The stress fracture in his back was an unfortunate injury that came at an inopportune time for Buchholz but he is still only 28 years old.  If Buchholz is truly recovered from the stress fracture I would expect him to get back to close to the pitcher that he was in 2010.

Buchholz could provide a very strong presence in the #3 spot in the rotation

We’ve known what Buchholz was capable of since the very beginning of his career.  That’s what throwing a no-hitter in one of your first MLB starts will do to you.  Buchholz may have been hampered by the huge expectations that followed that impressive feat.  All pitchers have to mature and Buchholz was no exception.  He was rough around the edges early on but after working with former pitching coach John Farrell and catcher Jason Varitek he seemed to finally hit his stride.  He still has the occasional bout with control troubles but he has become better at pitching to contact and allowing his fielders to make the outs for him rather than nibble for strikes and pile up free passes.  He is one of those guys that can go on stretches where he can carry a rotation on his back.  Guys like that are very valuable, especially when they are the #3 guy in your rotation.

Buchholz will be going on to his third different pitching coach in as many seasons.  Buchholz seemed to have been fond of former pitching coach John Farrell but lukewarm towards his replacement Curt Young.  New pitching coach Bob McClure seems to be more Farrell than Young so here’s hoping that the relationship works out.  Buchholz will also, like the rest of the Sox veteran staff, be without catcher Jason Varitek for the first time in his career.  Buchholz worked with Jarrod Saltalamacchia last year and Kelly Shoppach has never had a problem working with a pitching staff so Buchholz should be fine in that regard.  It would be nice if he could break his nervous habit of throwing over to first base for the sake of throwing over but I won’t get my hopes up on that one.

In many way Buchholz will be the glue that holds the rotation together

A stress fracture is a tough injury to overcome but it may have been a blessing in disguise for Buchholz that the Sox didn’t make the playoffs and press him into action for the post season.  The extra rest with Buchholz may prove key as he gets back to 100%.  The injury has been treated and Buch has looked fine during spring training.  You can only assume that the problems stemming from the back injury are behind him (no pun intended) and he will look to regain the form that made him one of the better young starters in the league in 2010.  If he pitches close to what he did in 2010 then you take a lot of pressure off of the guys in the back end of the rotation.

In a lot of ways Buccholz is the key to this team’s success in 2012.  He is the bridge between the front end of the rotation and the back end.  If the bridge holds strong than it will support the back end that much easier.  If it is weak then the back end will have to step up and help carry the load.  As long as that back is healthy I say that Buchholz should be able to hold that bridge up pretty strongly.

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Bills keep adding to D-Line, sign Pats’ Anderson

Bills DE Mark Anderson

The Buffalo Bills were apparently not satisfied with the addition of Mario Williams to their defensive line and have added New England Patriots defensive end Mark Anderson as well according to Ian Rapoport of the Boston Herald.

Anderson had 10 sacks last year in his only season in New England.  He played right defensive end for the Pats, sharing time with fellow DE Andre Carter who also recorded 10 sacks.  Anderson added a sack and a half and 5 tackles in the Super Bowl against the Giants.  The 28 year old spent the first 4 1/2 years of his career with the Chicago Bears after they drafted him in the 5th round of the 2006 draft.  Anderson was released by Chicago during the 2010 season and was signed by the Houston Texans where he played opposite new Bills DE Mario Williams.  Anderson has 35 career sacks along with 163 tackles in his 6 year career.

Anderson will likely recreate his 2011 tandem in New England with Shawne Merriman as a pass rushing duo on the right side of the line opposite Williams on the left.  It is unclear where 10 year vet Chris Kelsay fits in but I wouldn’t expect him to be cut.  The Bills also have 2010 3rd round pick Alex Carrington who, at around 300 lbs., will likely play a role similar to that of Chris Canty on the Giants D-Line.

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Breaking down the mess that Peyton Manning has left in his wake

So Peyton Manning called John Elway this morning and informed him that he has decided to join the Denver Broncos.  Now the Broncos and Manning’s representation with put the finishing touches on the contract which the parameters seemed to have been established during the recruiting process.  Here’s a breakdown on how it will affect the other teams and players left in the wake:

  • Tim Tebow, current Broncos starting QB – Tebow will now be placed on the trading block.  Tebow was an exciting player last year but he still needs time to develop into the NFL game.  Elway and Fox clearly preferred a more traditional pocket passer and they jumped at the chance to acquire Manning and mitigate whatever backlash from the fan base that would be caused by jettisoning Tebow.  Now Tebow will be shopped around to other teams, some who need a QB and even some who don’t.  The best play for Tebow would be to go somewhere where he could develop but I could imagine one of the teams desperate to sell tickets, and there is two of them down in Florida where Tebow is heralded as football royalty, might make a big push to get him in and sell tickets.
  • San Fransisco 49ers – The 49ers and Alex Smith where playing a cat and mouse game that culminated in the Niners dabbling in the Peyton sweepstakes and Smith flirting with the Dolphins and the Seahawks.  You would assume that the Niners would move quickly to bring Smith back in the fold.
  • Alex Smith, current 49ers starting QB – Smith and the Niners are clearly the best fits for each other but negotiations turned south for whatever reason and led to the situation that I outlined above.  Smith looks to have two choices now – re-sign with the 49ers or essentially punish them by signing with the Dolphins.  Of course you could make the argument that he would be punishing himself if he signed with Miami.  I think cooler heads will prevail and these two sides will get back together and work things out.  You don’t fix what’s not broken and the Niners and Smith were a score away from the Super Bowl last season.
  • Tennessee Titans – They were the other runner-up in the Peyton Manning sweepstakes.  Honestly the collateral damage seems to be limited here.  The Titans made it no secret that it was an ownership call to pursue Manning and it didn’t come from the football people.  Matt Hasselbeck has always been a pro and he knows that he doesn’t have much time left in the game so he should come in and work hard like he always has.  Jake Locker shouldn’t be effected either because he was either going to develop under Hasselbeck or develop under Manning, now it should take less time for him to get in the lineup with Hasselbeck in front of him.
  • Miami Dolphins – The Dolphins are in a slightly worse position than they were yesterday.  Sure they could try and acquire Tebow but there will be 30 other teams that could be in on him.  The Manning signing puts pressure on the Niners to re-sign Smith and let’s face it – if your choices are San Fransisco and Miami who would you choose?  The only hope is that the Smith/Niners relationship is damaged beyond repair but it doesn’t seem that bad at this point.
  • Jacksonville Jaguars – The Jaguars are a new entry into the QB carousel.  Like the Titans in the Manning sweepstakes the football guys would just as well go with what they have, 2nd year QB Blaine Gabbert battling it out with newly signed Chad Henne, but their is a new ownership in Jacksonville and the Jags haven’t been able to sell tickets in years.  If it comes down to an ownership call (and as we’ve seen in the past few weeks it could happen) expect Jacksonville to jump into the Tebow derby and try to bring him home.
  • Cleveland Browns – The Browns only shot at acquiring a veteran quarterback was if Peyton chose Tennessee.  Mike Holmgren would have no doubt tried to re-unite with Matt Hasselbeck but since that won’t happen they will probably sit tight.  Unfortunately for them sitting tight probably means reaching for Texas A&M QB Ryan Tannehill with the #4 pick.  They could jump into the Tebow derby but I doubt they will.
  • Matt Flynn/Seattle Seahawks – Matt Flynn, the other QB on the free agent market, played his situation as best he could.  He identified the two teams, Seattle and Miami, desperate for a QB that Peyton Manning wouldn’t consider.  He visited with both of them and made a call on where he felt most comfortable.  Now both Flynn and the Seahawks can sit back and watch everything else unfold.

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Bills brass changing the culture in Buffalo

I wrote back in November during the midst of a 7-game losing streak that the Bills organization desperately needed a culture change.  Since then the Bills have re-signed 6 of their own players, including star wide receiver Stevie Johnson, and signed defensive end Mario Williams who was the biggest free agent on the market.  I’d say that it is far from business as usual this off season at One Bills Drive.  The Bills talked about being aggressive right before the free agent market opened on Tuesday afternoon but not even their staunchest supporters could have predicted that they would successfully woe Williams to Buffalo for the next 6 seasons.

Bills WR Stevie Johnson with CEO Russ Brandon and GM Buddy Nix

Buddy Nix said in his introductory press conference as Bills GM on New Year’s Eve in 2009 that his goal would be to draft and develop players and them sign them long term.  People may have been skeptical after seeing the likes of Nate Clements, Antoine Winfield, Jason Peters, Jabari Greer, Willis McGahee, Peerless Price, Marcellus Wiley, and Sam Cowart, among others, all traded away or allowed to walk in free agency rather than signed to long term contracts.  Nix was true to his word starting last off season when he re-signed versatile safety George Wilson right before the NFL lockout started.  He re-signed Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kyle Williams to a 6 year deal last August.  He signed starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to a 6 year contract extension during the season.  Since the season ended he has re-upped tackle Erik Pears, long snapper Garrison Sanborn, kicker Rian Lindell, wide receiver Stevie Johnson, wide receiver Ruvell Martin, tight end Scott Chandler, and linebacker Kirk Morrison in that order.  Rather than using their assets in free agency and the draft to fill the holes that they had opened by letting players walk, as they had in previous off-seasons, they were left to simply fill in the holes that were already there and add depth.

Bills DE Mario Williams with GM Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey

The Bills most glaring weakness last season was pass rush.  Sometimes opposing quarterbacks would have 6, 7, 8 seconds to throw the ball in the backfield.  That in turn weakens your secondary who can’t be expected to cover the receivers for that long.  The Bills brass identified this early and were aggressive to correct it.  Their plain was simple – sign Mario Williams, a guy that could not only get to the quarterback on his own but enhance the talent of the players around him.  They did their due diligence and they knew that an interior line that featured Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus would be a strong selling point to Williams.  They knew that Mario was more of a small time guy and he wouldn’t be turned off by the small market nature of the Buffalo area.  But they were still the Buffalo Bills and they had to convince Mario that they were the best fit.  They flew down on a private jet to meet him in North Carolina and bring him back to Buffalo at the very start of the free agency period.  They put the hard sell on him for parts of three days at their facilities in Orchard Park and in the end they closed the deal.  They made the biggest deal in NFL history for a defensive player because they felt that they had to.  Is he the one missing piece?  No but they felt that they brought him close.  Now they will push forward with drafting and trying to re-sign their own guys and hope that it all adds up to a contender.

Bills defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt woes Mario Williams during his visit to Buffalo

For those who still may be skeptical after re-singing their own and landing a big fish there is one more thing to consider.  One of the things the detractors have criticized the Bills for over the years is spending the money to make competent coaching hires.  The Bills attempted to woe former Super Bowl winning head coaches Bill Cowher and Mike Shanahan to Buffalo to no avail and settled for Chan Gailey, a veteran who had coached under Cowher in Pittsburgh.  Gailey surrounded himself with mostly inexperienced coaches in his first season and it looked like more of the same from the Bills front office.  But remember this – if the Bills do turn this thing around here in the near future the biggest transaction may not have come on the day Mario Williams signed, or the day that Stevie Johnson re-signed but on the day that the Bills hired Dave Wannstedt, a Super Bowl winning defensive coordinator, onto the coaching staff.  Wannstedt has been instrumental in recruiting not only Williams but guys like Nick Barnett and Kirk Morrison as well.  Now he will instill his championship winning 4-3 defense next season.  The Bills also hired highly sought coaching veteran David Lee to coach the QBs this season.

You can no longer say that the Bills front office, from owner Ralph Wilson to CEO Russ Brandon to GM Buddy Nix and all of his staff, are not committing to win.  They are and they’ve shown it in how they’ve built the team.  Now it’s up to the players on the field to deliver.

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