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The Boston Red Sox came into the 2011 season as one of the most hyped Major League Baseball teams in recent history. At the beginning of September last season the team found itself atop the American League East with an 83-53 record, 1/2 game ahead of the New York Yankees, nine games up on the Tampa Bay Rays. Then everything went wrong. The team had a 7-19 record in the month, finished seven games behind in the division and, more importantly, were passed up by the Tampa Bay Rays on the final day of the regular season thus missing out on the playoffs (*). The Red Sox collapse led to change throughout the organization (**). General Manager Theo Epstein left for the Chicago Cubs; Ben Cherington takes over. Manager Terry Francona was let go in favor of Bobby Valentine. The roster had a lot of turnover outside of its core players. Even with all the change in the offseason, Boston still has a strong roster.

(*) To repeat, the Red Sox had a nine game lead on the Rays entering September and finished behind Tampa Bay.

(**) It also led to bizarre stories about Terry Francona’s personal life and Red Sox pitchers eating chicken and drinking beer in the clubhouse during games. 

(To see an explanation of 2012 MLB team previews and release dates click here)

The team returns a strong top five in its batting order. The combination of Jacoby Ellsbury (CF), Dustin Pedroia (2B), Adrian Gonzalez (1B), Kevin Youkilis (3B) and David Ortiz (DH) is about as good as any 1-5 in baseball (***). Each player finished with an on-base percentage over .370, which is a great mark. Ellsbury, Pedroia, and Gonzalez are in their primes, Youkilis is just dropping out of his while Ortiz is inching closer towards the end of his career at the age of 37. The top half of the Red Sox lineup is dynamic. Once a pitcher gets to the sixth spot in the lineup, things change dramatically. The projected lineup finishes with Cody Ross (RF), Jarrod Saltalamacchia (C), Ryan Sweeney (LF) and Mike Aviles (SS). As a full-time regular from 2008-2010, Ross was a serviceable starter in the Major Leagues and was a big part of the San Francisco Giants’ run to a World Series in 2010. But 2011 was tough for Ross as his batting average dropped to .240 and his overall production was down. Saltalamacchia has never lived up to his 36th overall pick billing (****). His career AVG/OBP/SLG is .244/.307/.406 to go with a horrific 28.8% strikeout rate in over 1,200 plate appearances. At 27 and only 353 games under his belt, Saltalamacchia still has a chance to develop. Sweeney comes over from the Oakland Athletics and is a fill-in until Carl Crawford returns from injury. Sweeney doesn’t run or hit for power but hits well enough and gets on base. Aviles is a capable hitter but has been inconsistent year-to-year and doesn’t walk at all (4.2% walk rate for his career) (*****). The key to the Red Sox season in many ways is Crawford who is expected to begin the season on the disabled list after wrist surgery. Crawford signed a 7-year, $142 million contract before last season, but was awful in his first year with the club. His walk rate dropped to 4.3%, his lowest in six seasons while his strikeout rate rose to 19.3%, the highest of his career. He also had the lowest batting average and on-base percentage in his 10 year career. The left fielder missed 32 games. Crawford never looked comfortable last season and has to come with a different mindset whenever he sees the field in 2012. If Crawford is able to play with the same impact he had before coming to Boston, the Red Sox lineup will take on a whole new look. The Red Sox did not live up to the hype in 2011, but that was not too much the fault of the offense, which finished the regular season tops in the Major Leagues in runs scored.

(***) Ellsbury, Pedroia and Gonzalez were in the top eight overall in plate appearances last season with Ellsbury and Pedroia being 1 & 2, respectively. 

(****) Or his being one of the big pieces involved in the Mark Teixeira trade from the Texas Rangers to the Atlanta Braves in 2007.

(*****) The Red Sox traded two better shortstop options, Marco Scutaro and Jed Lowrie, in the offseason.

Carl Crawford is a key to the Boston Red Sox season (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The rotation has two solid starting pitchers at the top and questions afterward. Jon Lester and Josh Beckett figure in as one of the top 1-2 starting pitcher punches in baseball. Both pitchers are coming off good seasons that they were probably hoping were better. When the Red Sox needed one of their aces to step up during their September collapse, neither pitcher could deliver. Lester was a lot of “experts” pre-season pick for Cy Young and did not even figure in. With a lack of stability in the bottom of the rotation, Boston needs both pitchers to be on top of their game in 2012. The Red Sox could get a boost from Clay Buchholz who did not make a start after June 16th with a stress fracture in his back. Buchholz was pitching well in 2011 before the injury and was very good in 2010. He is capable and should be ready to go for the season. The fourth and fifth spots in the rotation are in the air. One spot is planned to go to reliever-turned-starter Daniel Bard. He has tools but has not made a start at the Major League level. If he starts the year in the rotation it’s likely going to take some time to adjust to the new role. The fifth spot comes down to several options including Alfredo Aceves, Felix Doubront, Andrew Miller, Clay Mortensen, and minor league spring invitees such as Aaron Cook, Ross Ohlendorf and Vicente Padilla. Boston may move Aceves back to the bullpen where he was valuable for the club in 2011. Two Red Sox starting pitchers, Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lackey, figure to miss most if not all of the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Dice-K and Lackey are set to make $25.25 million combined this season. Matsuzaka may come back at some point towards the second half, but Lackey is likely out for the entire season. Both pitchers struggled last season but still would have figured prominently in the rotation this season. The Red Sox starting rotation is strong at the top and full of mystery after.

The Red Sox bullpen will look quite a bit different in 2012. Jonathan Papelbon is no longer with the team after signing with the Philadelphia Phillies. Boston traded for Oakland Athletics closer Andrew Bailey and Houston Astros closer Mark Melancon. Bailey will step in as the closer and Melancon will be the principal setup man. If Aceves or Bard move back to the bullpen it would be greatly improved because the rest of the projected bullpen is not too strong. The Boston bullpen could be an issue this season.

The 2012 Boston Red Sox are looking to shake off a poor end to last season. The team has several top players among its core but features many newcomers on the roster. The top of the lineup is explosive and could be further helped if Carl Crawford is able to return back to his previous form. Lester and Beckett need to hold it down in the rotation because there is a lack of a sure thing behind them. The bullpen has two new pitchers at the back-end and could be a problem depending on how it shakes out. The Sox are unquestionably strong enough to make the playoffs (especially because they’re expanded), but need to figure out the makeup of their roster.

Offseason Moves:

Additions:

  • Andrew Bailey (RHP) – trade with Oakland Athletics
  • Cody Ross (OF) – free agent
  • Ryan Sweeney (OF) – trade with Oakland Athletics
  • Mark Melancon (RHP) – trade with Houston Astros
  • Nick Punto (IF) – free agent
  • Kelly Shoppach (C) – free agent
  • Clay Mortensen (RHP) – trade with Colorado Rockies
  • Chris Carpenter (RHP) – trade with Chicago Cubs
  • Aaron Cook (RHP) – free agent
  • Ross Ohlendorf (RHP) – free agent
  • Vicente Padilla (RHP) – free agent
  • Carlos Silva (RHP) – free agent
  • Jason Repko (OF) – free agent

Subtractions:

  • Jonathan Papelbon (RHP) – signed with Philadelphia Phillies
  • Marco Scutaro (IF) – trade with Colorado Rockies
  • Jed Lowrie (IF) – trade with Houston Astros
  • J.D. Drew (OF) – unsigned
  • Josh Reddick (OF) – trade with Oakland Athletics
  • Jason Varitek (C) – retired
  • Tim Wakefield (RHP) – retired
  • Erik Bedard (LHP) – signed with Pittsburgh Pirates
  • Dan Wheeler (RHP) – signed with Cleveland Indians
  • Conor Jackson (1B/OF) – signed with Texas Rangers
  • Kyle Weiland (RHP) – trade with Houston Astros
  • Drew Sutton (IF/OF) – signed with Atlanta Braves
  • Marwin Gonzalez (IF) – trade with Houston Astros

Projected Starting Lineup:

1. Jacoby Ellsbury – CF

2. Dustin Pedroia – 2B

3. Adrian Gonzalez – 1B

4. Kevin Youkilis – 3B

5. David Ortiz – DH

6. Cody Ross – RF

7. Ryan Sweeney – LF

8. Jarrod Saltalamacchia – C

9. Mike Aviles – SS

Projected Starting Rotation:

1. Josh Beckett – RH

2. Jon Lester – LH

3. Clay Buchholz – RH

4. Daniel Bard – RH

5. Alfredo Aceves – RH

Projected Bullpen:

  • Andrew Bailey – RH
  • Mark Melancon – RH
  • Matt Albers – RH
  • Franklin Morales – LH
  • Michael Bowden – RH
  • Felix Doubront – LH
  • Andrew Miller – LH

Projected Bench:

  • Kelly Shoppach – C
  • Nick Punto – IF
  • Nate Spears – IF/OF
  • Darnell McDonald – OF

Projected Disabled List (start of the season):

  • Carl Crawford – OF
  • Ryan Kalish – OF
  • John Lackey – RHP
  • Daisuke Matsuzaka – RHP
  • Bobby Jenks – RHP
  • Rich Hill – LHP

Variables:

  • Crawford – He signed a massive (in length and dollars) contract before last season and was a huge disappointment. He will likely miss the beginning of the season but whenever he comes back he needs to be close to the player the Red Sox thought they were signing.
  • 4-5 Rotation – The last two spots in the rotation will be sorted out in Spring Training but one spot is likely to go to Daniel Bard. Whoever figures in at the back of the rotation will probably not have too much experience in the Red Sox rotation.
  • Buchholz – He is pivotal to the Red Sox success in 2012. He has the tools to pitch near the level of Lester and Beckett and is more of a sure thing than any other option for the rotation. Buchholz is coming off an injury that limited him to 14 starts in 2011.
  • Back (half) of the lineup – Ross, Saltalamacchia, Sweeney, and Aviles do not pack a lot of punch. With a strong group ahead of them they do not need to be great.
  • Youkilis – The third basemen has missed at least 25 games for three straight seasons, including 42 in 2011. Youkilis is a skilled hitter but has had trouble staying on the field.
  • Bailey – Takes over for Papelbon who was a big face of the team. The pressure will be on him to perform at a high level. Bailey has been limited to less than 50 innings the last two seasons.
  • Bullpen – The bullpen has new arms and could struggle depending on which players end up sticking.

Fantasy Implications:

  • The Boston Red Sox have three fantasy players (Gonzalez, Ellsbury, and Pedroia) ranked in the top 17 by both Yahoo! and ESPN.
  • First basemen Adrian Gonzalez is the ranked behind Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols and Joey Votto at the position. Gonzalez should post huge numbers yet again. He is a pretty safe bet and is helped by the presence of others in the lineup.
  • Dustin Pedroia is ranked number two behind Robinson Cano at second base. Pedroia contributes across the board in fantasy and is coming off the best season of his career.
  • Leadoff hitter/center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury had a ridiculous 2011 season. Many were down on Ellsbury after he only played in 18 ineffective games in 2010. But Ellsbury went over 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases along with over 100 runs and 100 RBIs while posting a .321 average. The question now is whether he can deliver those types of numbers again. If you want him on your team, you’ll be paying a premium.
  • The fantasy prospects for Kevin Youkilis depend on health. If he is healthy he should overplay his pre-draft ranking. He is ranked as a back-end fantasy starter at third base. Yahoo! has him ranked over 30 spots higher overall than ESPN (60 compared to 97). I’ve always liked Youkilis but I’d certainly have a backup plan if I draft him.
  • Carl Crawford will be an interesting player to watch in fantasy baseball. In past seasons he was a first or second round pick. Coming off a horrible season and an injury to boot his value has taken a big hit. If he returns from injury early in the season and can be close to what he was with Tampa Bay, he’ll be a steal. Yahoo! and ESPN rank Crawford far differently. He is ranked as the 30th outfielder, 103 overall by Yahoo! and 20th outfielder 70th outfielder by ESPN. These rankings could be similar to the values you would see in a fantasy baseball draft. If not for the injury I would be expecting a nice season for Crawford. Even with the injury it would be a shock to me if he was not considerably better than 2011.
  • David Ortiz put up big numbers in 2011 but is another year older and only has eligibility as a utility hitter which could hurt your roster flexibility. He is another Red Sox player that is ranked far different by two fantasy sites. Yahoo! has him ranked as the 131st overall player where ESPN has him ranked as the 66th best player. Ortiz’s .309 average will more than likely come down but his production could still be substantial.
  • Jon Lester is a top 15 fantasy starting pitcher. He should have a very good season in 2012 and help out in all major fantasy categories. With a high powered offense he should get a decent amount of wins. Lester has considerable fantasy value.
  • Josh Beckett is ranked around 30th as a starting pitcher. He has been up and down in fantasy terms over his career but he has big skills. If Beckett is able to make starts he could have value for where he is being drafted.
  • Clay Buchholz will likely be overdrafted because he was a very good fantasy player in 2010 and plays for one of baseball’s signature teams. He should have an ERA below 4.00 but he doesn’t strike out many batters and may have a relatively high WHIP.
  • New closer Andrew Bailey will get a lot of opportunities. He will also have much more pressure on him to perform and had injury problems the last two seasons. I like Bailey, but I would want to wait for him in fantasy drafts. Drafting him, like most closers in fantasy baseball, depends on if he is on the board when I look to take a closer. I will not reach for him.
  • Daniel Bard should have some fantasy value whether he ends up a mainstay in the rotation or returns to the bullpen. I will wait to invest until I see him in the regular season.
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