BOSTON (CBS) – The Boston Red Sox begin their 2013 campaign Monday afternoon in the Bronx, looking to put the last two seasons behind them.
After the fiasco that was 2012, the Red Sox brought in a new manager and several "locker room guys" to improve their clubhouse and avoid another 93-loss season.
While the expectations aren't all that high, the Red Sox could surprise us all and make a run for a playoff spot – and not just that one-game play-in spot.
But there are several key questions surrounding this team, as there usually are for most baseball teams, and some of those question marks will either lead them back to October baseball, or keep them in the AL East basement.
1. Is John Farrell The Man For The Job?
The Red Sox were a mess without a mop in 2012. It all started in the late stages of 2011, when Terry Francona (who filled the role as said mop) could no longer clean up the messes in the locker room, and a new leader was needed. Unfortunately for Boston, they thought that man was Bobby Valentine – who while not completely to blame, made the locker room look more like a landfill.
So enter John Farrell. The man who many thought would always be Francona's eventual replacement is back in Boston after two years on the Toronto bench. While his two seasons up North were underwhelming, producing a 154-170 record, Farrell is familiar with Boston after serving as Francona's pitching coach from 2007-10 and the starting rotation's decline coincided with his departure.
Is Farrell the right man for the Red Sox? Can he come in and turn around a team that went 69-93 last season, getting them back to their glory days the 2000s? Or will his mediocrity with the Blue Jays follow him back to Boston? We'll find out soon, but from the picture painted down in Fort Myers, Farrell's leadership is making a difference already.
2. When Will David Ortiz Return?
Maybe the better question is will Ortiz return?
Ortiz hasn't played since last July after he re-injured his Achilles. He was supposed to be ready for opening day, but soreness has kept him out of games entirely this spring, and now the team is looking at May 1 as his return date.
But like his last return date, will that day come and go with Ortiz still sidelined? And when/if he does come back, how long will Ortiz last?
The Red Sox built their lineup around the 37-year-old DH, and without him they have a major power hole in the middle of their order. Ortiz proved last season he could still put up big numbers at an advanced age, but how will that translate after missing nearly nine months of baseball activity?
This one is either going to be answered very soon, or it could be something Red Sox fans have to fret about all summer.
3. Will The Starting Rotation Bounce Back?
The Boston starting rotation was a disaster in 2012. Jon Lester had a down year, going 8-14 with a career-high 4.82 ERA, Clay Buchholz battled numerous injuries from a bad back to esophagitis, and Josh Beckett became public enemy No. 1 when he chose to go golfing shortly after being scratched from a scheduled start.
But Beckett is gone, and Lester and Buchholz look poised to bounce back. They put up amazing numbers in the Grapefruit League, going a combined 6-0 with a 0.78 ERA, and will make up Boston's 1-2 punch at the beginning of the rotation.
Ben Cherington brought in Ryan Dempster to be their third starter, a very serviceable veteran pitcher who brings leadership to the clubhouse. After Dempster, the club trots out Felix Doubront, who didn't look great in camp but received some words of wisdom from Red Sox great Pedro Martinez, and John Lackey, who is coming back off Tommy John surgery (more on him later).
The Red SOx will only go as far as its rotation gets them, so it will be up to Lester and Buchholz to get off to good starts. With expectations so low heading into the season, and Farrell's tutelage, the Red Sox starters may surprise people.
4. Can Joel Hanrahan Handle Boston?
Ben Cherington tried to replace Jonathan Papelbon last season with Andrew Bailey, but a thumb injury kept that plan from ever playing out. So this offseason, he went out and acquired Joel Hanrahan, who saved 76 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates over the last two seasons.
The only question now is can Hanrahan handle Boston? He had a tough time in Fort Myers, allowing nine runs (six earned) on nine hits over 9.1 innings pitched and had a higher WHIP than Daniel Bard. Though spring numbers really don't mean much – good or bad, so don't get too excited about Lester and Buchholz – Hanrahan did close his spring with a perfect inning of work and two strikeouts before heading to Boston for the birth of his son. So he's got that going for him.
But again, things will be very different in Boston. Games will matter, and there are always questions about a new closer coming in and handling the pressure. Things will be a lot different when he toes the rubber in the ninth inning at Fenway compared to the last two seasons at PNC Park.
5. Will Jacoby Ellsbury Last All Season?
The Ellsbury saga may be the most intriguing one to follow this season. It's a contract year for the 29-year-old center fielder, and he's looking for a big paycheck over the winter.
After an MVP-like campaign in 2011, Ellsbury was once again injury-prone in 2012, playing in just 74 games after injuring his shoulder in the team's home opener. With a big pay-day on the line, he'll likely have another huge season in 2013, but the question is will that huge season be for the Red Sox?
With that, the Red Sox could find themselves with a huge trade chip on their hands this summer, and could get a nice bounty for Ellsbury if they choose to deal him. Chances are he and super-agent Scott Boras will get big money elsewhere after the season, so it will be in Boston's best interest to look into dealing the outfielder.
When that happens will depend on the team's success, but chances are Ellsbury won't make it through the entire season with the Red Sox.
6. Sophomore Slump For Will Middlebrooks?
Will Middlebrooks impressed during his rookie campaign in 2012, getting the starting third baseman's job a little earlier than anticipated thanks to the frailty of Kevin Youkilis. He only got 75 games to show his stuff, sidelined in mid-August after suffering a broken wrist, but impressed with 15 homers and 54 RBIs in his first big league experience.
Middlebrooks was on pace for a 30-homer, 100-plus RBI season, and the Red Sox will be depending on him to put up those numbers this season – especially with Ortiz's absence early on. But with all young players, there is the concern of the sophomore slump – the season-long malaise second-year players tend to go through.
Middlebrooks didn't get a full rookie season, so maybe he'll be spared the curse that haunts some MLB sophomores. The Red Sox better hope so, because the last thing they'll need is a quiet bat in the middle of the order.
7. Can Andrew Bailey Contribute?
He was supposed to be the guy that replaced Jonathan Papelbon, but instead Bailey spent most of his 2012 season on the disabled list. Now he's finally healthy, but won't be closing games for Boston.
If he can stay healthy, Bailey will give the Red Sox a solid arm to get to Hanrahan. But that's a big IF when it comes to Bailey and his health.
8. Will Jackie Bradley Jr. Live Up To The Hype?
If you've been completely caught up in the current Boston Celtics playoff push, you may not have heard about this Jackie Bradley Jr. kid the Red Sox have.
We likely won't know until Sunday if he has officially made the big league club or if the Red Sox will let him spend 11 days in the minors and gain control of another year (you know how the Red Sox love their drama), but the exciting outfield prospect has certainly made his case to make the team.
This spring, Bradley hit .441 with 26 hits in 59 at-bats, including a pair of homers and four doubles to go with 12 runs scored and 12 RBIs. He's arguably been their best bat during spring training, and gives fans a player to be excited for in the coming years.
But, can Bradley live up to all this hype? The expectations are through the roof for a 22-year-old that has just 138 professional games under his belt, with many hoping for a Mike Trout-like rookie campaign. It's probably better for fans to temper their expectations for the youngster early on, but don't be surprised if he meets some of those lofty expectations.
9. Can The Red Sox Expect Anything Out Of Daniel Bard?
Last season's experiment as a starter was a disaster, and now the once-borderline dominant reliever is struggling out of the pen. This spring, Bard surrendered seven runs on nine hits over eight innings or work, walking four and hitting two others.
Once viewed as Jonathan Papelbon's replacement in the ninth inning, Bard is now in the lower levels of the Boston system trying to figure things out. Whether or not he can do that is TBD, but Boston's bullpen should be strong enough going forward that they can afford to give Bard some alone time with to sort it all out.
10. What Can Lackey Bring To The Table?
It can't be worse than what he gave them in 2011, right?
Lackey had one of the worst – if not the worst -- seasons in team history two years ago, going 12-12 with an astronomical 6.41 ERA. He failed to make it past the fourth inning in six of his 28 starts, and surrendered five or more runs in 10 of them.
Granted, he did all of that with a badly damaged elbow, and missed all of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. He's now a year removed from the surgery and all the "chicken and beer" bashing following the 2011 season, so with expectations so low, Lackey could surprise people.
He reported to camp in shape, has a new look at the game, and everyone loves a comeback story. But there's still plenty of concern with Lackey in his mid-30s and over 1,800 innings on that elbow.
Lackey will never live up to the ridiculous contract Theo Epstein gave him the winter of 2009, but a 12-win season (matching his 2011 total) with an ERA in the fours would be looked at as a vast improvement – and welcomed with open arms by Red Sox fans.
11. Will Alfredo Aceves Snap?
It's like waiting for Julian Tavarez to roll a comebacker over to first base, or John Lackey to give an infielder a dirty look after a ground ball finds its way through a hole; it's going to happen, the only question is when?
Aceves lost it a few times last season with Valentine at the helm, and has already had a problem or two with Farrell and his staff. Maybe getting some anger out at the World Baseball Classic will hold off the righty's next outburst, but it's going to happen.
It will be interesting to see how long the Red Sox are willing to put up with it. If Aceves becomes the rubber-arm reliever/spot starter he was in 2011, he'll be a valuable asset to the team. But if he pouts about wanting to be a starter and starts getting a little loopy, his days in Boston will likely be over.
12. Will They Score?
The Red Sox' season will depend on the success of the pitching staff, but to state the obvious, they'll also have to put some runs up on the board as well.
Scoring runs has never really been a problem for Boston. Last season they ranked eighth in baseball in runs score, even with lineups in September that scored an average of three runs a game (they averaged 4.5 runs/game for the season).
But last year the Red Sox had a lineup that included a few super stars, something they don't have the luxury of this season. Adrian Gonzalez and Ortiz led the way in 2012 (at least until August), clubbing 38 homers and driving in 146 runs in 213 combined games. This year, one is 2,500 miles away while the other can barely walk.
To fill the hole in the middle of the order, the Sox signed Mike Napoli – who has hit seven homers in 19 career games at Fenway – and added some more potential power in Jonny Gomes (heavy emphasis on "potential"). The pressure will be on the top of their lineup (Ellsbury, Victorino, Pedroia) to set the table for the potential power bats in the middle (Napoli, Middlebrooks).
The best word for the Sox offense heading into 2013 is "potential." They have the potential to be a potent offense if all their parts come together. They also have the potential to be a very frustrating offense, one that might not be able to spot their pitchers those ever-important early leads.
13. Will They Be Playing Come October?
The AL East is up in the air, and now pretty much everyone is in contention until the final weeks of the regular season. The Red Sox should be in the playoff hunt for the greater part of the season, and if a few things fall in their favor have a great shot at making a postseason run.
But they could just as easily finish 20 games out and fans might get another beer discount come September. If that's the case, it's win-win in my book.
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