Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Last season was Pompeii on a baseball field. Everything came crumbling down for the Boston Red Sox in 2012.
Nothing went right in the first year of the post-Theo Epstein Era in Boston.
Bobby Valentine started the season off on the wrong foot by questioning the commitment of third baseman Kevin Youkilis. The Red Sox would later trade Youkilis to the White Sox about a month before the trade deadline.
Right around that same time, outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury collided with Rays infielder Reid Brignac on a play at second base and ended up on the disbaled list for three months.
Carl Crawford had hoped to return to action shortly after the start of the regular season but a lingering elbow injury kept him out until the All-Star break.
Oh, it gets worse. Daniel Bard's failed conversion from reliever to starting pitcher (5-6, 5.24 ERA before his demotion) put added stress on a rotation that was already struggling to get outs. And even when the rotation did put the team in a position to win, interim closer Alfredo Aceves rarely made the ninth inning look easy (eight blown saves in 33 chances).
Will Middlebrooks (.288, 15 HR, 54 RBI) and David Ortiz (.318, 23 HR, 60 RBI) were bright spots but neither one of them could stay healthy. Meanwhile Dustin Pedroia (.290, 15 HR, 65 RBI, 20 SB) did the best he could while playing through a painful thumb injury.
After hovering around .500 for most of the first half, a 4-11 stretch in mid- August ended any slim hopes the Red Sox had of making the postseason. That's when first-year GM Ben Cherington decided to blow it all up.
With a little help from Magic Johnson's personal piggy bank, the Red Sox pulled off one of the more jaw-dropping trades in recent memory. The Sox shipped pouty starter Josh Beckett, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, utility man Nick Punto and Crawford to the Dodgers for James Loney and a handful of prospects.
The swap pretty much assured that the Red Sox would finish in last place (which they did) but it also gave the team enough financial flexibility to rebuild in the offseason.
After finishing September with a 7-19 record, Bobby V finally got the axe, allowing the Red Sox to bring in former pitching coach John Farrell as the new manager.
Boston's final record of 69-93 was the team's worst since 1965 when the Sox finished an embarrassing 62-100.
2012 FINISH (69-93) - Fifth Place (AL East)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Mike Carp (1B), Ryan Dempster (SP), Stephen Drew (SS), Jonny Gomes (OF), Joel Hanrahan (RP), Mike Napoli (1B), David Ross (C), Koji Uehara (RP), Shane Victorino (OF)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Scott Atchison (RP), Mike Aviles (SS), Aaron Cook (SP), Rich Hill (RP), Daisuke Matsuzaka (SP), Mark Melancon (RP), Vicente Padilla (RP), Scott Podsednik (OF), Cody Ross (OF)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Jacoby Ellsbury (CF); Shane Victorino (RF); Dustin Pedroia (2B); David Ortiz (DH); Mike Napoli (1B); Will Middlebrooks (3B); Jarrod Saltalamacchia (C); Jonny Gomes (LF); Stephen Drew (SS)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Jon Lester (LHP); Clay Buchholz (RHP); Ryan Dempster (RHP); Felix Doubront (LHP); John Lackey (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Joel Hanrahan (RHP)
MANAGER: John Farrell
CAN THE STARTING ROTATION GET BACK ON THE TRACK?
Boston's rotation was a train wreck last season, finishing 27th in the majors in ERA (5.19). That's inexcusable for a team with a $100 million payroll.
Part of the problem was Jon Lester. The 29-year-old's confidence completely disappeared after the Blue Jays ripped him to shreds in late July (4 IP, 9 H, 11 ER, 5 BB, 4 HR). He needed a scoreless outing in his last start just to keep his ERA under 5.00 for the season.
Clay Buchholz wasn't much better. His ERA skyrocketed to 4.56 and he finished the year by going winless in his last eight starts (0-4 over that span).
The Sox never got involved in the Zack Greinke sweepstakes this offseason, instead opting for the more affordable (and significantly older) Ryan Dempster (12-8, 3.38 in 28 starts for the Cubs and Rangers last season). They'll also be getting John Lackey back after he missed the entire 2012 season recovering from Tommy John surgery.
The key to turning it around could be John Farrell. The new skipper served as Boston's pitching coach from 2007 to 2010 so he already has a rapport with Lester, Buchholz and Lackey.
Farrell's wisdom might be working already. Buchholz is 2-0 this spring (0.96 ERA) while Lester is 3-0. By pitching six perfect innings against Tampa Bay on March 17, Lester lowered his spring ERA to 0.90. If that success carries over into the regular season, the Sox will have a good chance to stay competitive in the AL East this season.
CAN PAPI STAY HEALTHY?
When healthy, David Ortiz is easily the most dangerous hitter in Boston's lineup. Before he suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in July (though he did come back for one game in late August), Ortiz had been on pace to swat 41 homers with 108 runs batted in.
Of course, we wouldn't be having this conversation if that were the case. The fact of the matter is, Ortiz isn't healthy and it's getting to the point where you have to wonder if he ever will be.
Papi has barely picked up a bat this spring because of inflammation in both of his heels. Though the Red Sox haven't established a timetable for when Ortiz could return to action, he's already been ruled out for Opening Day against the Yankees on April 1.
It's hard to tell if the Red Sox are just being extra cautious with Ortiz or if this is an ailment he's going to have to deal with for the rest of his career. Boston went 23-49 without Ortiz at the end of last season so obviously Papi is hugely important to this team's success.
Boston can probably handle missing Ortiz for a week or two. But if this injury ends up costing Ortiz a month or longer, the Red Sox can kiss their playoff hopes goodbye.
WILL THE SOX DEAL ELLSBURY?
Scott Boras clients almost always test the free agent market, which means there's almost no chance that Ellsbury will sign an extension with the Red Sox during the season.
Ellsbury has been brilliant in spurts (.321, 32 HR, 105 RBI, 39 SB in 2011, team-record 70 steals in 2009) but his injury history and age (he'll be 30 in September) make him far from a sure thing.
After watching the Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez deals blow up in their face, locking Ellsbury up long-term might not be worth the hassle for the Red Sox. That's why it's very possible that Cherington could look to move Ellsbury before the trade deadline.
Meanwhile, 22-year-old center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. is having a monster spring (.444 AVG, .523 OBP in 24 games) and might even make the Opening Day roster. Bradley's progress should give Boston even more incentive to deal Ellsbury before July 31st.
X FACTOR: WILL MIDDLEBROOKS: What learning curve? Middlebrooks was spectacular in his first month in the big leagues. It only took him 11 at bats to hit his first homer and then one night later he left the yard twice. Middlebrooks finished May with six homers, 21 RBI and a .316 average.
Middlebrooks cooled off eventually but he was still able to bop 15 homers in his first 75 games. That extrapolates to 32 round trippers for a full season, which would be the most ever by a Red Sox third baseman.
So now the question is, will Middlebrooks fall victim to the sophomore slump or will he be able to build off of his strong rookie campaign?
Left field at Fenway has always been kind to right-handed pull hitters, turning routine fly balls into wall ball doubles. That should help Middlebrooks but his .288 batting average could dip into the .250/.260 range if he doesn't work to fix some of the holes in his swing (70 strikeouts in 267 at bats). Middlebrooks seemed to run out of gas before his wrist injury (.194 in August), which also raises some questions about his stamina.
At age 24, Middlebrooks doesn't need to become a superstar right away. But it definitely couldn't hurt.
The Red Sox lost their identity in 2012 but now they've found it again. They went back to their roots by bringing in a group of scrappy, hardworking veterans this offseason.
Bringing in Farrell to shore up the pitching staff was another smart move by Cherington. Farrell's familiarity with the organization is also a plus.
The lineup looks pretty solid from top to bottom and Ellsbury and Shane Victorino give the Sox an element of speed that's been missing in recent years.
There's a lot to like about this team and there's no way the Red Sox are going to have as bad a year as they did in 2012. The problem is that there's also a lot to like about every other team in the division.
The Red Sox should be above .500 but that probably won't be enough to make the playoffs and it might not even be enough for a top three finish in the division. That's no knock on the Sox. That's just an acknowledgment of how competitive the AL East has become.