BOSTON (CBS) – How nice is it to have baseball back? The Red Sox are trying to erase the past two seasons from their memory bank and start fresh with a relatively new cast in 2013. Over the next five days, we will take a look at the 2013 Red Sox and how they shape up “on paper” as they start spring training.
Part One features a look at the infield, including catcher:
– Mike Napoli, Lyle Overbay, Mauro Gomez, Mark Hamilton
Ben Cherington had originally agreed to a three-year, $39-million deal with Mike Napoli, pending a physical. And that “pending” turned out to be a problem. Avascular necrosis was found, a major problem with his hip. Thus, a one year deal worth $5-million with incentives that can get it up to $13-million was struck. Let’s hope Napoli doesn’t go the way of Bo Jackson and can be productive for a few more years… or in the Red Sox case, at least one more year. The 31-year-old Napoli has hit at least 10 home runs in each of his seven big league seasons. He’s also hit 20 or more homers in each of the past five seasons, including 30 in 2011. In other words, Napoli provides power. He will help David Ortiz and Will Middlebrooks in the middle of the Sox line-up. The question is can he provide decent enough defense as a full-tine first baseman? He seemingly has done a good job over there the past two seasons, but you just don’t know.
The other question is: who will be the player that shares time with him? Is it an aging Lyle Overbay? At 35, he had a .339 OBP and a .412 Slugging vs RHP in 116 plate appearances last season for the Braves and Diamondbacks in 2012. .
Might it be Mauro Gomez? He finally got a shot in the bigs at age 27 last season and had great numbers vs RHP (.315 avg, .356 OBP, .556 slugging) as opposed to LHP (229, .288, .271).
Another name to watch is 28-year-old Mark Hamilton, signed as a free agent out of the Cardinals minor league system. He had a down year last season, but put up solid numbers from 2009-11 in the minor leagues.
If Napoli can stay healthy he will help fill a power void for the Sox as well as bring some plate discipline to the line-up. One of the biggest mysteries for the Sox in 2011 and 2012 was what happened to Adrian Gonzalez? He was still great defensively, but instead of taking his numbers to an MVP level, he slightly declined — especially in his OBP, and thus plate discipline. Maybe he just tried to do too much, as can happen in a pressure-packed place like Boston.
– Dustin Pedroia
The only question about Dustin Pedroia is can he play 150-plus games? If he does then he’ll be among the elite at his position when the season is over. In 2012 he played in 141 games and scored 81 runs with 39 doubles, 15 home runs, 65 RBI, and 20 stolen bases. Solid numbers, but he should be better for two reasons: John Farrell over Bobby Valentine, and the team in general will be much better.
Pedroia is a rare breed. He shows up at the park ready to do one thing: win. The team didn’t do that last season and he hated every second of it. Because he plays so hard and cares so much all I worry about is whether or not his body can handle the force he plays with.
– Stephen Drew, Jose Iglesias, Xander Bogaerts
Ben Cherington says Stephen Drew is his starting shortstop. He backed that up by paying Drew $9.5-million on a one year deal. Over a three season period from 2008 through 2010, Drew averaged around 81 runs, 34 doubles, 12 triples, 16 HRS, and 64 RBI per season; fantastic numbers for a shortstop. However, the past two seasons were limited due to a horrific injury in July of 2012 when broke his leg and tore ligaments in his ankle while sliding into home plate. He didn’t return until June of last season and was criticized by his Diamondbacks owner for not coming back earlier (a complaint lodged against his brother J.D. often in his career — including here in Boston). He was traded to Oakland last August and was OK hitting .250 with an OBP of .326 and a Slugging percentage of .382 (well below what he slugged from ’09-’11).
Jose Iglesias is at a crossroads in his young career. He is as gifted defensively as any player in the game, period. He can do things few others can a short. However, he had just eight hits in 77 plate appearances last season in Boston and has only a .626 OPS in three minor league seasons. And, yes Dustin Pedroia hit only .191 with a .526 OPS in his first call-up, but he had much, much better hitting credentials in the minors. I would still like to see Iglesias play the first half in Pawtucket to see what he can do.
Top prospect Xander Bogaerts could also see time in Boston as a September call-up. Head to Soxprospects.com for a good look at this 20-year-old, who has shown great power in his brief journey in the minors. The kid from Aruba should start the year at Portland and we’ll see from there.
This is a pretty good one-year gamble by Cherington. After missing nearly a full season recovering from his injury Drew can go either two ways as he hits the age of 30: either he’ll regain his 2009-11 form because he simply needed at-bats after being out for so long or he’ll be average because he’ll never recover from such a gruesome baseball injury. If he struggles, you can always bring in the defensively brilliant Iglesias or stud prospect Bogaerts — or even top draft pick Deven Marrero out of Arizona State, who put up solid numbers at Lowell last season. The Sox are deep at this position, which is a great thing for an organization that has gone through way too many shortstops since Nomar Garciaparra was traded in 2004.
– Will Middlebrooks
I will be curious to see how Middlebrooks returns from the broken right wrist he suffered last August. He had a sold start to his big league career prior to that, hitting .288 with 15 HRs and 54 RBI in 75 games in Boston. His defense should get better too as he adjusts to playing on this level. Question is, how does he handle year two?
I’ve written this before, but it deserves repeating. There have been two players in the past decade or so that wowed me with their raw power the first time I ever saw them take BP in Fort Myers in February: David Ortiz and Will Middlebrooks. How Middlebrooks handles pitchers, who now have a book on him, will be interesting to watch in 2013. But, he also has a feel for what it’s like on this level. A lot may hinge on how the rest of the Sox line-up fares around Middlebrooks. If Ortiz, Napoli, Gomes, etc hit, then there will be less pressure on him.
– Pedro Ciriaco, Brock Holt
Pedro Ciriaco was one of the interesting stories of the 2012 Boston Red Sox, but in a good way. In 76 games at third base, shortstop, second, DH, and in the outfield he hit .293 with a .315 OBP and a .390 Slugging percentage while scoring 33 runs and stealing 16 bases. With those numbers he projects well as a solid utility player. And, he did similar things in Pittsburgh in 2011 so there’s no reason why he can’t do it again.
Brock Holt is another ex-Pirate who comes to Boston as part of the Joel Hanrahan deal. In 24 games in his first taste of the bigs last year, Holt hit .293 while playing some second base. In four minor league seasons the 24-year-old lefthanded hitter has shown some decent pop (.808 OPS) while playing both second base and shortstop.
The Sox should be able to find room for Ciriaco again and/or Holt. Ciriaco can play more positions, but Holt can be insurance in case Pedroia gets hurt. Also, the Sox signed soon-to-be 28 year-old infielder Jonathan Diaz, who can play third, second and shortstop. He was also in the Blue Jays system, where John Farrell has got a good look at him.
– Jarrod Saltalamacchia, David Ross, Ryan Lavarnway, Dan Butler
Ben Cherington said this past weekend that Salty and David Ross will be his catchers to start the season. That could certainly change if a trade occurs, but for now Salty is the number one guy. Last season he hit just .222 with a .288 OBP and a slugging percentage of .454 while belting 25 home runs and driving in 59 runs. After a decent April where he hit .240 with four homers and nine RBI in 16 games, Salty took off in May as he hit .308 with a .345 OBP and a .628 slugging. However, it went rapidly downhill from there as he hit .208 in June, .182 in July, .205 in August, and .180 in September. It appeared that Salty couldn’t adjust to off-speed stuff as pitchers stayed away from throwing him fastballs. As for his catching ability, he is still learning. Having David Ross with him should be huge.
The David Ross signing could turn out be Ben Cherington’s best move of the off-season. Everyone in and around the game raves about his clubhouse presence/leadership and his ability to handle a pitching staff. That’s exactly what this team needs and lost once Jason Varitek was done playing. The soon-to-be 36-year-old Ross, who played in eight games for the Sox in 2008, has averaged about 50-60 games behind the plate for each of the past four seasons with Atlanta. He’s hit 6-10 homers while driving in 20-30 runs each season, but can call a game with the best of them and threw out 44-percent of runners last year last year — good for fourth in the National League. Ross should be a big help behind the plate this season.
Ryan Lavarnway appears to be the odd man out heading into this spring. The 25-year-old Yale graduate was a near hero in 2011, but in 46 games last season really struggled at the plate hitting just .157 with a .459 OPS. He believes he can — and will — hit on the big league level and got rave reviews from now retired bullpen/catching coach Gary Tuck as far as his improvement on defense is concerned. He’ll start the season in Pawtucket again, but it’s hard to think of giving up on a kid who is so young for a catcher.
Dan Butler is one if those kids who just keeps steadily improving while everyone else is talked about. Last season between Double-A and Triple-A he hit .247 with a .746 OPS in 95 games and threw out 8-of-18 would-be base stealers in Pawtucket. He’s a guy that’s simply waiting in the wings.
Another kid to watch is 2011 first round pick Blake Swihart. He hit .302 with a .702 OPS for Single-A Greenville last season while throwing out 31-percent of would-be base stealers. Keep an eye on him.
I am curious to see a lot of things from this catching corps this season. Can Salty improve enough defensively and in calling games where he locks down the number one job for years to come or is he traded away? Can David Ross help Salty and the pitchers improve from a season ago? What happens to Ryan Lavarnway? Lots of intrigue with a group that could be big difference-makers in 2013.
Follow WBZ-TV’s Dan Roche on Twitter @RochieWBZ. Tune in to his updates from Red Sox Spring Training in Fort Myers, Florida all week on WBZ-TV, WBZ NewsRadio 1030 and 98.5 The Sports Hub!