Coming off one of the most historic late-season collapses in baseball history, the Boston Red Sox faced a tough challenge in the winter preceding the start of the 2012 MLB season. With that challenge came a number of changes – from a departure in management (the firing of Terry Francona and the “trade” sending Theo Epstein to Chicago) to a number of new faces that would appear on the roster (thanks to the retirements of Jason Varitek, J.D. Drew, and Tim Wakefield and free agency departure of Jonathan Papelbon) – that would need to be addressed before Spring Training arrived.
Enter Ben Cherington, Epstein’s long time assistant and the long-expected heir to Boston’s GM role. Tasked with the job of fixing what went wrong in September 2011, Cherington seemed like the best man to take on the responsibility. Only from the start, it quickly became evident that he was not truly in control of the team’s decisions. Team Chairman Larry Lucchino held that dubious honor, ultimately swinging and missing on the team’s first major decision of the offseason.
The decision to bring in Bobby Valentine to replace Francona as the team’s manager received mixed reviews from the get-go. Some applauded his straight-to-the-point demeanor and his track record for working with younger players. He’d won an NL Pennant in New York and a Championship in Japan. Others feared his track record of inconsistency (notably his time leading the Texas Rangers, leading to his mid-season firing in 1992 by not-yet-President George W. Bush, who co-owned the team at the time) and the fact that he had been out of the Majors for so long. Both sides expected that since he’d worked in the media, he’d be able to handle the scrutiny that comes with the Red Sox fanbase. In the end, nearly everyone was wrong.
Valentine floundered in his first season in Boston. He made some bold changes right from the onset, preaching fundamentals during Spring Training and banning beer in the team’s clubhouse. He struggled with the team’s roster, both sparring with the players (his disputes with Kevin Youkilis directly led to the latter’s trade to the White Sox) and struggling at times to competently fill our a lineup (not knowing which hand an opposing starter threw with before a mid-May game). Eventually the players (allegedly) called for a meeting with team ownership in which they demanded Valentine’s outing as manager. Discontent grew among the fanbase as Valentine clearly had lost control of the clubhouse. The team played .500 baseball through the season’s first half, sitting 9.5 games back in the division by the All Star Break.
By the start of September, Valentine’s fate had seemingly been written in stone. He’d be a one-and-done manager in Boston, it’d merely be a question of when the firing would become official and of course, we didn’t have to wait long for the answer as Valentine was dismissed following the final day of the regular season. Boston had finished 26-50 during the second half, ending the year in last place in the AL East, 26 games out of first place. They had limped to the finish, going a combined 16-39 after August 1st. Their 69-93 overall record, including a 34-47 mark at home, was the worst Red Sox team that Fenway Park had seen since 1966.
While Valentine was a total failure leading the team, he wasn’t the sole reason for the disappointment Boston’s 2012 season became.
With a front three of Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholtz the team had what they believed were three above-average starters to lead off the rotation, with some uncertainty beyond. Lester struggled to a career-worst season, posting a 9-14 record and 4.82 ERA with his worst WHIP (1.383) since his first full season in the Red Sox rotation. He at least was able to stay healthy, throwing 205.1 innings over 33 starts on the year. Beckett managed an even worse 5-11 record with a 5.23 ERA over 127.1 innings and had a few incidents that drew the ire of Sox fans everywhere (including being called out publicly by Valentine regarding shoulder soreness that forced him to miss a start, two days after playing golf on an off day), all before finding his way out of town in a late August trade. Buchholtz added an 11-8 mark and 4.56 ERA over a career-high 189.1 innings. Now his name is being tossed around in rumors surrounding the team’s pursuit of a new manager.
Felix Doubront stepped into the back end of the rotation and impressed for most of his first full season in the Majors before succumbing to a tired arm as the months went along. He’d go 11-10 with a 4.86 ERA over 161.0 innings. But beyond him, the Sox had trouble getting quality starts from any of their starters. Daniel Bard pitched miserably through 10 starts before being sent back down to Triple-A. The failed experiment of moving him into the rotation turned out to be more disastrous than productive, as he struggled to regain his control upon being moved back to the bullpen and essentially lost a full season of development trying to get back on track. Daisuke Matsuzaka returned from Tommy John Surgery, pitched poorly, spent more time on the DL, and then received a token start at the end of the year on his way out the door. John Lackey didn’t throw a single pitch in the Major Leagues. Aaron Cook even made 18 starts, likely only because the team had no other options available.
Out in the bullpen, the performance wasn’t quite as streaky. Scott Atchison, Andrew Miller, Franklin Morales, and Clayton Mortensen all posted respectable numbers in varying amounts of playing time. Junichi Tazawa proved to be the biggest surprise of the group, boasting a 1.43 ERA and 0.955 WHIP over 44 innings of work, almost assuring him of a spot on next year’s team. Of course, all was not positive in the game’s late innings.
Filling in at closer for the injured Andrew Bailey, Alfredo Aceves essentially imploded. He’d save 25 games for the Red Sox in 2012, but would also post a 2-10 record and 5.36 ERA over 84.0 innings of work. He’d falter under the team’s most pressured moments and displayed more than his share of emotional outbursts on and off the field. Aceves quickly went from one of the more versatile options in the bullpen to quite possibly one of the biggest non-tender candidates this offseason.
Offense was never a concern entering the 2012 season. Boston had scored the most runs during the 2011 season and would be returning a near identical lineup.
Jacoby Ellsbury was limited to just 303 plate appearances (74 games) to injury and looked to be a shell of his former self when he was in the lineup, batting .271/.313/.370 with just 4 HR. Behind the plate Jarrod Saltalamacchia crawled to a .222/.288/.454 line with a team high 25 HR. Shortstop Mike Aviles managed to hit just .250/.282/.381 on the year. Meanwhile, the team actually received quality seasons from Dustin Pedroia (.290/.347/.449, 15 HR, 65 RBI), Cody Ross (.267/.326/.481, 22, 81), David Ortiz (.318/.415/.611, 23, 60), and Will Middlebrooks (.288/.325/.509, 15, 54), with Ortiz and Middlebrooks both missing significant time in the season’s second half due to injury.
Off the bench infielder Pedro Ciriaco was a pleasant surprise, batting .293/.315/.390 over 272 plate appearances. As was outfielder Scott Podsednik, who hit .302/.322/.352 in 60 games. Ryan Lavarnway (.157/.211/.248), Daniel Nava (.243/.352/.390), Nick Punto (.200/.301/.272), and James Loney (.230/.264/.310) all underwhelmed in limited playing time (each had over 100 plate appearances).
Injuries decimated the Boston team throughout the 2012 season, forcing the team to use a franchise record 56 players over the course of the year. Come late August, it was evident that the team had started to look ahead as the front office completed a blockbuster deal late in the month, signaling the start of a needed rebuilding phase. Cherington and his front office, finally starting to gain some control back over the team’s decisions, completed a deal which shipped Beckett, Punto, Adrian Gonzalez, and Carl Crawford to the Los Angeles Dodgers, with the Dodgers picking up roughly $258 Million in future payroll commitments. In return Boston would have been lucky to get anything at all, but instead they received Loney, Ivan DeJesus, Jerry Sands, Allen Webster, and Rubby De La Rosa – a group that includes two pitching prospects and a potential utility infielder. Boston was 7.5 games out of a Wild Card spot at the time of the trade and it was clear that it was time to move forward.
Heading into the offseason, Boston’s needs were clear but certain parts of their offseason planning would need to be addressed before the team could move on to others.
Cherington needs the authority to make decisions in order to restore this team to a winning stature. Lucchino needs to step aside and allow Cherington to make mistakes on his own. Thus far, that process appears to have started with a number of changes made to the team’s front office setup since the season concluded (adding Varitek as an advisor, hiring former scout Eddie Bane, and expanding Bill James’ role). Next up will be addressing the team’s vacant manager role.
Beyond those items, Boston will need to address their starting rotation, Ortiz’s pending free agency, sign at least one outfielder, and potentially look for upgrades at shortstop and behind the plate. Only Pedroia, Middlebrooks, and Lester appear to be locks for next season’s Opening Day roster.
For more coverage of the Boston Red Sox throughout the offseason, be sure to check out BoSox Injection.