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Boston Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks had a lot of practice high-fiving teammates Sunday as he hit three home runs in a game against the Toronto Blue Jays. Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Red Sox May Be On Way Back

 

The Red Sox won’t finish last in the American League East Division. I’ll give them that. Their 5-2 start only tells us so much, but it offers hints that they could be on their way back into contention for a playoff spot sooner than most people think.

It was difficult to tell over the winter just how all of the comings and goings would work out for the Sox, but the signs are good that they will be a much improved team over 2012 when they did finish last.

There are still some things to worry about, however. One is how well designated hitter David Ortiz will bounce back from his Achilles heel trouble. Boston hopes Ortiz’s Achilles woes don’t become the team’s Achilles heel. The other major concern is John Lackey. Lackey had Tommy John surgery, but no one said he was going to change his name to Tommy John.

Lackey missed all of last season, made it back into the starting rotation for this season, and then left the mound on Saturday versus the Toronto Blue Jays clutching his right arm. It’s not clear just how severe his fresh injury is (it might become known today), though Lackey said the new ache is in a different spot from the old ache. Depending on how long Lackey is out the Red Sox may not have five men for a five-man rotation and that could unravel things. Nothing like a shortage of starting pitching to ruin plans.

One of the best early-season splashes has been made by third baseman Will Middlebrooks. Sunday, Middlebrooks, who showed enough talent last year to indicate he could handle the job cranked three home runs in a game. He seems completely prepared to show that what seemed like a premature shove out to the door to Kevin Youkilis will not be long remembered.

The Red Sox wanted to give young Jackie Bradley more seasoning in AAA, but at the last minute as spring training camp broke Bradley basically forced himself onto the roster. Naturally, everyone in Boston wants him to be the next Mike Trout or Bryce Harper, but the early returns don’t seem to support that optimism. Bradley seems just shy of being ready to stay with the big club and unless he has a couple of breakthrough games I’m thinking he may yet get an all-expenses-paid vacation to Pawtucket for at least part of the summer.

So many things went wrong for the Red Sox last year that it was difficult to repair all of the damage in one swoop. The Bobby Valentine managerial experiment was a failure. He’s gone and John Farrell is in. More players got injured in 2012 and put on the disabled list for part of the year than NFL franchises go through in a season. The pitching fell apart. Sox upper management worked diligently to fix things and I would have been more comfortable with one more hitter and one more pitcher, but for the moment they’ve got what they’ve got.

It’s possible that the bullpen is fixed with Joel Hanrahan as the closer and a now-healthy Andrew Bailey as the set-up man. Clay Buchholtz is 2-0 and so is Jon Lester and Lester did note as the beneficiary Sunday that Middlebrooks strung together “about 2,000 feet” worth of home runs. Middlebrooks finished four-for-five with four RBIs.

Middlebrooks is just 24. He was a fifth-round draft pick in 2007 instead of a first-rounder because it seemed likely he was going to take a scholarship to Texas A&M. Then he changed his mind. He made his Major League debut last year and was cruising with a .288 average when he suffered a broken hand from a pitched ball ending his season in August. So the Red Sox pretty much knew what they had. It’s just comforting for them that he was able to resume where he left off–apparently no adjustment period needed.

A year ago shortstop Jose Iglesias was Jackie Bradley. Now he is starting and after a week of play he is batting .529. Once more all signs are good that he is a good one and at 23 a long-term guy in the position.

With all of these new faces (Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury were keepers) and all of the changes, it seems ironic that one of the key questions facing the Red Sox now is the same one that has been asked for a couple of years: How much does Big Papi have left? Ortiz has fooled the experts for a couple of years running now, still wielding the big bat, and the Red Sox need that war club in the lineup again.

 

Tags: Boston Red Sox Will Middlebrooks

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