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Boston Red Sox Preview: Red Sox turn the page to a new era in Boston

Senior Writer

Published: Monday, March 26, 2012

Updated: Monday, March 26, 2012 18:03

Red Sox 1

Courtesy of Keith Allison

Catcher Jason Varitek (above) announced his retirement this month.

The 2012 Boston Red Sox are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.

Sorry for the cliché, but it’s true.

The Red Sox have the potential to finish first in the American League East and contend for a World Series title, as they were expected to do last year. Then again, they could also fail to make the playoffs for a third year in a row.

The beer-drinking and fried chicken-eating Red Sox of 2011, who were 31 games over .500 on Aug. 31 and then went on to suffer the worst collapse in baseball history, have disassembled. Manager Terry Francona, who led the Red Sox to World Series titles in 2004 and 2007, is gone. Ditto to starting pitcher Tim Wakefield and catcher Jason Varitek, both of whom retired after serving Red Sox Nation for more than 15 years. Closer Jonathan Papelbon took his talents to Philadelphia after signing a lucrative four-year deal worth $50 million.

Although the remnants of the infamous 2011 squad are back, Bobby Valentine, the new manager of the local nine, will lead them all.

Valentine, who previously managed the Texas Rangers and New York Mets, was the big-time hire that the Red Sox ownership craved. The move was designed to instill excitement in a team that was perceived as lazy, arrogant and selfish.

Valentine is loud, opinionated, brash and controversial. He will not be afraid to criticize his highest-paid players in front of the media. He already called out New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter for a play that happened more than 10 years ago.

For a team that was comforted and protected by Francona, a “players’ manager,” Valentine’s managing style may raise tensions in the Red Sox clubhouse. It just might be a recipe for disaster.

While Valentine’s antics will be the focus of the press coverage throughout the season, the players, especially the starting rotation, will be evaluated with even more scrutiny than in years past. The starting rotation has the talent and résumé to flourish in the regular season and postseason, but one would be hard-pressed to forget the horrific collapses of each starting pitcher this past year.

Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, Boston’s two aces and primary culprits of the clubhouse antics, will need to rebound from a lackluster September to solidify the rotation. Starting pitcher Clay Buchholz must show he can overcome his back problems to pitch a full season and newly converted starting pitcher Daniel Bard will be counted on to make an immediate impact in the fourth hole. As for the fifth and final starter, that question will be decided in spring training. A host of pitchers, including Vicente Padilla, Aaron Cook or Alfredo Aceves, can be called on to take the ball every fifth day for the team.

On paper, the Red Sox have one of the most dangerous lineups in baseball. Center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, second baseman Dustin Pedroia, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, third baseman Kevin Youkilis and designated hitter David Ortiz are all All-Star caliber players that can carry the team offensively. Like the starting rotation, though, question marks continue to persist. Can Ellsbury duplicate his near-MVP season from last year? Can Youkilis stay healthy for a full season? Can Ortiz hit left-handed pitchers like he did last year?

The list goes on and on.

But left fielder Carl Crawford, who signed a seven-year $142 million contract before the 2011 season, is certainly the biggest question mark of them all. After hitting over .300 five times and stealing more than 50 bases five times in Tampa Bay, Crawford hit .255 in 506 plate appearances and stole only 18 bases his first year in a Red Sox uniform. If he fails to attain the same numbers he put up in a Rays uniform, Crawford will be labeled as yet another bust.

In the bullpen, closer Andrew Bailey faces the tough task of replacing Papelbon, a closer whose 219 saves are the most in Red Sox history. Bailey was acquired in a trade with the Oakland Athletics during the offseason, and while he has the stuff to strike out batters and rack up saves, the team must monitor his chronic injury history.

Reliever Mark Melancon will be the primary set-up man, replacing Bard after a trade with the Houston Astros.

Many of the pieces are in place for the Red Sox to capture a third championship in nine years, but the players must unite under Valentine and put 2011 behind them.

If they fail to win the division or even a wild card spot, more heads will roll next year than during this past off-season.

Until then, all 162 regular season games must be played. After all, it is only the start of the baseball season.

Finally.

 

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