Farrell aims to fix Red Sox

BY foxsports • February 21, 2013

Thursday morning, I asked Red Sox manager John Farrell what he’s learned about his team after nearly two weeks of spring training.

“Much has been written about the attitudes, the personalities of the players that have been brought in,” Farrell answered. “But the thing we’ve seen is their attention to detail and willingness to work. It’s been really encouraging.

“This has been a camp without a lot of fanfare, setting aside everything that’s been written. Within our walls, within our work setting, it’s been very professional. It’s gone very well.”

Perhaps you’ve heard: The Red Sox were awful last year. They fired the combustible Bobby Valentine and brought back Farrell, a popular pitching coach on their 2007 World Series championship team. To ameliorate what became a toxic clubhouse, the Red Sox acquired a number of upstanding citizens who happen to be good ballplayers.

Just in case you weren’t completely clear on the narrative of the 2013 Red Sox, consider this from Boston reliever Daniel Bard.

“It feels relaxed, man,” Bard said Thursday. “The guys that have been the mainstays — me, Salty [Jarrod Saltalamacchia], David [Ortiz], Petey [Dustin Pedroia] — are all competitive, but I think we play best when we’re a little bit relaxed. The guys they brought in — Jonny [Gomes], Shane [Victorino] — they seem to have a lot of fun playing the game.

“I think that’s what we were missing last year and maybe the year before a little bit. I think we’ve got a good group of guys that wants to have fun.”

After spending two days around the Red Sox this week, I would concur. The team’s atmosphere has improved noticeably. It’s less clear what that will mean when the games start to matter April 1 at Yankee Stadium. Bard is a true believer, saying Thursday, “There’s too much talent in this room to not be a playoff team.” Coming off a 93-loss season and fifth-place finish, I’m not sure I would take it that far. At least not yet.

The Red Sox should be at least a .500 team. I expect 85 or 86 wins, which would represent a huge improvement over last year’s catastrophe. But I need to see more before getting behind Bard’s statement about the imminent return of October baseball to Fenway Park.

The most frequently expressed concerns have to do with the starting rotation. Can Jon Lester — 9-14 with a 4.82 ERA last year — be an ace again? Was Ryan Dempster really worth two years and $26.5 million after his disappointing American League tour with Texas last season? Can the injury-prone Clay Buchholz put together the first 200-inning season of his career? Will John Lackey’s slimmed-down frame translate into improved performance?

The Red Sox are hardly the only AL East team with acute rotation questions. (Ask the Yankees, with Phil Hughes out for two weeks because of a bulging disc in his back.) Farrell is hoping on health and track record — just like John Gibbons, his successor as the Toronto manager.

Lackey, who missed all of last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, will be under particular scrutiny from the moment he throws the first pitch of Saturday’s Grapefruit League opener. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“I’ll tell you one thing, I’m excited about the way the ball’s coming out of his hand,” Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves said. “He has great spin on the fastball, great spin on the breaking ball. There are flashes of Whoa. Great angle, command. Velocity will come, but the delivery is very sharp. He’s able to repeat pitches, even in his bullpen.

“He’s strong. This guy has great feel. I’m really looking forward to seeing his progress. You’re trying to see what package he brings. Is he going to bring the 92 to 95? Where does he stand at that time? But boy, I’ve been really impressed with how he’s throwing the ball. And I know there’s more in there.”

Lester and Buchholz haven’t been effective in the same season since 2010 — a major reason for Boston’s disappointments over the last two years. Their health and performance — or lack thereof — has been the franchise bellwether dating back to Terry Francona’s tenure.

Nieves doesn’t necessarily agree that so much hinges on those two. He likes the depth. “There have been good additions,” Nieves said. “You have a guy like Dempster, who can really pitch. You’ve got Lackey. Felix Doubront has made major strides. He could become a horse, too.”

Boston actually could end up with a rotation surplus, particularly once the intriguing Rubby De La Rosa fully rebuilds his arm strength after surgery. “Extremely talented,” Nieves admired of De La Rosa, who arrived from the Dodgers last August in the Trade of the Century. “If we get to the point that he’s ready to pitch in the big leagues, whenever that is, let’s take another two weeks. I want to use the word ‘longevity.’ This guy could be really special if we listen to his body and give him the time.”

The bullpen has a chance to be this team’s backbone — much as it was for the surprising Orioles last year — particularly if Bard re-acclimates to the bullpen role in which he thrived before the botched starting experiment. Bard and Andrew Bailey were non-factors last year. Joel Hanrahan and Koji Uehara arrived in the offseason. If two or three from that group have career-average seasons, the Red Sox should have more than enough arms to handle the late innings. “We’ve got probably 10 guys who deserve to pitch in a big-league bullpen,” Bard said.

“We’ve got probably 10 guys who deserve to pitch in a big league bullpen,” Bard said.

The most overlooked story in camp? It could be the right foot of Ortiz. Big Papi hasn’t been cleared to run the bases because of the Achilles’ tendon injury that forced him from the lineup last July. Farrell figures Ortiz probably needs only two weeks of spring training games to get ready for Opening Day. We’ll see. Ortiz is a 37-year-old designated hitter. Not long ago, his slow starts caused hysteria throughout New England. If he’s only a four-day-per-week player — or worse — the Red Sox may not have enough firepower to slug with the Yankees and Blue Jays.

Without Ortiz anchoring the lineup, Farrell would be forced to get creative, perhaps moving Pedroia or Jacoby Ellsbury into the No. 3 spot against right-handed pitching. Hardly ideal, and probably not the path to the franchise’s first postseason berth since 2009.

You know what, though? For the first time in a while, Red Sox fans can ponder baseball questions such as this, without fear that the reply would involve a punch line about fried chicken, beer or Valentine. It’s not a championship duck-boat parade down the Charles River. But it’s a start.

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