In honor of the new year and a clean slate for the Boston Red Sox, here are 13 New Year's resolutions for their 2013 season:
1. Avoid a slow start
The Red Sox have failed to make the playoffs three years running and their sluggish starts are partially to blame. In 2010 Boston began the season 4-9 and had a losing record in April. The following year the "Greatest Team Ever" folded under their burdensome expectations, dropped their first six games and got off to a 2-10 start. Looking back, the most frustrating aspect of that spring slump was losing three games by one run when winning just one would have nullified Boston's September meltdown. Last year brought more of the same when the Bosox stumbled out of the gates under new skipper Bobby Valentine, opening the year 4-10 en route to a 93-loss season. The Sox should strive to start strong this year so they don't have to dig themselves out of a hole and play catch-up in the early going. Those games in April matter just as much as the ones in September.
2. Calm clubhouse
The days of Boston being a tight-knit band of brothers spearheaded by character guys like Johnny Damon and Kevin Millar feel like distant memories now. Starting with their beer and fried chicken-fueled collapse two Septembers ago, the organization has deteriorated into a perpetual state of internal chaos and controversy. Much of the turmoil can be blamed on Bobby V, who oftentimes found himself in the eye of the storm with his Alex Rodriguez-esque knack for calling attention to himself. The big-mouthed skipper was supposed to light a fire under a ballclub that had grown too entitled and complacent at the end of Terry Francona's tenure, but instead he rubbed his players and coaches the wrong way and quickly lost control of the clubhouse. Camaraderie was non-existent, and his team became so fractured that Buster Olney described Boston's lack of chemistry as "toxic." Thankfully ownership wasted no time terminating Valentine and finding a suitable replacement in former Blue Jays manager John Farrell. There's going to be a totally different atmosphere this year because the players are comfortable with the former Red Sox pitching coach. They respect him and listen to him. It also helps that the front office made a conscious effort to bring in positive clubhouse presences such as Jonny Gomes, David Ross and Ryan Dempster.
3. Good health
The main culprit for Boston's recent inability to make the playoffs is a series of injuries to its stars. In 2010 Jacoby Ellsbury, Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Mike Cameron, and Josh Beckett all missed considerable time. The following year Youk, Marco Scutaro, Carl Crawford, J.D. Drew, Clay Buchholz, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Bobby Jenks were sidelined, forcing Francona to start Andrew Miller and Kyle Weiland during the most important games of the season. But last year the Red Sox resembled the walking wounded as injuries reached epidemic proportions. Bobby V used 31 different position players (including a dozen outfielders by my count) and 25 pitchers throughout the course of the season. The snakebitten Sox could have fielded an All-Star team with the amount of talent collecting dust on their Disabled List: Pedroia, Ellsbury, Crawford, Youkilis, Ortiz Lackey, Dice-K, Beckett, Buchholz, Andrew Bailey, Will Middlebrooks, and Ryan Sweeney, to name a few. The Red Sox lost more days to the DL last year than all but two teams, the Padres and the Yankees. Pedroia was the only position player to appear in 140 games and Lester was the only pitcher to start at least 30 games. Injuries are part of the game and afflict every team to varying degrees, but Boston's been particularly unlucky of late. Hopefully 2013 does not bring more misfortune to its key players.
4. Be more patient
Last year the Red Sox deviated from their tried-and-true hitting approach of working the count, grinding out at-bats, and drawing walks. In 2011 they were the top-scoring team in baseball when they had the best OBP in the majors and walked more than every team except the New York Yankees. Last year they scored 141 fewer runs and were outscored by eight teams. Injuries contributed to the offensive decline, but it didn't help that Boston slipped to tenth among American League teams in OBP and, get this, ranked second-to-last in walks. Not just in the AL, but in the entire MLB. Only the Kansas City Royals, the youngest team in baseball, worked fewer walks. David Ortiz was the only Red Sox to draw more than 50 free passes in 2012, but the year before five players drew at least that many. New hitting coach Greg Colbrunn needs to preach patience to Middlebrooks and Jarrod Saltalamacchia as he helps the lineup return to its disciplined ways.
5. Get something out of John Lackey
Lackey's been a massive bust since signing a five-year, $82 million contract with Boston prior to the 2010 season. Since leaving Los Angeles he has a 5.26 ERA, 1.50 WHIP and -0.6 bWAR. After missing all of 2012 recovering from Tommy John sugery, Lackey needs to bounce back and start earning his paycheck. Nobody knows what to expect from the 34 year-old former Angels ace, but he must find a way to contribute this year and be a quality fourth or fifth starter behind Lester, Buchholz and Dempster.
6. Fix Daniel Bard
The flamethrowing reliever was a dominant setup man for Jonathan Papelbon before the team converted him into a starting pitcher. The experiment was a disaster. Control problems plagued Bard from the start, and he pitched so poorly that Boston demoted him to Triple-A in early June. He continued to struggle with Pawtucket and never regained his confidence or command. When he returned to the big club near the end of the season he got bombed to the tune of an 18.69 ERA coming out of the bullpen. Like Lackey, he needs to be an asset, not a liability. Bailey will set up Joel Hanrahan, but Bard could regain his eighth inning role at some point since Bailey's an injury waiting to happen. I fear he'll become the next Joba Chamberlain, who has never been the same since the Yankees did the same thing to him.
7. Find a first baseman
Boston thought it had the position locked up when Theo Epstein handed Adrian Gonzalez a seven year, $154 million contract extension that kicked in last year and runs through 2018. Less than five months into his new deal, Gonzalez was traded to LA along with Beckett, Crawford, and Nick Punto. The Red Sox seemed to fill the gaping hole at first when they signed Mike Napoli more than a month ago but have yet to make the deal official. Talks have stalled with the All-Star catcher because of a hip condition discovered during his physical. This health risk prompted Boston's front office to change the language of his new contract to protect themselves should he miss an extended period of time. The Red Sox explored alternatives in case the deal falls through, working out Bobby Abreu at first base and talking to Adam LaRoche before he re-upped with Washington (settling for two years even though he wanted three). The Red Sox need Napoli and have to find a way to make the deal work.
8. Extend Jacoby Ellsbury soon, or trade him
The speedy center fielder will be a free agent after the season and is due for a raise. If he plays like he did in 2011, when he finished second to Justin Verlander in the AL MVP race, Scott Boras will net him a fat payday. Ben Cherington needs to assess whether Ellsbury's injury risk is worth investing in his upside. He may already have the next Ellsbury in prospect Jackie Bradley. Boston use Bradley as a trade chip if its willing to shell out for Ellsbury. However, if Cherington wants to go in a different direction, it makes sense for himto dangle Ellsbury's name in trade talks (like Arizona is doing with Justin Upton) and see what other teams are willing to offer. He might as well get something in return if Ellsbury is going to walk next winter.
9. No more first inning woes
Red Sox starters struggled mightily during the first inning last year, allowing opponents to pummel them for 126 runs while batting .293/.353/.491. Consequently, the Sox fell behind more often than not, which perhaps explains why Boston hitters became more aggressive at the plate and tried to make something happen with the bat. The BoSox fell behind in 127 of their 162 games, and when they were losing Boston's batted .250/.300/.406 (versus .278/.337/.449 when they were ahead). It's incredibly frustrating, not to mention demoralizing, for a team to constantly be down before they even step up to the plate. One reason Bob McClure got canned was because he couldn't solve the problem, but maybe new pitching coach Juan Nieves can.
10. Revive Red Sox Nation
Red Sox fans are fed up. They pay the highest ticket prices in the sport and just endured their team's worst season since 1965. Even though Fenway Park still "sold out" every game last year, the Fenway Faithful rarely filled the old ballpark to capacity (especially late in the year when the team fell out of contention). The Bruins, Celtics, and Patriots make the playoffs every year and contend for a title, but the Red Sox haven't even won a postseason game since 2008. The city's baseball team has taken a dive while the rest of Beantown's sports enterprises are prospering, so the Red Sox run the risk of losing relevance if they don't turn it around soon. The Old Towne Team will always be their first love, but now Boston sports fans have enough distractions to keep them occupied. Many fans, myself included, tuned out once the losses started piling up. Bring them back with a winning season.
11. Solve the shortstop problem
Shortstop has been a revolving door in Boston since Epstein traded Nomar Garciaparra in 2004. Orlando Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, Alex Gonzalez, Julio Lugo, Nick Green, Jed Lowrie, Scutaro, and Mike Aviles have come and gone. Now add oft-injured Stephen Drew, J.D.'s younger (and less talented) brother, to the roll call. Drew signed a one year deal and is clearly just a stopgap until either Jose Iglesias or Xander Bogaerts is ready for the Show. Iglesias is a human vacuum cleaner but can't hit a lick; he has just two home runs in more than 1,000 minor league plate appearances. I have serious doubts that he'll ever be able to produce at the major league level and believe Boston should trade the 23 year-old while he still has perceived upside. Needless to say, 2013 is a critical year for him. Bogaerts isn't as talented with the glove but is a much more polished hitter. He's just 20 but already established a strong track record during his teenage years, batting .296/.366/.495 in his three seasons down on the farm. He's my preferred shortstop of the future and should be good to go after another year or two of seasoning.
12. Get Jon Lester back on track
Lester is supposed to be the ace of the staff, but hasn't pitched like it in quite some time. Over his past 37 starts, the two-time All-Star is 9-17 with a 5.12 ERA and 1.43 WHIP. Those numbers are dangerously close to John Lackey territory and don't look anything like his stats from the previous four seasons, when he was worth 20.7 bWAR, won two-thirds of his decisions and compiled a 135 ERA+. As recently as 2010 Lester was one of the best pitchers in the league, but in 2012 he was one of the worst. His offerings were more hittable because his strikeout rate decreased for the third consecutive season in concert with his reduced fastball velocity. On the bright side, his walk rate has improved in back-to-back seasons, plus his FIP, xFIP, SIERA and LOB% all suggest that luck was not on Lester's side last year. I think he's going to have a big rebound year under Farrell, who served as his pitching coach from 2007 through 2010, the year Lester won 19 games and finished fourth in the Cy Young voting behind Felix Hernandez, David Price and CC Sabathia.
13. Make the playoffs
The New York Yankees are another year older and have hamstrung themselves by committing to trim the payroll below $189 million to avoid paying the luxury tax in 2014. The Tampa Bay Rays have plenty of pitching but desperately need more hitting, plus they just lost James Shields and B.J. Upton. The Toronto Blue Jays look unstoppable on paper, but have a lot of question marks surrounding Ricky Romero, Josh Johnson, Melky Cabrera, and Brandon Morrow. The Baltimore Orioles had a fluky year, winning 93 games with a +7 run differential, and are all but guaranteed to sink below .500. The AL East is still the toughest division in baseball, but all of Boston's rivals have flaws. The Red Sox will recover in 2013 and with the second wild card in play, anything is possible.