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Friday, September 28, 2012

Red Sox Fans May Want to Temper Expectations for 2013


The disaster that has been the 2012 season for the Boston Red Sox is about to turn into another winter of discontent. Despite the lackluster play, jettisoning of high-priced players, and general uncertainty swirling about the team, the general feeling of fans seems to be that it is only a one year set-back and the ship will be righted in 2013. Looking at the uphill battle facing the Red Sox, it not only seems like such optimism is shortsighted, but that next season could be even worse than what has just been endured.

Fans have squarely placed blame for the horrors of this season on manager Bobby Valentine. It’s true he has done himself few favors with his frequent contrary personality and ill-timed verbal outbursts. He has also battled hostile fans and a blood thirsty media, while balancing a roster ravaged by injuries and dissent. It may come as a surprise to many, but there is a good chance that he will return in 2013 to finish out his contract. The Red Sox are far from the halcyon days of 2004 and 2007 and may not want to pay two manager salaries while mired in mediocrity. Keeping Valentine as a lightning rod while the team rights the ship in others ways may be the best strategy.

If Valentine is fired it’s not like there is a surplus of quality managerial candidates standing in the soup line waiting to be brought into the Boston meat grinder. Speculative named that have come up the most have been Brad Ausmus and Bill Mueller, neither of whom have ever managed a professional game, and John Farrell, who has elicited the greatest gossiping. It is the clamoring for Farrell that is the most perplexing. He was once a top lieutenant as pitching coach for dearly departed Terry Francona, but has most recently spent the past two seasons managing the Toronto Blue Jays to under-achieving status and seen his pitchers suffer serious injuries at a record pace. It seems that he would be more likely to provide a nostalgic link to the past than reinvigorate a team that so profoundly lost their sense of identity. Valentine is likely not the long-term manager for the Red Sox, but the team has to be smart in bringing in somebody who will help lead the rejuvenation and not simply be a placeholder.

The potential that the Red Sox may come away from the upcoming off-season without significant upgrades also endangers the belief that their swoon is of a temporary nature. Having just unloaded a significant portion of salary the Red Sox would be foolish if they don’t proceed with caution when determining who to set their sights on via trade or free agency. By most accounts the free agent shopping list is largely uninspiring, and the big names that are out there, like Josh Hamilton and Zach Greinke, come with palpable risk. Caution can often be the better part of valor, and the Red Sox may decide to wait before making their next big strike.

If upgrades can’t be found via free agency, the Red Sox will hard-pressed to find big-time alternatives on the trade market. They have boy wonder shortstop prospect Xander Bogaerts, who is virtually untouchable, but other than him the franchise lacks top prospects who are lurking at the upper levels of the minors and ready to contribute major league production. The lack of such prospects virtually ensures the team’s inability to score any big names through trade. If trades are made it is likely that they will be for lower impact players they are speculating on in the hopes that they might find a diamond in the rough, a la David Ortiz.

A final sign of discouragement for Red Sox fans is the team’s lack of breakout candidates for next season. Sure, disappointing vets like Jon Lester and Jacoby Ellsbury may bounce back to some degree, but it’s difficult to envision a scenario of a new star emerging from the scorched earth rubble of 2012. Fans may stamp their feet and impudently point their fingers at Will Middlebrooks as the next potential savior, putting impossibly heavy expectations on a young player who produced well above any projections when he was brought up earlier in the year. He has the tools to be an excellent player, but there is no guarantee how soon he can effectively return from his injury or if he can best what he did in 2012. Sophomore slumps are a common occurrence in sports and even a composed player like Middlebrooks has a tough row to hoe to continue improving when facing so many personal and team related challenges. Even if he comes back strong, he profiles more as a solid non-superstar player, who will be better as a complimentary piece instead of a face of the franchise.

Ultimately baseball is difficult to forecast from game to game, let alone from year to year. What is a certainty is that Red Sox fans have some of the most passionate and high expectations out there, and many signs point to 2013 being a major letdown rather than a return to glory. Building a successful team is a tedious series of chess moves, gambles, and chemistry, which works out on its own time and not that of yearning and impatient fans. 

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