Boston makeover's results will be scrutinized
How players respond to organizational changes bears watching
It is standard practice for objective observers of the game to view all 30 Major League teams with great interest. But you're going to watch the 2012 Boston Red Sox with absolute fascination.
Their variables will have variables. There is no overstating the talent in the Boston lineup. There is also no overstating the size of the questions this operation will face, nor the changes that must be part and parcel of the next season.
This is, whether the Yankees like it or not, an elite franchise. Not all that long ago, the Red Sox won two World Series over a four-year span. In this past decade of dramatically increased parity, only the Cardinals, with two World Series championships over six years, approached that mark. But the Red Sox have not qualified for the postseason for the last two years.
Leading off their new agenda, there will be the task of regrouping from September's epic collapse. If you pretend it didn't happen, it will never go away. There is an excellent chance that off-duty starting pitchers will no longer be drinking beer and wolfing down fast-food chicken in the clubhouse while the rest of the Red Sox are competing on the field. But that's the easiest part of the answer to the questions of what happened in September, and how can that sort of thing be avoided for the rest of eternity.
There is a new administration in Boston baseball, all the way from the front office to the dugout. On their way out of town, former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein and former manager Terry Francona took a lot of hits. But these were the people in charge when the Red Sox broke the 86-year championship drought in 2004, and then won everything again in 2007.
Now, Ben Cherington has taken over as GM, and Bobby Valentine is in as the manager. Assessments of Cherington before he has assembled any sort of track record are comprehensively premature. But Valentine has a very public record, in two hemispheres.
Nobody who has been watching carefully doubts Valentine's intelligence or his depth of baseball knowledge. But he is well outside the mold of the manager-as-organizational-soldier, a niche that Francona occupied during his tenure in Boston. Francona made deferring to Epstein practically a public ritual. In the process, he probably didn't get his fair share of credit for the success of the Red Sox. But this manager/GM relationship constituted a more than workable approach for this franchise.
Valentine is by nature outspoken. He has admirers and detractors, both with reasons behind their arguments. But he doesn't leave many bystanders with their feelings stuck in neutral. Maybe this club needs a completely different managerial approach. If so, the change from Francona to Valentine will easily cover that distance.
Valentine says that he will make the return to form of outfielder Carl Crawford a priority. That would, of course, be helpful. But the truth is that even with Crawford putting up a distinctly sub-standard season -- and even with the September swoon -- the 2011 Red Sox still led the Majors in runs scored. Their lineup can only be described as impressive. There is going to be the matter of getting beyond the way the season ended, but the amount of talent on hand is beyond question. It wasn't that long before the end of the 2011 campaign that the American League Most Valuable Player Award debate included at least two Boston players: Adrian Gonzalez and Jacoby Ellsbury. Dustin Pedroia is one of the most admirable players in the game, and David Ortiz hasn't stopped hitting. The list goes on.
Will there be enough pitching? There will be roughly 27 other clubs asking variations of this question. The Sox will obviously have to add pitching depth, but the return to full health of Clay Buchholz would be a terrific boost for the Boston rotation. He was out for more than half of the 2011 season with a back injury, and the Red Sox could never come close to compensating for his absence.
At the back end of the bullpen, all those games taken for granted with Jonathan Papelbon as closer may fall into a less certain category. Cherington recently acquired Mark Melancon in a trade with the Astros. Melancon closed with some measure of success for the Astros during 2011, but closing for Houston is not like closing for Boston.
Add it all up and what you find are some remarkably varied possibilities. You won't have to be a Red Sox fan -- or a Yankees fan, for that matter -- to pay attention to what happens with this club. It is one thing to change closers. It is another thing to do what this club is doing, which will include changing cultures while retaining largely the same personnel.
This is a very tricky undertaking. But it should be nothing less than entertaining, instructive and, all right, we can easily go as far as compelling.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.