Red Sox plan to put 2011 in the past
Driven group capable of making most of considerable talent
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Josh Beckett and Jon Lester arrived at the Red Sox's new Spring Training complex days before pitchers and catchers were due to report.
"We knew what we were going to deal with," Lester said, and so the day before the official reporting date, each pitcher did a media session to air out and confront the past.
Blowing the lead. Beer and chicken. Conditioning. They each admitted "mistakes," talked about pitching poorly in September and refused excuses.
"I stunk," said Lester. "If I had pitched well, we'd have made the playoffs."
Said Beckett: "I didn't execute and I didn't win games I should have won."
The two pitchers did not question what they had rolled over so often during the winter -- unnamed sources -- and danced their mea culpas through the anger and hostility of the New England media, hostility that Beckett could not quell.
"All of us had talked about what the beginning of Spring Training would be like and how we had to deal with it," said Clay Buchholz, the very important third part of the troika whose season was cut short in June with a fractured disc. "Josh and Jon really wanted to step forward and speak. What they did was put some closure on the past so we can move forward with this season. They tried to close the door on September for the rest of us."
In many ways, they at least partially closed the door, which was further closed as new manager Bobby Valentine energetically took over Spring Training.
"Until we start playing and playing well, I'm sure a lot of fans will have questions about us, and that's understandable," Buchholz said. "It's fair. We have to do it on the field, not talk about it."
After the Lester/Beckett mea culpas, one player asked, "Why is the media so angry?"
Hey, it's not just the Boston media. Anger sells, be it talk radio, talk television, tweeters or bloggers. It's not simply Red Sox baseball; it's politics and celebrity news and gossip. Beckett referred to any consumption of beer during rain delays or with games out of reach as "inexcusable lapses in judgment."
Are such incidents a one-clubhouse thing? Hardly. One privately claimed it happened "a couple of times," but even if it were more, was the private weakness the reason for the professional failure? No.
"We didn't pitch," says Lester. "We were the best team in baseball for 4 1/2 months, and we didn't pitch in September."
Lester went 1-3 with a 5.40 ERA in September. Beckett was 1-2 with a 5.48 ERA. Buchholz had been out since June, when his back injury cut short his season after 14 starts. Daisuke Matsuzaka had Tommy John surgery in May. Tim Wakefield, Erik Bedard, Kyle Weiland and John Lackey started 23 games between them and combined for two wins. In going 7-20, the team got two starts of a full seven innings. Then, in the offseason, the Red Sox eschewed the opportunity to sign Edwin Jackson to a multiyear deal at an average annual value of $10 million, and they wouldn't go beyond $6 million or $7 million on Roy Oswalt.
Buchholz claims his back is healed, and he came in 10 pounds lighter and is throwing as he did two years ago, when he was second in the American League in ERA. So they have Beckett, Lester and Buchholz ...
When the Red Sox made the choice not to go beyond three years on Jonathan Papelbon and let him sign with the Phillies, new general manager Ben Cherington went and traded for Andrew Bailey and Mark Melancon. The staff felt that Franklin Morales found himself in September, had a great winter in Venezuela and gives them a left-hander who throws in the high 90s. Matt Albers was having a solid season until he ran down in the last six weeks.
Then comes the mix. The Red Sox are trying Daniel Bard, whose only professional season as a starter was in the Minors in 2007, when he struggled with control and walked 78 in 75 2/3 innings. Bard is very different now; when he went to the bullpen in '08, he threw 95-99 mph, but he was trying to figure out which breaking ball to use. And he has.
Bard has come up with a very good changeup that drops like a split. He mixes two-seamers with four-seamers. In college, he was often relieved whenever he ran into trouble, and in 2007, he lost confidence in his ability to stop the train when it ran off the track.
"By essentially pitching entirely in pressure situations the last three years, he's now a totally different pitcher," says Bob McClure, Boston's pitching coach. "I made the same transition [before the 1982 season]."
Some feel that 24-year-old Felix Doubront, who was considered a potential starter last spring when he came in heavy and got hurt, could end up starting. Valentine and McClure will sift through Doubront, Andrew Miller, Vicente Padilla, Alfredo Aceves and Aaron Cook, then some of them will go to the bullpen and could end up filling the rotation, at least until Matsuzaka comes back around midseason.
"We have a long way to go and a lot to look at," says Valentine. He knows this team led the Majors in runs with Carl Crawford struggling, partially because of a bad wrist, partially because of the adjustment to Boston and being moved around in the lineup; with Kevin Youkilis hobbled by bursitis in his hip; by Adrian Gonzalez's shoulder wearing down after surgery, as he couldn't do any strength work until mid-March; with the lowest production out of right field in the AL.
"It seems odd to have us be under the radar," says Youkilis. "But it's not a bad thing."
Indeed, the Rays, Yankees, Tigers, Angels and Rangers do not seem to have the kinds of pitching questions that Valentine is looking at in Boston.
This is a team that won two World Series in four years, that last spring was mentioned as being expected to win 100 games, and now not only hasn't made the playoffs each of the past two seasons, but hasn't won a postseason game since the 2008 AL Championship Series, which was won by Tampa Bay. Terry Francona left after eight years and Theo Epstein after nine, each with two World Series rings.
Now, the Red Sox head toward the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park with a new GM, new manager, new Spring Training facility and only two players -- David Ortiz, Youkilis -- remaining from the 2004 World Series. Beckett, Lester and almost all the remaining players are trying to put the 2011 Beggar's Banquet behind them, "which," says Ortiz, "we can do by playing, not talking."
Ortiz, for one, came into camp trying to restore the humor and swagger to a team that clearly lost it. On Wednesday, he stepped in for his first round of batting practice in front of dozens of fans. He popped up the first two pitches, stepped out of the cage, walked over to the fans and shouted, "If I don't start driving the ball, I'm going back to the fried chicken."
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.