Last year, when the Boston Red Sox began spring training, the word summing it all up was “curiosity.”
This year, we will use two words:
Pitchers and catchers reported to Fort Myers, Fla., on Sunday as the Red Sox look to recapture the glory years of just a few seasons ago. To do so, Boston ended the one-year experiment known as Bobby Valentine and brought back former pitching coach John Farrell, now as manager.
And Boston has shunned the expensive long-term contract approach for big-name players and returned to its approach of developing young players while finding others to fill holes.
Besides there being a whole new coaching staff and several new players (half of the 40-man roster has changed since last February), many of Boston’s concerns are similar.
Looking at this space last year, we identified nine issues heading into 2012 spring training:
2. Daniel Bard.
3. Jose Iglesias.
4. A fifth starter.
5. Right field.
6. A bullpen makeover.
7. Battles for jobs.
Valentine, the man picked by ownership to replace Terry Francona, managed Boston to a 69-93 record and was abruptly relieved of command.
Bard was to become a starter last season. It proved disastrous (5.24 ERA) and now Bard is trying to return to his dominant relieving ways.
Iglesias, the gifted fielding shortstop who was rushed through the minor league system — starting in Portland in 2010 — competed with Mike Aviles for the starting job and lost out. When Aviles was sent to Toronto in the deal for Farrell this offseason, Iglesias looked like a starter in 2013. Then Boston signed free agent Stephen Drew, and Iglesias won’t even be competing for the job.
The fifth starter turned out to be Felix Doubront, who moved up to No. 4 when Bard faltered. Doubront (11-10, 4.86) showed positive signs. He is a more solid No. 5 this year, behind Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, free agent Ryan Dempster and rehabbed John Lackey.
Right field became Cody Ross’ position. While he was a bright spot last year (22 home runs), Boston was not ready to commit a big contract for him, and Ross got a three-year, $26-million deal with Arizona. But the Red Sox were willing to give a three-year, $39-million deal to Shane Victorino.
The bullpen makeover was flawed last year when newly acquired closer Andrew Bailey and set-up man Mark Melancon were, in order, injured and ineffective. Now Boston is trying again, with Melancon traded and Bailey demoted to set-up man behind newly acquired Joel Hanrahan.
The roster battles last year sorted themselves out, with relievers Michael Bowden and Matt Albers and outfielder Darnell McDonald eventually traded or released.
Among those returning from injury last year were Buchholz, third baseman Kevin Youkilis, outfielder Carl Crawford and reliever Bobby Jenks. Buchholz had an up-and-down season (11-8, 4.56). Youkilis was briefly hurt again, allowing for the arrival of Will Middlebrooks (and Youkilis’ trade to Chicago). Crawford never really got healthy and was traded. Jenks was broken down from Day 1.
The catcher question last year concerned the first season without Jason Varitek. Jarrod Saltalamacchia hit 25 home runs but batted .222, and threw out only 18 percent of base stealers. Backup Kelly Shoppach was dealt and prospect Ryan Lavarnway struggled (.157).
1. Farrell takes over for Valentine. Farrell appears to command respect and is a solid communicator — two factors missing last year in the manager’s office.
2. The starting rotation is set with Lester, Buchholz, Dempster, Lackey and Doubront. Looks good on paper, but Boston’s starters ranked 12th in the American League in ERA (5.19) last year. Lester, the presumed ace, was 9-14 with a 4.82 ERA. No guarantees here.
3. The infield spot drawing interest is no longer shortstop, but first base. Mike Napoli, a catcher by trade who can play a so-so first base, originally agreed to a three-year deal, which was reduced to one year because of a bad hip. Who knows how long he will hold up, or if Lyle Overbay, signed to a minor-league contract, can help.
4. While the fifth starter spot may be set for now, what is encouraging is the depth in the minors. Pawtucket won’t have veteran wannabe’s, but younger arms with bright futures — including Rubby De La Rosa, Chris Hernandez, Allen Webster and Steven Wright, with others like Drake Britton and Matt Barnes moving up.
5. Right field and left field feature new players. Victorino is a solid fielder whose offensive numbers have been in decline. Left fielder Jonny Gomes hits left-handers well (.299 last year) but is not a solid fielder and struggles against right-handers (.209 last year).
6. The bullpen needs to be improved. A strong group of relievers (like Baltimore’s, which ranked third in the AL last year) can win most of the close games. Boston, with its 11th-best pen in the AL last year, lost a lot of close games.
Boston added Hanrahan and Koji Uehara to a pen that also has Bailey, Bard, Alfredo Aceves, Junichi Tazawa and lefties Craig Breslow, Andrew Miller and Franklin Morales.
7. Who is fighting for a job? The fourth outfield spot is up for grabs, with Daniel Nava and Ryan Sweeney (signed to a minor-league contract) the contenders. Also, the bullpen has too many arms. Aceves and Bard have minor-league options, but what if they have a good spring?
8. David Ortiz is coming back from an Achilles tendon injury. We’ve already mentioned Mike Napoli’s hip. Jacoby Ellsbury, hurt two of the past three seasons, suffered a partially dislocated right shoulder last year. Dustin Pedroia has been injured often in recent years and had surgery on his right pinky finger in the offseason.
9. Saltalamacchia is back behind the plate, with an experienced backup in the form of David Ross, a free-agent signing from the Braves. Lavarnway appears headed back to Pawtucket.
For now, all players are headed to Fort Myers, away from the snow, but not far from the minds of New England baseball fans.
Workouts start this week, exhibition games next week. The regular season — and the cautious optimism — begins April 1.
Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or: