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Friday, February 15, 2013

Eight Things to Watch for at Red Sox Spring Training

John Farrell takes charge -- how will it go?

Now that the obligatory Q&A sessions about what went wrong in 2012 and what everyone thinks about Terry Francona's book are (hopefully) over, it's time for Red Sox players and fans to start focusing on the season ahead.

The full squad was due at Jet Blue Park at Fenway South yesterday, but many position players showed up in Fort Myers early -- a good sign that the club is hungry to rise from its unfamiliar spot in the American League East basement. While the club's won-loss mark in spring training games is not necessarily a barometer of what is to come, the stage for the season can be largely set during the next seven weeks. 

Here are eight intriguing story lines to watch for leading up to Opening Day at Yankee Stadium on April 1:
Lester hopes his future is bright.

1. Can Jon Lester become a true ace of the pitching staff?
Lester said all the right things in his first interview the other day, including how he is fiercely committed to prove his 9-14 record and 4.82 ERA last season were a fluke. Now, with former 20-game winner Josh Beckett out of the picture, it will be intriguing to see if Lester can raise his game back to its pre-2012 level -- and beyond. Even at his best, the big left-hander has never won 20 or pitched more than 210 innings; nearing or eclipsing those marks would establish him as an ace in the Schilling-Beckett tradition.

2. Can Jose Iglesias hit big-league pitching?
The signing of veteran Stephen Drew over the winter was an indication the Red Sox don't believe slick-fielding Iglesias is ready to play every day at shortstop. And with the highly-touted Xander Bogearts rising through the system at the same position, Iglesias may never get the chance. Still, he can prove his worth to Boston and other clubs as a trade chip by improving on his anemic .135 MLB average. There is certainly precedent for Gold Glove-level shortstops to gain their offensive touch over time; after compiling a .231 average over his first four full MLB seasons, Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith eventually became a consistent .270-.280 hitter.
Will Middlebrooks -- the Eye of the Tiger.

3. Can Will Middlebrooks prove his freshman season was not a fluke?
Before he went down with a broken wrist last August, Middlebrooks was baseball's hottest-hitting rookie not named Mike Trout. The third baseman has apparently healed completely, but the sophomore jinx is always a concern. If Middlebrooks can improve his plate discipline, and learn to lay off the steady diet of off-speed stuff he was starting to get in the weeks prior to his injury, he could be manning the hot corner in Boston for the next decade.

4. Can Tim Wakefield help unveil the next Tim Wakefield?
The Red Sox have two knuckleball pitchers in camp -- Steven Wright and Charlie Haeger. Wright, a career minor leaguer, won his only start at Double A Portland after being obtained from Cleveland last summer (for whom he went 9-6 at Double A). Haeger, who has appeared in 34 big-league game with middling success over parts of five seasons, was 4-1 with Portland with an impressive 3.21 ERA. With Wakefield in camp to tutor both these fingernail flippers, it will be fun to see if either of them can make the grade (and the team). 
John Lackey -- redemption on his mind.

5. Can John Lackey finally pay off?
After a year on the shelf recovering from Tommy John surgery, Lackey is noticeably slimmer and anxious to prove he's a far better pitcher than the one who in 2011 had one of the worst years ever by an MLB starter with at least 150 innings pitched (including a 6.41 ERA and 1.619 WHIP). He was rock-solid before coming to Boston, and management obviously feels he can be so again -- penciling him as the No. 3 starter behind Lester and Clay Buchholz.  

6. Are Big Papi's big days behind him?
Until an Achilles' tendon injury stopped him last July, David Ortiz was having his best statistical season since his salad days of 2004-2007 -- on pace for close t0 40 homers and a 1.000 OPS. He has come into camp limping, and rumors persist that he may not be ready for the start of the regular season. At age 37, the last link to the '04 champs will have to prove once more that he is still a middle-of-the-order hitter worthy of carrying a club. 

Ellsbury is ready to run -- but will he hit for power?

7. Can Jacoby Ellsbury be a 30-30 guy again?
In 2011 Ellsbury had one of the great all-around seasons in Red Sox history -- 32 home runs, 39 steals, a .321 average, 212 hits, 119 runs scored, and a Gold Glove in center field -- but last year a shoulder injury in the home opener forced him to miss 79 games. Although he hit for a decent .278 average upon his return, he had just 4 homers in 67 post-injury contests. Playing on his sixth one-year contract, and with trade rumors swirling around him, Ellsbury will be looking to regain his power stroke this spring.

8. How will John Farrell establish himself as the new manager?
Farrell is in a challenging position. Many Sox players know and like him from his years as Terry Francona's pitching coach, but that was Tito's team -- and now Farrell needs to establish himself as the boss of the 59 players in camp. The third Boston manager in as many seasons, he succeeds one of the most beloved (Francona) and one the most-maligned (Bobby Valentine) skippers in team history. Farrell will never be as tyrannical and off-the-wall as Valentine, but GM Ben Cherington and the ownership trio are likely expecting more firm authority and less player protection than Francona employed. 

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