Maybe it’s the fact that a blizzard is barreling toward New England two days after the 35th anniversary of the Blizzard of ’78. Maybe it’s the fact that -- fingers crossed -- I’ll be on a plane early next week bound for sunny Fort Myers ready to cover spring training. Or maybe, just maybe it’s because I really believe this year the Red Sox will be different. They will actually be fun to watch.
The Terry Francona book release was the final chapter on a cataclysmic end to 2011, made worse with the hiring of Bobby Valentine two months later and a litany of injuries that turned 2012 into a disaster.
The Red Sox tried to assure everyone at this time last year in Fort Myers that there would be no hangover from September 2011. They tried to convince everyone that they were out to prove that the same group of players could right a sinking ship. I wasn’t buying and neither was anyone else who could read the faces in the clubhouse of the brand new jetBlue Park.
The Sox were dead wrong about 2012.
But here’s the good part: Thanks to the Dodgers, the Red Sox no longer have to answer for Carl Crawford’s throwing elbow. They no longer have to answer questions about Adrian Gonzalez’ ability to deliver in the clutch in September. And they no longer have to answer for Josh Beckett’s shoulder, back and attitude.
My boss and baseball scribe extraordinaire Rob Bradford and I were talking at a Celtics game last week, wondering just how quiet it will be in Fort Myers. He speculated, “It could be a quiet spring down there.”
I smiled and replied, “That’s the best thing that could possibly happen to these Red Sox.”
I’m looking forward to watching how these Red Sox unfold this season.
I think 2013 will be a fun year to watch -- and cover -- the Red Sox.
Realistic expectations -- For the first time since the early 1990s, there really is no expectation for these Red Sox to make a pennant run in September. There is no false hope or ridiculous set of expectations. This club won 69 games in 2012 and there’s no doubt the reconstructed and streamlined team will win more this season.
John Farrell -- These words are from manager John Farrell on the Red Sox promo on NESN: “I can’t wait to get on the field. This team will be prepared to play every day.” He said words to that effect when I listened to him make his pitch at the Boston Baseball Writers’ dinner on Jan. 24. I believe him. He knows he follows Bobby Valentine and he is eminently more prepared to handle Boston than Bobby V was. I can’t wait to see how he handles pitchers like Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. Terry Francona’s pitching coach who left to manage Toronto for two seasons comes back to Boston with a working knowledge of the AL East and his own staff. He is the right man at the right time.
The Tampa Bay effect -- When the Rays broke through and crashed the AL East block party in 2008, they changed their image. They had brought in a new thinker in Joe Maddon. They relied on young stars like Evan Longoria and David Price. They were coming off a 66-win season in 2007. If the Red Sox can find the right mix of young players like Will Middlebrooks and Xander Bogaerts, they might be able to capture lightning in a bottle like those young Rays did. Bogaerts, of course, will have to wait behind Jose Iglesias and Pedro Ciriaco. But there’s the outside chance Red Sox fans might get a glimpse of him this season.
Dustin Pedroia -- There will be no ridiculous drama in spring training with the Red Sox second baseman. There will be no manager making silly gestures during his infield drills outside jetBlue Park. There will be no “That’s not how we do things here” speeches needed. And most of all, Dustin Pedroia will be healthy and ready to get back to the form that made him one of the most tenacious infielders and top-of-the-order hitters in the American League in the late 2000s.
Will Middlebrooks -- The third baseman just began to scratch the surface when a wrist injury ended his season prematurely in August. The broken wrist ended his season at 75 games. He hit .288 with 15 homers and 54 RBIs. There will be no Kevin Youkilis looking over his shoulder. Middlebrooks should blossom into one of the best young third basemen in the league.
Mike Napoli -- No one on the Red Sox roster had a more bizarre winter than the veteran slugger who had to back down off his three-year, $39 million contract and settle for a one-year deal with incentives because of a hip condition. But what Mike Napoli brings to Boston is a ravenous appetite for the Green Monster. Will the catcher-turned-first baseman be able to continue his torrid hitting at Fenway, where he’s batted .366 with six homers and an absurd 1.262 OPS in the last three seasons, covering 41 at-bats? I'll buy in.
Jacoby Ellsbury -- No one has more to prove than the center fielder who is headed for free agency after this season. His season was -- for all intents and purposes -- wrecked when he separated his shoulder against the Rays on April 13. He was coming off a 2011 season that would’ve ended in an MVP had it not been for Justin Verlander. Ellsbury batted .321 with 32 homers and 105 RBIs in 158 games. If Ellsbury produces anywhere close to that this season, he makes the Red Sox lineup extremely dynamic.
Ben Cherington -- For the first time in his decade-plus long run with the Red Sox, Ben Cherington doesn’t really have anyone looking over his every move. The deal with the Dodgers last August ensured that. Yes, team president Larry Lucchino still is in the building, but with a far-diminished role. Now we get to see his baseball evaluation skills come to the surface without the constant pressure of trying to satisfy veterans.
There still will be blips like Curt Schilling's ill-timed claim that some former members of the Red Sox organization suggested a “potential path” to PEDs in 2008 in an effort to get back to health and help the team after signing a one-year contract. There will be concerns over the right Achilles of David Ortiz. There will be concerns over John Lackey and the bottom of the Red Sox rotation.
But those problems are nothing compared to what the Red Sox have faced in the last 18 months. The Red Sox overdosed on drama for the last 10 years.
Now, they finally seem to be breaking away from it gradually. How much? That’s one of the things I’ll be closely watching starting Tuesday when pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers.
Look at the Celtics and Bruins for a moment.
The way the Celtics are playing without Rajon Rondo makes me think the Celtics can finish as high as third in the East. No Rondo, no drama.
The Bruins have cleared $5 million in cap space by trading their 2011 Stanley Cup-winning goalie, Tim Thomas, to the Islanders. No Thomas, no ill-timed Facebook posts.
The Bruins and Celtics are learning that less is more. They’re learning that it's easier to succeed when there's less drama.
They also are learning the lesson the Patriots learned early in their decade of dominance -- no one individual is bigger than the team. Not even Tom Brady, though he is the most indispensable on the Patriots.
Which brings me back to my original point.
This should be a very enjoyable season since the Red Sox finally have been forced to grow into something Theo Epstein really wanted all along -- a team modeled after Bill Belichick’s Patriots.
They’ve had flashes of that in 2007-09 with Pedroia, Ellsbury, Buchholz and Lester. But now the expectations are gone. The organization has been sanitized after being infected with dissent and dysfunction.
This should be a lot more enjoyable than 2012. After all, it can’t get much worse, right?
We head to the Trags Bag for a quick take on the Celtics, Bruins and Red Sox, as the Celtics are red-hot, the Bruins say goodbye to Tim Thomas and the Red Sox get ready to welcome pitchers and catchers on Tuesday.
@RSN80 Trags, Pessimistic [about Red Sox] because I just don't see the talent on the roster to compete in the AL East, not enough firepower at the plate!!
On the Celtics and their recent change of fortune and winning streak without Rajon Rondo. Has this changed your expectations of the damage the Celtics can do in the playoffs?
@JrLangenstein84 Trags, honestly maybe second round of the playoffs.
And how many Bruins fans will miss Tim Thomas?
@ntalukdar3 Trags, Tim did a great job in helping us bring the Cup to Boston, but he's a wacko. Glad to see him go.