It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
March Madness is wrapping up, winter is (slowly, very very slowly) drifting away, and, yes, Opening Day is upon us.
And after a crazy offseason in which billions (yes, with a B) were spent by teams on free agents, your reigning World Series champs, the Boston Red Sox, were kinda quiet on that front.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be excited. We should be. Seriously, this season should be awesome.
Here are the top ten most exciting storylines that everyone needs to know going into Opening Day against the Baltimore Orioles.
10. Should we worry about Papi’s spring training?
I mean, the answer is no, but still. Expectations have been high for the recently extended 38-year-old, especially with shocking pictures of the man clearly in the best shape of his life, but these spring games have been a bit rough: 2-35, 12 strikeouts. For those doomsday proclaimers looking for any sign of Ortiz hitting the downward slope towards old age, those numbers are freaky.
But there isn’t really a need. Since 2006, Ortiz has his .226 in 367 spring training at-bats, as well as being, historically, a really slow starter. But he’s coming off not only one of his best seasons overall, but one of the greatest clutch postseason performances of all time. Cut the dude some slack.
9. What will Xander Bogaerts’ full-season walk-up song be?
No point in asking the “Will he be good?” question, because the answer is an emphatic “Of course.” He’s a bonafide future All-Star, no doubt. It may not show this April, it may not even show in this rookie season. There will undoubtedly be some bumps in the road, but he is also way more equipped to handle them than most rookies.
What I am concerned about is his walk-up song. Yes, Snoop Dogg’s “Beautiful” is a classic. Yes, it’s kinda funny to remember that he was 10 when that song came out. Yes, it, much like Opening Day, hints at summer and beaches and beer. But it doesn’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of enemy pitchers (no Pharrell-falsetto song does). I’m not exactly suggesting Bogaerts should be stomping out to the plate bumping Death Grips (actually, yes please), but he’s the young, hip face of this team! Just a suggestion. Speaking of which….
8. Which Will Middlebrooks will we see?
Midd the Kidd’s walk-up song is Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Texas Flood”, a song about a man staring into a storm of dark clouds, flood water coming up to his knees. And boy oh boy, is that a fitting image of Middlebrooks’ first two years in the majors. Dude can’t catch a break.
After a marvelous rookie season cut far too short after breaking a bone in his right hand, Will Middlebrooks had a rollercoaster 2013: hitting three home runs in one April game, to struggling with a sore back and a .192 BA, to a rough stint in the minors, to a nice late fall stretch, to being replaced in the playoffs by Bogaerts.
This spring, however, things looked up. While no one should take spring training numbers too seriously (see: David Ortiz), it is promising to see Middlebrooks hitting .367 with 4 homers and only 3 strikeouts. He may never bee an on-base machine, but the change in his approach, especially to breaking balls away, could help him get enough hits to be the 30-homer guy he should be yearly.
7. Will Jake Peavy starts be bleeped by the FCC?
So you know how Jake Peavy likes to yell at himself in between pitches? And you know how he’s usually not yelling nice, supporting things?
Well, now AJ Pierzynski is his catcher. And while they like each other as teammates, they’re both super firey SOBs, who have a history of squabbling in the heat of a game, and will probably do so, now on a weekly basis. I can’t wait.
6. Is this the best bullpen in the American League?
The way I see it, there are three challengers in this regard. The Royals have a rising star closer in Greg Holland, three superb young set-up men in Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Aaron Crow, and a great middle reliever in Tim Collins. Grant Balfour comes back to Tampa Bay, where he joins reclamation project Heath bell, and the usually dependable Joel Peralta and Jake McGee. And Oakland has a fine group in Jim Johnson, Sean Doolittle, and Ryan Cook.
But have you seen this Red Sox pen? Koji is Koji (and not showing signs of not being Koji). Junichi Tazawa and Craig Breslow formed one of the best setup duos in all of baseball. Brandon Workman had a stellar rookie season, including some clutch innings in the World Series. Andrew Miller, sneakily having a career year, went down with an injury, but is now back to full health.
And not only that, but the Red Sox added more to that group! Edward Mujica had a rough ending to a great year, but looked great this spring, and provides crucial closer insurance. Burke Badenhop (3.54 ERA since 2010) was a great under-the-radar signing for Ben Cherington. And Chris Capuano will be that crucial swingman, who can eat up some of the long innings that went to Alex Wilson and Alfredo Aceves last year.
I mean that’s the best group in the AL right? Right?
5. Which of the three-headed prospect monster will we see first?
That would be Matt Barnes, Anthony Ranaudo, and Henry Owens. All are brimming with upside, all are young (Ranaudo 24, Barnes 23, Owens 21), and all are staring up at a crowded rotation, with other more trusted options ahead of them as spot starters (Capuano, Workman, Allen Webster).
That being said, Farrell and Cherington were very good about getting their young pitchers some spot starts, and the team will want to see them get some major league action sooner rather than later. If I had to choose, it would be Ranaudo, who had some impressive innings this spring, and will be looking to build on it in his first full season at AAA.
4. Will we ever see a full, Cy Young-level season from Clay Buchholz?
Ugh. Let’s hope so.
Spring training was promising. Last year he looked like an ace before he injured his shoulder while holding his baby daughter (Colbi Buchholz, you saboteur!!) When he came back, he looked uncomfortable.
Here’s hoping he comes back looking more like early 2013/2010 Buch and not 2012/late 2013 Buch. He’s one of the most devastating pitchers in the majors when healthy. The question is, can he stay healthy for a full season?
3. Will Jon Lester’s contract status affect his game?
Again, my immediate reaction is, “Of course not.” But after this recent Vince Wilfork drama, my innocence is shattered.
Jon Lester has been adamant in his desire to stay in a Red Sox uniform for the rest of his career. The Red Sox office publicly declared that they wanted to reach an extension before Opening Day. Well….here we are, and no extension, as the two sides announced they would table discussions until a later date.
By all accounts talks have been amicable. It’s understandable why the Red Sox would be cautious, even if that 2012 season is looking more and more like the exception rather than the rule. But factor in Lester’s inspiring story, his commanding 2013 postseason, and his willingness to take a hometown discount, and this seems like it’ll be done. If not, things may turn ugly. Probably not though….
2. Is Jonny Gomes Samson?
This worries me. Fine, it might be a little sad for every Red Sox member to keep growing out their beards for a second straight season, but I’m cautious about messing with a sure thing.
And Jonny Gomes’ beard was a sure thing.
Like I said, this worries me.
- Grady Sizemore will be your new favorite player.
This is nothing against Jackie Bradley Jr. He’s still young, fought hard this spring, and will be playing full time in a Red Sox uniform sooner rather than later (perhaps even this month, what with Shane Victorino aching).
But Grady Sizemore is the best story in baseball right now next to Miggy Cabrera’s ludicrous deal and the continuing hilarity of Yasiel Puig. The 31-year-old centerfielder was signed for $750k, a great bargain, even if Sizemore had been practically out of baseball since 2010. There was still the chance that Sizemore could return to his 2005-2008 form, when he was the most well-rounded offensive player in baseball, hitting .281/.372/.496 with 107 home runs, 115 bases, and spectacular defense. That chance seemed low, but it was a low-risk deal.
Now…things are looking up. Way up. Sizemore had a fantastic spring, hitting .310, never showing any signs of rust, and coming up with some amazing diving catches in center field. He’s by all accounts a great guy, has been immediately accepted and loved by his Boston teammates, and is the player you want to root for, no matter what.
From a cold-hearted perspective, there’s always the chance that Sizemore could suffer another injury. There’s always the chance that he can’t shake off that rust, and can’t summon the combination of speed and power that made him so dangerous
But for now he’s the second coming of Roy Hobbs. And we will love him unconditionally.
The Red Sox open against the Baltimore Orioles at 3 PM/EST today (3/31). Be sure to check back at isportsweb for more Red Sox news, and be sure to dig my colleague Jay McAree’s column on what to watch for in April (he’s much smarter and more concise than me).