Springtime Storylines: Does anyone remember that the Boston Red Sox were really good last year?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: The Boston Red Sox.

The Big Question: Does anyone remember that the Red Sox were actually, you know, good last year? 

When alien archaeologists come to visit the ruins of our planet — and if they are wise and decide to study the game we extinct humans called “baseball” —  they will likely conclude that the 2011 Red Sox were an abject failure, done in by a manager and general manager not worthy of their jobs and of indifferent players who consumed food that was bad for them.

They’ll think that because that’s the legacy we have left thanks to our obsession with an unfortunate late-season collapse and a couple of articles in which people with the Red Sox organization thought it appropriate to air the sort of dirty laundry that many teams have but so few teams ever share. But the Red Sox were and are more than a team who choked on beer and chicken and then fired the most successful manager and general manager the team has ever known.

They were, for most of the year, the best team in the AL. And they have almost all of the parts that helped them get that way back and much healthier than they were last season. They have Gonzalez and Youkilis and Pedroia and Ellsbury and Ortiz and a pitching staff that, while not ideal, could easily be the staff of a World Series winning team.  They lost their closer. That’s the big loss. And to hear some people tell it, the Red Sox are a mess.

Know what? They’re not a mess. They went and created more drama for themselves than they needed to by firing Terry Francona and bringing in Bobby Valentine — a move that unnecessarily accentuated those late season foibles rather than defuse them — but they are not the sort of disaster area some people like to pretend they are.  Oh, yes, your beer and chicken joke is funny. Laugh? I thought I’d DIE!

I ain’t having it, though. The Red Sox will win a lot of baseball games this year. Maybe by the time Mother’s Day rolls around and they’re doing just fine, thank you, more people will remember that they’re pretty damn good.

So what else is going on?

  • Here’s my thing on Valentine: he seems like a bigger problem than he really is. He gets a lot of headlines and causes a lot of perceived controversy because he is one of those guys who is smart enough to see that empty cliches are not a meaningful form of communication, but not smart enough to realize that there’s a reason why managers use all of those empty cliches. Something will happen and Valentine will make the big mistake of saying something informative and interesting regarding his thoughts on the matter. And then he’ll suffer the lot that those people who try to say informative and interesting things often suffer.  I don’t think, however, that that sort of thing will hurt an otherwise talented team.
  • The rotation has obviously been shaken up. Assuming Josh Beckett’s thumb is OK, the Sox are looking at a rotation of Lester, Beckett, Buchholz, Bard and some combination of Alfedo Aceves and Felix Dubront. Bard may be the key man here. If he transitions successfully — and he has looked pretty sharp this spring — it could be a very good rotation.  If not, the Sox may be taking a second run at Roy Oswalt or someone.
  • For as good as the lineup is, there is a decent chance that David Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury will regress some. At the same time the Sox have to expect that Carl Crawford — once healthy — will look a lot more like the Tampa Bay version of Crawford than the Boston version they’ve seen thus far.
  • Jonathan Papelbon is gone, and that will probably hurt more than a lot of people are saying. Papelbon had a really good year last year but did so very quietly. I wouldn’t have paid him what Philly ended up paying him, but he’s probably underrated now, and Andrew Bailey will be a step back, though certainly not a critical one.

So how are they gonna do?

Very well. They should challenge for the division and/or the wild card. And if they do win the division, they’ll probably end up giving Valentine the manager of the year award, all the while forgetting that, hey, this was basically the same team as last year, only a freak skid didn’t happen to them.

Yankees re-sign Jon Niese to a minor league deal

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The Yankees have re-signed pitcher Jon Niese to a minor league contract, George A. King III of the New York Post reports. Niese was released on Sunday, but he’ll stick around and provide rotation depth for the Yankees.

Niese had knee surgery last August and got a late start to spring training as a result. In six spring appearances lasting an inning each, the lefty gave up three earned runs on five hits and a walk with five strikeouts.

Niese, a veteran of nine seasons, put up an aggregate 5.50 ERA with an 88/47 K/BB ratio in 121 innings last season between the Pirates and Mets.

Orioles acquire Alec Asher from the Phillies

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The Phillies announced on Tuesday that the club traded pitcher Alec Asher to the Orioles for a player to be named later.

Asher, 25, was the victim of a roster crunch. He was not going to make the 25-man roster and the starting rotation at Triple-A Lehigh Valley was already full. The Phillies acquired him from the Rangers in the July 2015 Cole Hamels trade.

Asher had good results in 27 2/3 innings in the big leagues last year, posting a 2.28 ERA with a 13/4 K/BB ratio. While it didn’t show in those stats, the right-hander sometimes struggles with command and he doesn’t miss bats often enough to make up for it. The Orioles, however, are happy to add some pitching depth.