Boston Red Sox v San Francisco Giants

Red Sox’s turnaround more about incumbents than newcomers

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We’ve heard it a million times now: the Red Sox changed the clubhouse culture for the better when they brought in Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes and Ryan Dempster over the winter. And that’s certainly true. I imagine this has been the best Red Sox team to cover in several years, and they do, as a group, look like they’re having fun out there.

Of course, the winning probably helps. That’s often the response when chemistry comes up in stathead circles. Did the chemistry lead to winning or did the winning lead to chemistry? There typically is some narrative building going on. But these Red Sox did seem to need the jolt that Victorino and Gomes provided.

Still, that the Red Sox clinched their first AL East title since 2007 by winning Friday night has more to do with the players that were already there than the newly hired help, unless you want to give Gomes and the rest the credit for those turnarounds, too.

Here are the rWAR improvements from 2012 to ’13 of the incumbents (or the incumbents plus John Lackey, if you prefer. Lackey didn’t pitch last season following Tommy John surgery).

4.6 – Jacoby Ellsbury (1.0 to 5.6)
3.4 – Clay Buchholz (0.9 to 4.3)
2.9 – John Lackey (0.0 to 2.9)
2.2 – Jon Lester (0.7 to 2.9)
1.3 – Dustin Pedroia (4.9 to 6.2)
1.2 – Daniel Nava (1.5 to 2.7)
1.0 – David Ortiz (3.1 to 4.1)
1.0 – Jarrod Saltalamacchia (1.4 to 2.4)
0.9 – Felix Doubront (0.3 to 1.2)

The only Red Sox to return in significant roles this year and fail to improve are Junichi Tazawa, who has been about the same, and Will Middlebrooks.

Now, part of that improvement could be chalked up to chemistry, but health has been a bigger factor. And I think the return of former pitching coach John Farrell as manager had a lot to do with the bounce-back seasons from Buchholz and Lester. Of Boston’s five best players this year, Victorino is the only one who wasn’t there in 2012.

The Red Sox had a great offseason, with only the hideous Mark Melancon-for-Joel Hanrahan trade and Dempster signing looking like misfires opposite the Victorino, Napoli, Stephen Drew and Koji Uehara successes. However, it’s the pieces that were already in place that will lead the way as the team returns to the postseason for the first time since 2009.

Brandon Belt signs $6.2 million deal, avoiding arbitration with Giants

Brandon Belt
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In a last-second compromise before a scheduled heading today, first baseman Brandon Belt and the Giants have avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year, $6.2 million deal.

Belt requested $7.5 million and the Giants countered at $5.3 million, so they’ve settled slightly on the team-friendly side of the midpoint. Belt will be arbitration eligible again next season for the final time before hitting the open market as a free agent.

He’s coming off a very good season in which he hit .280 with 18 homers and an .834 OPS in 137 games and Belt has a lifetime .803 OPS through age 27, making him one of MLB’s most underrated all-around first baseman.

Orioles sign ex-Padres reliever Dale Thayer

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Right-hander Dale Thayer and the Orioles have agreed to a minor-league contract that includes an invitation to spring training.

Thayer had a rough 2015 season for the Padres, posting a 4.06 ERA and spending time in the minors, but he was a solid part of San Diego’s bullpen from 2012-2014 with a combined 3.02 ERA and 173/50 K/BB ratio in 188 innings.

At age 35 there’s no guarantee that Thayer will look good enough to claim a spot on the Opening Day roster, but he’s got a strong chance to wind up pitching middle relief for Baltimore.

Phillies acquire Taylor Featherston from Angels

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Taylor Featherston, who was designated for assignment by the Angels last week, has been traded to the Phillies for a player to be named later or cash.

Featherston stayed in the majors with the Angels for all of last season due to being a Rule 5 pick from the Rockies organization, but the 25-year-old infielder hit just .162 in 169 plate appearances.

He’s been much better in the minors, but nothing about his track record there screams quality regular and the Phillies are likely viewing him as a defense-first bench option for now.

Keith Law: The Braves have the best farm system in baseball

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Associated Press
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Flags fly forever! Hooray for The Process championship!

Ah, sorry. This is about as much rooting as I’ll get to do this year, so cut me some slack.

This is the week when ESPN’s Keith Law releases his prospect and farm system rankings. He kicks off his content this week with a top-to-bottom ranking of all 30 farm systems. As a rule he limits his analysis to players who are currently in the minors and who have not yet exhausted their rookie of the year eligibility. The top system: the Atlanta Braves. The bottom: the Los Angeles Angels, about whom Law says “I’ve been doing these rankings for eight years now, and this is by far the worst system I’ve ever seen.” Enjoy Mike Trout, though, you guys.

If you want to know the reasons and the rankings of everyone in between you’ll have to get an ESPN Insider subscription. Sorry, I know everyone hates to pay for content on the Internet, but Keith and others who do this kind of work put a lot of damn work into it and this is what pays their bills. I typically don’t like to pay for content myself, but I do pay for an ESPN Insider subscription. It’s worth it for Law’s work alone. And though he drives me crazy sometimes, Buster Olney’s daily column/notes thing is also worth the money over the course of the year.