Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz

2014 Preview: Boston Red Sox

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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 2014 season. Next up: The Boston Red Sox.

The Big Question: Have the Red Sox taken the steps necessary to avoid a post-championship decline?

No team has repeated as World Series champions since the Yankees won three straight from 1998-2000. The Red Sox, though, didn’t suffer from any championship hangovers their last two times around, winning 95 games and returning to the postseason in both 2005 and 2008.

The Red Sox didn’t desire to partake in any sort of shakeup over the winter; they just weren’t willing to outbid the Yankees for Jacoby Ellsbury or commit to substantial multiyear deals for fellow free agents Stephen Drew and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Replacing the trio will be either rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. or former superstar Grady Sizemore in center field, phenom Xander Bogaerts at shortstop and the much beloved A.J. Pierzynski behind the plate. Interestingly, the team’s only newcomer to get a multiyear deal was new setup man Edward Mujica (two years, $9.5 million).

The pitching staff has survived almost entirely intact, with the rotation set to include Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Felix Doubront. The surprising exit of Ryan Dempster turned heads — he gave up $13 million to spend the year with his family — but he was being viewed as a middle reliever or swingman. Replacing him in that role is left-hander Chris Capuano.

So, the Red Sox are counting on their returning stars and a gradual infusion of young talent to stave off any decline. Boasting one of the game’s very best farm systems makes that an easier choice, and if it turns out that they do need help as the season goes along, they’ll have about as much artillery to pull off a trade as any team in the league.

What else is going on?

  • The Bradley-Sizemore battle in center remains unsettled, and complicating matters is that there’s only room for one on the roster. Sizemore has shown surprising speed as he comes back from multiple knee surgeries and he’s also been making decent contact at the plate, but a month in the minors might not be a bad idea for him as he tries to shake two years of rust.
  • Working in Sizemore’s favor is that the Red Sox see him as a possibility to replace Ellsbury in the leadoff spot, whereas Bradley would hit at the bottom of the order if he wins the job. There was some thought over the winter of simply moving everyone up a spot and going with a Shane Victorino-Dustin Pedroia-David Ortiz top three with Ellsbury gone. However, that idea seems dead now, and it looks like Daniel Nava will lead off against righties if Bradley makes the team.
  • Victorino hasn’t ruled out switch-hitting entirely, but it appears he’ll focus on batting right-handed for now. It made him more of a threat against righties last year when an injury forced him to give up batting left-handed for a time, and he’s always been weaker left-handed anyway. Batting right-handed exclusively could lead to bigger numbers this year. On the other hand, it could also lead to more injuries, since he stands directly over the plate hitting right-handed and gets hit by pitches with ridiculous frequency.
  • So far, however, the injury bug that has racked fellow contenders in Texas and Detroit, as well as left Oakland minus a couple of starters, has avoided Boston. Those losses the Rangers, Tigers and A’s have suffered may not affect the AL East race, but they will help the Red Sox’s postseason chances by increasing the odds that one or both wild cards will come from their division.

Prediction: If spring training numbers are any indication, it’s going to take some time for the Red Sox lineup to start clicking. Still, the bats are there to make the team a top-three offense in the AL, and the pitching staff has both top-level talent and excellent depth. The Red Sox’s decision to largely stand pat could cost them a few wins and perhaps the AL East, but the team should return to the postseason in some form.

Second place, American League East.

Some Mets fans are not happy that Beyonce is playing at Citi Field

Beyoncé performs during halftime of the NFL Super Bowl 50 football game between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers, Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016, in Santa Clara, Calif.  (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Associated Press
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The funny thing about that “stick to sports” stuff I was going on about the other day is that, in reality, a whole lot of the people who say “stick to sports” don’t really want to just stick to sports. They’re totally cool going on about political, social or cultural stuff as long as it fits their world view. It’s not “stick to sports.” It’s “don’t talk about the social implications of sports-related stuff in ways that upset me.” If sports and culture come together in other ways, however, they’re completely fine in grinding their axe.

For example, Beyonce is playing a concert a Citi Field this summer. The show is so popular that they added a second date. The Mets’ Twitter feed just announced that tickets will go on sale for the new show soon:

A while lotta Mets fans responded to that negatively. For political/social/cultural reasons that they are willingly bringing in to a conversation about a pop singer and a baseball stadium that will double as a concert venue:

And they go on and on.

How much do you want to bet that a whole lotta these respondents would tell you to “stick to baseball” if you wanted to bring up how race affects the sport or how, if instead of Beyonce, this was announcing a Kid Rock/Ted Nugent-headlined festival and you mused whether that was a case of the Mets somehow endorsing their messages?

The Orioles and Yovani Gallardo are “making progress”

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Ken Rosenthal reports that the Orioles are “making progress” in talks with free agent right-hander Yovani Gallardo.

Gallardo has been on the market so long because he has a first round pick tied to him due to his declining the Rangers’ qualifying offer. The Orioles would have to forfeit the 14th overall pick in order to sign him. That has been too steep a price to pay for them all winter, but as we’re mere days away from pitchers and catchers reporting, it’s likely that Gallardo’s price has dropped enough to make it worth their while.

Gallardo has posted an ERA below 4.00 in six of his last seven seasons — and had a career-low 3.42 ERA in 2015 — but his strikeout rate has rapidly decreased with each year since 2012, suggesting that trouble could be on the horizon.

If the O’s do burn their pick to get Gallardo, it might make sense for them to go all-in with another free agent like Dexter Fowler, given that they’d not have to give up anything else to do it.

Rangers avoid arbitration with Mitch Moreland

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First baseman/outfielder Mitch Moreland and the Rangers have avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year, $5.7 million deal.

Moreland requested $6 million and the Rangers countered at $4.675 million, so the two sides settled on the player-friendly side of the midpoint.

Moreland bounced back from an injury wrecked 2014 season to have a career-year in 2015, hitting .278 with 23 homers and an .812 OPS in 132 games. Arbitration eligible for the final time at age 30, he’s set to be a free agent next offseason.

Tiger Stadium redevelopment group loses $50K because of its preference for artificial turf

Navin Field
Craig Calcaterra
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We’ve posted frequently on the topic of the old Tiger Stadium site. If you’ve kept up with it you know that the site, nearly overgrown with weeds and strewn with trash before being rescued by a group of volunteers called the Navin Field Grounds Crew, is now being slated for redevelopment by the Detroit Police Athletic League.

The PAL is committed to keeping a baseball field as part of the development, but they are also, quite unfortunately, committed to putting artificial turf down over the bit of Earth where baseball legends once walked and ran.

Backlash to the plan has begun, however. Not just from people like me or the Navin Field Grounds Crew, who are opposed to fake grass, but to an actual donor to the Detroit Police Athletic League:

With an annual contribution of $50,000 to Detroit PAL’s programs, the Lear Corporation has been a major benefactor of the nonprofit for years. But in light of PAL’s controversial plan to redevelop the Tiger Stadium site with artificial turf, Lear’s CEO is speaking out.

Matthew Simoncini says that Lear is withdrawing its financial support of PAL for its mishandling of this delicate issue.

“I believe the [PAL] plan is severely flawed [and] a terrible use of resources,” says Simoncini. “[It] does not preserve this site and provides [an] unsafe playing surface for the children,”

I’m guessing $50,000 is not the sort of money that will seriously hinder a real estate redevelopment plan, but it’s good to hear someone with a stake in all of this voting with their wallet. Here’s hoping more do and that, eventually, PAL understands that there are some things more important than saving some money at the front end of a project.