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2017 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 2017 season. Next up: The Boston Red Sox.

David Ortiz is retired, present only in Lego brick form down at Red Sox camp. His are certainly some big shoes to fill: he led the Sox in homers, RBI, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, after all. His would be a devastating loss for almost any team and the Sox will certainly miss him, but let us not pretend they’re hurting offensively. Indeed, there is strong reason to believe that the Red Sox will be baseball’s best offense in 2017, just as they were in 2016 with Big Papi. Or at the very least close to it.

Dustin Pedroia and Hanley Ramirez are still around and both showed in 2016 that they still have plenty left in the tank. Mookie Betts broke out as one of baseball’s best players and Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. were both All-Stars at premium defensive positions. While left field was a problem for the Sox all season long in 2016, baseball’s top prospect and Rookie of the Year candidate Andrew Benintendi will break camp with the club and will almost certainly offer an improvement. Mitch Moreland wasn’t the sexiest free agent pickup in baseball this past winter, but he’s a gold glove first baseman with some pop who can help replace at least some of the left-handed power which will be lost by Ortiz’s absence.

The biggest question for the Red Sox as far as position players go is what they can expect to get from third baseman Pablo Sandoval. So far so good, as Sandoval reported to camp in excellent shape and has looked as solid as Sandoval can feasibly look on defense. His left-handed swing is reported to be in fine shape while his right-handed swing is still a work in progress. The Sox are certainly hoping he can be an everyday player again and not the left-handed side of a third base platoon, but if he even comes close to being a solid, everyday player again, their third base situation should improve over what they got in 2016.

As Red Sox camp opened, there was a good deal of talk about the club courting Matt Wieters or, at the very least, there being a wide open catching competition. In the past two weeks, however, that competition seems to have ended before it began. Sandy Leon will be the starter and Christian Vazquez will back him up. Blake Swihart, whose 2016 saw him work in the outfield and was ended by injury, will start at Triple-A, barring injury to either Leon of Vazquez.

Overall, it’s a great offensive core, led by a guy who was an MVP candidate at 23. That’s the sort of thing that will help John Farrell sleep well at night. Obviously, though, the biggest offseason news for the Red Sox involved their rotation. Welcome Chris Sale.

FT. MYERS, FL - FEBRUARY 19: Chris Sale #41 of the Boston Red Sox poses for a portrait during the Boston Red Sox photo day on February 19, 2016 at JetBlue Park in Ft. Myers, Florida. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

If Sale looks unhappy, it may be because someone told him that David Price is getting an MRI for elbow soreness. We don’t know what’s going to happen there, but let’s assume for a second that it’s a big nothingburger and that Price will be fine. If so, the 1-2-3 of Sale, Price and 2016 Cy Young winner Rick Porcello may be the strongest 1-2-3 in the league. Knuckleballer Steven Wright — who posted an ERA+ of 137 last season — is a solid as all get-out #4 and Eduardo Rodriguez, Drew Pomeranz or some combination will slot in at #5. That’ll play. The Sox hope to God that they don’t have a problem with Price — if he’s out for an extended period it totally changes the complexion of the rotation — but Sale and Porcello at the top would still make for a solid rotation.

The bullpen has a new look for 2017. Last year the relief corps was shaky early before stabilizing as the season wore on. There are still old faces here — Craig Kimbrel will still close — but gone are Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazawa and occasional bullpen resident Clay Buchholz. In comes Tyler Thornburg from Milwaukee. He’ll join Joe Kelly, who looked strong late in the season, as a setup man and could close if Kimbrel falters. Matt Barnes will figure in late as well. To the extent they don’t get starts, guys like Eduardo Rodriguez, Drew Pomeranz and Steven Wright could see some relief work as well. Bullpens can be tricky and unpredictable, but on paper this looks like a more solid group than the Sox had heading into 2016. A lot depends on Kimbrel regaining his old form.

However that shakes out, the Sox look to be among the strongest teams in the American League and should be considered the favorites in their division. And that’s my PREDICTION: FIRST PLACE, AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST.

Derek Jeter: no longer the media’s darling

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There was a time, not too long ago, where the baseball press practically gave Derek Jeter awards for providing them no information whatsoever. As a player, he turned not answering questions into an art form. To the point where, eventually, the press just stopped asking him substantive questions almost entirely.

Unlike a lot of players who shut out the media, Jeter did it rather politely, so he did not get that passive aggressive treatment — or, occasionally, the aggressive-aggressive treatment — the press often gives uncommunicative players. To the contrary. He was positively lauded for his lack of communication. Lionized, even.

Take this column from Jeff Peralman at CNN.com from 2014, under the headline “Derek Jeter: Baseball’s Humble Hero”:

Throughout the first 18 seasons of his career, Jeter has often been labeled “dull” by the media. His answers to questions are unimaginative and full of cliché baseball nothingness blather. In hindsight, however, such lameness is almost to be admired. We live in an era where too many athletes feel as if they need to draw attention to themselves — for confidence, for commercials. If you’re not tweeting trash talk, you’re texting trash talk. Or making bold promises. Or demanding money or respect . . . he’s a guy who merely wanted to be a guy.

How about this from the New York Times around the time of his retirement:

Jeter’s ability to maintain a posture of sustained inscrutability — or, if you must, dignified comportment — has extended especially to the spoken word . . . he has played his best defense in front of his locker: catching every controversial question thrown to him and tossing it aside as if it were a scuffed ball unsuitable for play.

In a major league career that dates to the Clinton administration’s first term — he is the only Yankees shortstop a generation of fans has known — inquiring reporters have gathered around Jeter in the clubhouse thousands of times. He has maintained eye contact, answered nearly every question posed to him — and said nothing. This is not a complaint, but rather an expression of awe; of admiration, even. His batting average and fielding percentage aside, this kid from Kalamazoo, Mich., entered the New York meat grinder two decades ago and came out the other end looking as sharp as Joe DiMaggio’s suit.

This opinion of Jeter was pervasive throughout his career, but especially pronounced at its end of it. Jeter was deified by the press for saying nothing to the press. Praised for making the media’s job harder by the media itself. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it.

Times, however, have changed.

Some minor grumbling about Jeter’s non-answers to media questions began soon after he took over as Marlins co-owner. Ken Davidoff of the New York Post wrote a column about it all back in October, saying Jeter’s “Crash Davis Rules of Media Relations don’t apply anymore.” Not too many people echoed that at the time, probably because it came in the wake of a pretty boring introductory press conference and the stakes were pretty low. I did wonder at the time, though, if the media was waiting to turn on Jeter once he actually started making moves in his new role.

I think we can now say the answer to that is yes.

In the wake of the Giancarlo Stanton trade, a lot of baseball writers had a lot of questions for Derek Jeter. Jeter, however, decided that he didn’t even need to show up here at the Winter Meetings to answer them, despite the fact that he lives just a couple of hours away.

On Monday morning Buster Olney of ESPN made conspicuous note of it:

Later in the day Jeter deigned to talk to the media via a conference call. As usual, he said mostly nothing, but unlike 1997, 2007 or 2014 (a) he got testy about it; and (b) the press made a note of it:

They likewise noted when he passed the buck to someone below him on the org chart:

Last night I think a dam broke, and I don’t think Jeter will ever be able to sweet non-talk his way out criticism again. It all happened at a football game:

To sum up:

  • Jeter is now bad for not talking to the press;
  • Jeter is not lauded for his composure anymore; and
  • Jeter is being called out as a poor leader who does not face the music.

What a difference a few years and a change of role makes.

All of which, one would think, would make me at least a little happy. I mean, I’ll totally own up to rolling my eyes at the kid glove treatment Jeter got back when he played. About how his attributes, however great, were elevated even above their actual greatness and how his faults were, perversely, spun into attributes. You’d expect that, in light of that, I’d be sorta pleased that the tables have turned.

I’m not happy, though. Indeed, I have something approaching sympathy for Captian Jeets.

Why? Because, while I’d like to see him face the press, defend his moves as owner and explain his vision to Marlins fans everywhere, I know that he cannot. I know that he has no good answers to any of the questions he might be asked because the real answer to all of them is “hey, we need to make money for the ownership group and everything flows from that” and that’s not an answer he’s prepared to give.

Have some sympathy for Derek Jeter. He’s really in a tough, tough spot. Even if he put himself into it.