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.

Blue Jays release John Axford

John Axford
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The Blue Jays have released right-handed reliever John Axford from his minor league contract, per an announcement on Saturday. Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi speculates that the move could provide an avenue for the club to rework Axford’s contract, but the Blue Jays have yet to confirm or deny the report.

Axford, 35, was dealt a blow on Thursday after getting diagnosed with a stress reaction in the olecranon bone of his right elbow. Elbow soreness dogged the right-hander through much of his time in camp, and although he was scheduled for a follow-up examination later this spring, a definite return date had not been established.

Prior to the diagnosis, Axford was tabbed for a setup role with the team in 2019. He pitched to mixed results in 2018 (thanks in part to a late-season fracture of his right fibula) with a 5.27 ERA, 4.9 BB/9, and 9.8 SO/9 through 54 2/3 innings with the Blue Jays and Dodgers. Now, however, it’s not certain that he’ll return to the mound this season in any capacity.

Axford isn’t the only reliever the Blue Jays have lost to injury lately, either, as right-handers Ryan Tepera and Bud Norris have been sidelined with right elbow inflammation and forearm fatigue, respectively. Per Davidi, the Blue Jays offered Norris a $100,000 retention bonus to prevent him from opting out of the minor league contract he signed in February.