The Texas Rangers start up a brief two-game series in Boston tonight against the Red Sox. To help preview the series, we've brought in Marc Normandin from Over the Monster and Baseball Nation to shed some light on what's going on in Boston.
It's certainly very early, but what's been the difference between the Red Sox that we saw against the Tigers and Blue Jays and the Red Sox that just wrapped up a successful series against Tampa Bay?
The team started to hit more consistently, and the command issues that plagued Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz in their first starts of the year were mostly gone in their second. The team was unrealistically bad to start the year against the Tigers, and happened to be so at the same time they were facing another great club. Most of the panic surrounding the start was just leftover angst about Boston's finish to 2011, anyway. This is a team that has a real good chance of making the playoffs, even if Jacoby Ellsbury misses significant time.
Bobby Valentine has been in the news a lot for outspoken quotes, but aside from that, how does he manage differently from Francona, if at all?
Valentine seems more willing to let his pitchers stay in the game longer, relying on his starters to pitch the bulk of the innings rather than running to his bullpen as pitch counts approach 100. This has been a good thing -- Jon Lester threw a complete game on 116 pitches against the Blue Jays because Valentine trusted him to get it done -- but also a bad thing for a staff that features a reliever-turned-starter and a 24-year-old lefty in what might be his first full-year in the majors. He overextended both Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard in consecutive games, but if he can avoid doing that in the future, then this is a plan that will benefit the Red Sox. Especially since their bullpen has been out of useful innings by September the last few seasons.
How much of a concern is the Red Sox bullpen right now? There's been a lot of freak out over small sample sizes. Do you think it's possible that Daniel Bard heads back to the bullpen, or will the team just wait it out until Andrew Bailey and Bobby Jenks are back?
There's little concern about Boston's pen at all from me. Alfredo Aceves is only a waste as the closer if Valentine refuses to use him outside of the ninth, but he's warmed up to come in with the team behind, in the lead, or tied, not just in save situations. Getting out of Colorado might be the best thing that ever happened to Franklin Morales's career, and he's likely now a reliable setup man for the Red Sox. Mark Melancon hasn't pitched well to this point, but he's also barely pitched, and should be one of the team's three best relievers, even when Andrew Bailey comes back. They have two potentially-productive long men in Vicente Padilla and Scott Atchison, and Rich Hill -- who has dominated in his short time as a reliever in the majors -- is working his way back from Tommy John surgery, likely to return early in the year. There are questions, for sure, but for once, it looks like there are answers, too -- and Daniel Bard isn't one of them.
Speaking of Bard, what do you expect to see out of him this year?
Bard was basically sacrificed by Valentine in Monday's start. If he had been removed when it was clear his arm was done, he would have had two fewer walks, and one less L on his record. He's been inducing grounders, and getting swings-and-misses on over one-third of his pitches. He mixed in his change-up much better in his second start, and was far more efficient through 90 pitches than he was against the Blue Jays.
There's a lot to love here. Bard has a great arm, and throws a very easy high-90s heater to go along with his wicked slider. The Red Sox just need to ramp him up to 100 pitches or more a little more slowly, so that he's still got bullets in that arm for September. His first two starts have been very encouraging. Remember, for this kind of conversion, it's not just the results that matter when analyzing his future in the role. Not every reliever-turned-starter just busts out like C.J. Wilson all at once.
How much of a struggle is there within the organization right now? Valentine doesn't seem to rub his players the right way (see: Youkilis, Kevin), and he seemingly disagrees with Ben Cherington. Will they both make it through this year and this offseason, or do the Red Sox have to go deep into the playoffs for that to happen?
I don't think there's a struggle so much as the team is getting used to having a new general manager and new manager. Ben Cherington is going to assert himself within the organization, and Valentine has to do the same. One is just much quieter about it than the other, so it's easy to perceive gaps in beliefs when that might not be the case. I highly doubt Cherington is going anywhere, unless he wants to leave. He's been an important piece of the organization for an even longer stretch of time than Theo Epstein, as Cherington was there back when Dan Duquette was around. Valentine will survive the year, but how he adjusts to the team and how they will react to his outspoken nature will tell us if he'll get his contract renewed in the future.
For more on the Red Sox, be sure to check out Over the Monster. As always, for more Rangers coverage and insight, be sure to head over to Lone Star Ball.