EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 31, 2013

Time to embrace new-look Red Sox

After last year's disaster, Boston headed in right direction

On Pro baseball
Christopher Smith

---- — The small-market Tampa Bay Rays have won 90 or more games four of the past five seasons because they have applied a simple principle.

A principle the Red Sox should implement, too.

“We’re tasked with operating with one eye on the present and one eye on the future,” Rays vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman told The Eagle-Tribune last season. “There are times that you would prefer to shift both eyes to the present. But I think had we done that in years past, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

With a new batch of players and a commitment from GM Ben Cherington to develop the farm system first and foremost, it is essential now more than ever that Boston apply Tampa’s principle.

And Boston fans should do the same.

Red Sox fans seem disinterested after last year’s team went 69-93 and finished last in the AL East. So much so that ownership, in an attempt to sell tickets, lowered concession prices for April, including beer for $5 and Fenway Franks at a two-for-one rate.

I’m not here to encourage fans to buy tickets or watch every game on NESN. I’m not CEO Larry Lucchino.

I am here to encourage fans to keep a close eye on the Sox’ development and growth. Enjoy this team for what it is right now. This isn’t a superstar-laden squad favored to win a World Series. In my opinion, Boston is an 85-87 win team with some likable new players and some talented youngsters in the big leagues and minors. It’s a team that can contend for one of the two AL Wild Cards.

This team can be entertaining for fans if they accept it for what it is and what it can be in a year or two. Like management, keep the mindset of both the present and future.

Fans should be furious that the Red Sox, despite having one of baseball’s highest payrolls, haven’t made the playoffs since 2009 and or even won a playoff game since 2008.

But you should have a different attitude entering this year simply because 2013 is different from 2012, when the Red Sox opened their season with the same core group that threw in the towel during September 2011.

Cherington has turned over the roster drastically instead of remaining stagnant with the same core of underachievers (Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, et. al) who failed for two straight years together.

It’s not about settling for a mediocre team that is a long-shot to make the playoffs despite a $150 million payroll.

Set your expectations in relation to where to the Red Sox finished last year (69-93) and where they are headed.

Factor in the newcomers, the players retained from last summer, how the farm system is progressing and what the Sox must do in free agency next offseason.

We’ve all bashed this team enough over the past year and a half. Enjoy watching the franchise’s new direction. The Sox are improving. That’s a good thing, right?

One major storyline is the starting rotation, specifically Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, who entering Thursday combined for a microscopic 0.84 ERA in 42.2 innings this spring.

New manager John Farrell and new pitching coach Juan Nieves appear to have the starting pitching in much better shape after two woeful years.

Newcomer Ryan Dempster entered his start Friday having posted a 3.06 ERA in 17.2 innings and he is durable, too. He has pitched 200 or more innings in four of the past five years.

The Sox have a $13-million club option on Lester for 2014. Buchholz is under contract through 2015 with a $13 million team option and $245,000 buyout for 2016 and a $13.5 million team option and $500,000 buyout for 2017.

They are young and healthy and will be here for awhile. There is no reason they can’t return to their 2010 All-Star form.

Another storyline to follow is the progress of the young players. How will Jose Iglesias and Jackie Bradley Jr. perform in the big leagues? Will third baseman Will Middlebrooks (.288, 15 homers, 54 RBIs in 267 at-bats) improve on his promising rookie campaign or will his free-swinging approach prevent him from progressing?

He definitely has 30 homer/100 RBI potential.

Keep an eye on the minor leagues, too. The Red Sox have five prospects on Baseball America’s Top 100 prospect preseason list, including the No. 8 prospect, shortstop Xander Bogaerts.

Outfielder Bryce Brentz, who has some power, and right-hander Allen Webster, the 49th ranked prospect in baseball, could see time in Boston.

There is nothing like seeing young ballplayers get their start in the big leagues (see Mike Trout and Bryce Harper last year).

Again, judge this team for where it was and where it is headed and not its $150 million payroll and its playoff drought. If you focus on the latter, your three-plus year Red Sox headache will persist.

Have a little fun this year. Embrace this team.

Follow Christopher Smith on Twitter @SmittyOnMLB