EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 31, 2013

Nine RED SOX storylines to follow in 2013

Christopher Smith's

---- — Will fans forgive ownership?

Is there a more disliked owner in Boston than John Henry and a more disliked executive than Larry Lucchino?

Is it justified? After all, Henry spent oodles of money for the Red Sox to win two World Series and he still is spending top dollar.

Many blame ownership for feeding The Boston Globe dirt on Terry Francona, who still is beloved by fans. Henry and Co. deny it.

And ownership’s PR stunts (see sellout streak) and supposed interference in baseball operations with an eye on TV ratings haven’t helped either.

Can ownership win back the fans?

Winning helps everything. But right now, fans would rather sit down to dinner with Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs than anyone from the Fenway Sports Group.

How will the opening road trip unfold?

The Red Sox went 0-6 on a road trip before Opening Day at Fenway in 2011. Last year, Boston went 1-5 before the home opener.

The BoSox begin the year with three games at New York and three more at Toronto.

If they return winless or 1-5, expect Fenway Park to be a graveyard in April despite the decreased beer prices and the two-for-one Fenway Frank deal.

How well did Cherington evaluate free agents?

GM Ben Cherington was given his first real chance to sign free agents this offseason.

The class was headlined by right fielder Shane Victorino and starting pitcher Ryan Dempster.

Theo Epstein and Red Sox failed in recent years evaluating the free agent market (see John Lackey and Carl Crawford).

Dempster, a 15-year veteran, made his AL debut last year with Texas and was dismal in 12 starts (5.09 ERA, his worst in nine years).

Victorino, 32, is coming off a career-worst season offensively and has a mediocre .341 career OBP. Both are questionable signings.

How well they perform should tell us a lot about Cherington.

Are the 2013 Red Sox finally a likable team?

The 2011 and 2012 Red Sox weren’t likable at all from fried chicken and beer stories to Josh Beckett’s petulance to Adrian Gonzalez’s apathy to Carl Crawford’s pathetic on-base percentage to Bobby Valentine’s ignorance about injuries and everything else.

The Red Sox have added character guys (Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, David Ross, Jonny Gomes) who play hard. Now that the culture in the clubhouse has begun to change, will the fans buy in?

5. Will the pitching improve?

Boston ranked 27th in ERA (4.70) in the majors last year and didn’t make the playoffs.

Boston ranked 22nd (4.20) in 2011 and didn’t make the playoffs.

Boston ranked 22nd (4.19) in 2010 and didn’t make the playoffs.

See a trend?

Starting pitching has been the downfall, including the rotation combining for a 5.19 ERA last year. Will things turn around with former pitching coach John Farrell as manager?

6. Is Salty the catcher going forward?

It’s difficult to find a catcher with Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s power. He blasted 25 homers last year. Only two catchers had more.

But his .288 on-base percentage and defensive woes could lead to his exit sooner rather than later. His catcher ERA was 4.88, 89th out of 108 big league backstops.

Boston did sign 36-year-old David Ross, a defensive whiz, to a two-year deal to complement Saltalamacchia.

7. How big of a mistake was the Ortiz contract?

The Red Sox certainly wouldn’t have signed a 37-year-old DH David Ortiz to a two-year deal in the offseason if they had known he was going to start the season on the disabled list.

Every day Ortiz spends on the DL is additional proof that it was a giant mistake.

Boston averaged approximately one fewer run a game after Ortiz suffered his Achilles’ injury July 16. But how many games will he play?

8. Will Napoli explode offensively?

The Red Sox tentatively agreed to a three-year contract with Mike Napoli but the deal was shortened to one year after an MRI revealed he has avascular necrosis in both his hips.

Napoli is feeling good and ready to play tomorrow. He has a 1.107 OPS with seven homers, 17 RBIs and four doubles in 62 regular season at-bats at Fenway.

Even if the catcher-turned-first baseman has a terrific year, the Red Sox probably won’t re-sign him since he has the same hip condition that led Bo Jackson to have his hip replaced.

9. Will Carl Crawford flop in LA?

Carl Crawford, arguably the biggest free agent flop in Red Sox history, is expected to start for the Dodgers on Opening Day after undergoing Tommy John surgery last year.

Away from what he called Boston’s “toxic” baseball environment, the $142 million man is much more relaxed. Although he’ll catch some heat if he plays like he did in Boston: .260 average, .292 on-base percentage, while only playing 161 games in two years.

Is he washed up or can he return to All-Star form?