Give Wally something to cheer about (Getty Images)
The 2011 Red Sox crash landed in the final frames; chicken and beer seldom break anyone's fall. The 2012 Olde Town Team was a beat-the-traffic special, dead in the water before high tide.
Last year's messy results speak for themselves. Boston finished dead last in the AL East (69-93), its first basement tape since 1992. The offense didn't score (734 runs, worst showing in two decades), the pitchers couldn't get people out (4.72 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 190 homers allowed), and too many players couldn't stay healthy. If you came to Fenway Park in the summer, you were there for the park, the atmosphere or the opponent. (I attended one game and spent three innings in the concession area talking Fantasy Football with my buddy Cuozzo. So it goes. We love ya, Cooz.)
While Pennant Fever did not grip The Hub last year, there was a critical "adieu" moment. Boston's unmistakable 2012 highlight came in the transaction log, not on the field. The Red Sox shipped Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford - and their bloated contracts - to the Dodgers in late August, getting a collection of fringe players back. It's the largest salary dump in sports history, Boston's version of turning off the video game and starting over.
The Red Sox quickly put the liquidation savings into play, landing a handful of notable free agents over the winter (Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, Stephen Drew, and eventually Mike Napoli). Boston also traded for a new closer (Joel Hanrahan), and welcomed in a new manager (John Farrell; we'll miss the Bobby Valentine punchlines). Lesser signees included reliever Koji Uehara, hacking OF/DH Jonny Gomes and support catcher David Ross.
Yes, the 2013 roster will be different, and that's a welcome thing. But will the team be any good? Keep in mind most of the new acquisitions are coming off down years, and/or have injury baggage tied to them. Do we want to get fantasy-invested in these chaps? Chowder Up and let's mind our Ps and Qs . . .
Q: Three years and $39 million for Shane Victorino? Did the Red Sox learn nothing from the Crawford mistake?
Man of 1,000 Stances (1977 Topps)I'm actually on board with the signing. Victorino's skill set is very similar to Crawford's - these are versatile players who do a lot of different things well. Their career slash lines are in step: .275/.341/.430 for Victorino, .292/.332/.441 for Crawford. It's understandable that Victorino's contract is seen as an overpay given his mediocre return last year, but remember Crawford landed a seven-year, $142 million package. And Victorino's 2012 numbers can partly be blamed on nagging wrist, back and hand injuries. (Victorino is also nine months older, if that matters to you.)
Ideally Victorino profiles to a center field position, not somewhere on the corner, but the Red Sox should appreciate his defense in Fenway Park's beguiling right field. Victorino offers lineup flexibility (he's a switch hitter) and can play in any outfield spot; you didn't get those advantages with the mercurial Crawford.
Victorino has been a bargain in the early mocks, checking in at 131.29 ADP on Mock Draft Central (that's 40th among outfielders). The betting public, for now, seems to prefer names like Mike Morse, Nick Swisher, Jayson Werth and even Crawford. If you can get that sort of price tag on draft day, I suggest you take it. Victorino is never going to be a sexy fantasy pick, but a .275-87-13-58-32 type of year would be welcome for anyone. That's my projection, anyway, take it or leave it. (If you prefer Bill James, well, he's in the same area on Victorino: .269-85-14-59-29. Stay open minded on this one, gamers.)
Q: Can we trust Joel Hanrahan, the new closer?
After watching the majority of MLB bullpens burn to the ground in 2012, it's difficult to trust almost anyone in the saves chase. Hanrahan, like most stoppers, has his plusses and minuses. He pushed his K/9 back over 10 last year, but that came with a silly jump in walks (36 in all, none of them intentional). Hanrahan also served up eight homers (up from just one the previous year), and his 2.72 ERA was partially born from good fortune (low hit rate, high strand rate). The Pirates probably picked a good time to flip the 31-year-old fireballer.
The earliest set of Yahoo! consensus staff rankings lists Hanrahan as the No. 15 reliever (and no one in the Y-5 had him higher than 14th). This slot speaks to the risks involved with Hanrahan (league change, the walk and homer problem), the current state of the Red Sox, and the depth of the Red Sox bullpen. Andrew Bailey clearly starts the year as the primary set-up man, but it might not take much to get him back into the ninth inning.
If the price is right and I can land Hanrahan as a second or third closer in a mixed league, okay, sign me up. But this doesn't look like a legitimate target player. Like so many others in the pool, the response of the room will determine how I approach this commodity.
Q: What's going on with Mike Napoli? One day he's a $39 million man, then he downshifts to a $5 million bargain buy?
The false start of the offseason was Boston's courting of Napoli, a free agent. The two sides seemed to agree to a three-year, $39 million package in early December, but Napoli's mysterious hip problem held up the deal and eventually squashed it entirely. Six weeks later an agreement was reached on a much smaller contract: one year, $5 million. Incentives are in place which might raise Napoli to the original $13 million per season, though obviously this new deal is only a one-year hitch.
Normally a hip problem would be a deal breaker with respect to a catcher, but Napoli is in line to be one of our favorite fantasy short-cuts: he's going to be a catcher-eligible batter not asked to handle the tools of ignorance very often (if at all). The Red Sox have Jarrod Saltalamacchia and David Ross behind the plate, so Napoli can focus on his best position: batter.
The current plan is for Napoli to be the regular first baseman, asking him to take his hacks at Fenway's left-field wall (with a bunch of walks thrown into the mix). If he can approach his career average (.259) with regular power (he's clocked 20 or more homers for five straight years), this should easily be a Top 10 backstop in our make-believe world. It just comes down to health. The early Yahoo! consensus slots Napoli No. 8 on the catcher board.
Q: Will the real Ryan Dempster please stand up?
Dempster had a Heaven and Hell season for 2012, rolling along with the Cubs (2.25/1.04 over 16 starts) then collapsing with the Rangers (5.09/1.43 over 12 starts). Mind you, the Rangers had his back for seven wins, while the stumbling Cubs limited Dempster to a 5-5 record, but those Arlington ratios will ruin anyone's line. The variance stats helped Dempster in Chicago and hurt him in Texas, as you'd expect. Mostly, this is a simplistic example of how life differs between the two leagues.
Dempster certainly doesn't shy away from a challenge, signing up for two years in Boston ($26.5 million). There isn't a weak opponent in the division, and there are ballpark pitfalls to worry about, too. Fantasy owners can probably expect 160-180 strikeouts here, but is it worth the risk to the ratios? I'm viewing Dempster as a pitcher who will likely have an ERA around 4.00 and a WHIP close to 1.30; in any mixed league, you need to shoot higher. Dempster figures to be more valuable to the Red Sox than he is to fantasy owner, and with his 36th birthday awaiting in May, there's more downside than upside.
Lansdowne Leftovers: We haven't seen much roto return from Stephen Drew since 2010, though a broken ankle two years back plays into the story (Drew didn't look right for much of 2012). He turns 30 in March and he's entering a put-up or shut-up year, a one-year contract in Boston. If he can approach the player we saw in the 2008-2010 pocket (say a .275 average, modest power, a few steals), fantasy owners might reap a tidy profit. Watch him closely in spring training. … Jacoby Ellsbury is another high-variable Boston player; he probably was the AL's best position player in 2011, but he was an injury washout in 2010 and not worth a lot last year (74 games, four homers, 14 steals). Your stance on Ellsbury probably comes down to your strategy with big-name, high-variance players. He's currently slotting as the No. 31 player on Mock Draft Central, a mid-third round pick. If I already had two low-risk players in the bank, I could see gambling on Ellsbury in that pocket. … John Lackey has some Boston buzz tied to him; reportedly he's lost a significant amount of weight, and seems ready to contribute after missing a full season coming back from Tommy John surgery. I don't see any reason to chase this angle in a mixer, given what Lackey has shown in his Boston tenure; let this story come to you (no one will be surprised if he never makes it to the pickup queue). … One of Farrell's first projects will be fixing Jon Lester. Boston's ace was a mess in 2012 (4.82 ERA, 1.38 WHIP), watching his strikeout rate collapse while batters were easily squaring up his offerings (homers went up, and the line-drive rate spiked from 16 to 22 percent). There was a slight velocity dip at play, but Lester's biggest problems might have been locating and commanding his pitches. He's coming into his Age 29 season, and could be a tidy profit for a risk-reward drafter. He's currently the No. 44 pitcher on Mock Draft Central, the 168th player off the board. I've been wary of Lester in recent years, but at that price I'm excited about the payoff potential. … The key for Jonny Gomes is not getting exposed with too much playing time: he has a .284/.382/.512 career slash against lefties, but he loses 162 OPS points against everyone else. His spotty fielding at least won't be a big issue at home; there's very little space to worry about in Fenway Park's left field.