First Pitch: Sox need revitalized Lester to help with turnaround

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First Pitch: Sox need revitalized Lester to help with turnaround

Jon Lester will make his 31st start of the season Friday night as the Red Sox begin their final homestand of the season, and barring anything unforeseen, will make two more after that before the season comes a merciful end on Oct. 3.

If Lester wins his final three starts -- something he's done once before this season, from Aug. 12-24 -- he'll avoid finishing with a losing record for the year.

Even that, however, would be cold comfort for Lester, who, like his team, has weathered a massively disappointing season. Lester entered this season with the third-highest winning percentage (.691) of any pitcher with a minimum of 50 decisions and the very fact that he will have to rally here in the final two weeks just to break even speaks
to how sub-par his season has been.

When Lester drew the Opening Day assignment from Bobby Valentine, it helped represent a passing of the torch for the lefty. Though Josh Beckett was then still a teammate, the choice of Lester to pitch April 5 symbolized that he -- and not the more experienced Beckett -- was the top pitcher on the staff.

Except Lester failed to make good on that designation. He won just five games in the first four months and was tagged for five runs or more five times in his first 20 starts.

Given his team's fall from contention -- and, at times, respectability -- the outcome of Lester's last three starts is largely irrelevant. At this late date, Lester's season is beyond redemption.

But, as the saying goes, there's always next year. And it's overstatement whatsoever to suggest that Lester may be the most important player if the Sox are going to successfully execute a turnaround in 2013. With Beckett dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers last month, Lester is, more than ever, the face of the pitching staff. It's impossible to foresee the Sox becoming contenders again without substantial contributions from the lefty.

Just what exactly has ailed Lester this year is difficult to pinpoint. His .314 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is up from his career average and suggests that he's been at least somewhat unlucky, as he has claimed more than once.

Still, there's far more to Lester's off-year than simple misfortune. Too often, he has seen his concentration wander as he disputes umpires' strike zones and there have been a few mechanical glitches to overcome.

One club source believes that, more than any Red Sox pitcher, Lester has suffered from the team's endless parade of pitching coaches since the end of 2010. Lester, the source said, needs a consistent, forceful message and he has not had that this season.

In addition to his occasionally wandering focus on the mound, Lester is prone to bouts of self-doubt in between outings. He benefits from someone who can expertly diagnose flaws in his mechanics. Neither Curt Young last season, nor the tag team of Bob McClure and Randy Niemann have fit that description.

But if the Sox can work out a deal with Toronto to get Farrell to manage next season, Lester could be a huge beneficiary.

"I guarantee that you that Farrell could fix Lester in about half an hour," said one of the pitcher's former teammates recently. The club source voiced a similar sentiment.

Lester had his best seasons with Farrell as his pitching coach. From 2008-2010, Lester averaged 207 innings and almost 17 wins per season, with a composite ERA of 3.25 in that span.

There's no guarantee that Farrell is returning and no assurance that he -- or anyone else -- can return the pitcher to his prior form. But put it this way: the Red Sox' path back to contention is a lot more complicated without a rejuvenated Lester leading the way.

The road back to respectability begins Friday night. The real journey begins next April.

Are Red Sox entering spring training with fewer questions than ever?

Are Red Sox entering spring training with fewer questions than ever?

BOSTON -- Every year it seems like there are major issues or question marks to start spring training where the answers are up in the air.

In 2015, the Red Sox lacked an ace, had Hanley Ramirez moving to left field and Pablo Sandoval coming to town.

In 2016, Ramirez was moving back to the infield, but at a new position, and his bat was in question. Sandoval was coming off a year where he couldn’t hit his weight (he hit .245 and he last weighed in at 255 pounds). How would the starting rotation look after David Price?

This year, there seem to be three questions, but in a way, they’ve already been answered.

How will the Red Sox make up for David Ortiz’s absence?

Well, for one, the Red Sox have three Cy Young-caliber starting pitchers (Price, Chris Sale and Rick Porcello) in their rotation.

And two, Hanley Ramirez is coming off a career year with his highest career output in RBI (111) and second-highest home run total (30). And while Mitch Moreland isn’t the greatest hitter, he’s good for 20 or more home runs. Plus, it seems he’s holding a spot for a certain Red Sox prospect who’s bouncing back well from an injury.

 

Will Sandoval earn the starting third base job back?

The weight loss is a good sign, not only for the physical reasons, but it shows he’s mentally committed to being better.

However, that doesn’t guarantee he gets his job back.

“I’m not going to say [third base] resolved itself,” John Farrell told CSNNE.com, “but you know Panda’s done a very good job of committing to get himself in better shape and we’re looking forward to seeing that play to in spring training.”

Even if Panda can’t put it all together, Farrell told reporters before Thursday’s BBWAA dinner, both Brock Holt and Josh Rutledge would be competing for the job as well.

Holt as plan B -- in the infield? Who wouldn’t take that?

Who’s going to start at catcher?

Sandy Leon, Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart each have their pros an cons.

Leon did it all last year, but went from hitting .383 in his first 39 games to .242 in his last 39.

Vazquez has Ivan Rodriguez-esque abilities behind the plate, but couldn’t keep the staff under control last year and cannot hit.

Swihart, who turns 25 April 3, is the youngest of the three, has the most potential at the plate, but is far and away the worst of the three defensively at the most important defensive position -- excluding pitcher -- on the field.

They all have their drawbacks, but they’ve all shown at some point why they can be the Red Sox starting catcher in the present and future.

Everywhere else, the Red Sox seem to be in a comfortable position as pitchers and catchers reporting to camp draws ever nearer.

“I think the fact that we’ve got veteran players that have done a great job in staying healthy [and] young players that are getting more establishing in their return, we’re in a pretty good place in terms of the overall status of our position player group,” Farrell told CSNNE.com.

And it seems some players are confident in the team’s options as they ready for camp.

“We’re looking good in a lot of areas,” shortstop Xander Bogaerts told CSNNE.com. “Especially the pitching staff, [since] we just got Chris Sale one of the best in the game.”

“Pablo’s definitely going to bounce back, especially with the weight he’s lost."

Francona, Epstein receive grand ovations at BBWAA dinner

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Francona, Epstein receive grand ovations at BBWAA dinner

BOSTON -- “I didn’t feel that love after I made a pitching change in the sixth inning,” Terry Francona said after a 45-second standing ovation from Boston fans upon receiving the MLB Manager of the Year award from the BBWAA Thursday.

It’s without question the love for Francona runs deep in the city. Why wouldn’t it? He was the leader in breaking the 86-year old curse, and wound up winning another World Series title for Boston three years later.

Actually, he was more of a co-leader, working alongside the same person who won the MLB Executive of the Year honors from the BBWAA for 2016.

Theo Epstein -- who received an ovation 17 seconds shorter than Francona, but who’s counting -- reminisced about the Red Sox ownership group that took a chance on a young kid who wasn’t necessarily the ideal candidate to take over as GM of a team, but now that’s helped him build the Chicago Cubs into a winning franchise and establish a great working environment.

This October marks 13 years since the ’04 championship, 10 years since ’07 and six years since the pair left Boston. Without question they’ve left their mark on the city and forever changed Red Sox baseball.

And while the fans showed their undying gratitude for Francona with an ovation almost as long as his acceptance speech, the Indians manager recognized the favor the current Red Sox brass has done for him.

“I’d like to thank Dave Dombrowski and the Red Sox for getting Chris Sale the hell out of the Central Division,” Francona said.