First pitch: Valentine proven to be expert evaluator

728228.jpg

First pitch: Valentine proven to be expert evaluator

Less than three months into his first season as manager of the Red Sox, Bobby Valentine has hardly been what many expected.

Known as something of a baseball provocateur, with a penchant for engaging in public -- and not always complimentary -- comments about his players, Valentine has been strangely muted. It's the opinion of many that when Valentine saw the harsh reaction to his tweak of Kevin Youkilis just 10 days into the season, he retreated from his habit of sending messages through the media.

Thought to be a superb in-game manager, Valentine has instead made some strategic moves that have had both players and club officials scratching their heads. Two weeks ago, to cite on curious decision, he sent Clay Buchholz back out for the ninth inning against the Baltimore Orioles with the game well in hand -- the Sox led 7-0 -- and his starter's pitch count already over 100 pitches.

(It was not lost on those around the club that Buchholz recently passed on a request to pitch Sunday night in place of Josh Beckett on what would have been Buchholz's regular day to throw, citing a need for additional between-start rest. Valentine discussed Buchholz' decision on Saturday.)

But if Valentine has been something less than advertised when it comes to pushing the buttons of players or outwitting the opposition from the dugout, he's proved to still be a top-notch talent evaluator.

In spring training, Valentine argued that reliever-turned-starter Daniel Bard was better suited to pitch out of the bullpen. Bard's massive struggles in adapting to the demands of the rotation proved Valentine's instincts correct.

More recently, Valentine campaigned for reliever Franklin Morales to get some work as a starter. Working toward that goal, he had stretched out the lefty's innings load in two recent relief appearances, prepping
him for a spot start.

When the opportunity came Sunday night in the road trip finale, Morales flourished, reflecting well on the manager's faith in him and validating his judgement.

Morales hadn't started in the big leagues over the last three years, but Valentine saw something that would translate. And indeed, Morales was brilliant, striking out nine while walking none over five innings, during which he allowed just two runs on four hits.

Clearly, a five-inning outing against the worst team in baseball guarantees little for Morales, beyond a second start when Beckett's turn comes around again Saturday.

What's more, Valentine seemed unable -- or at least unwilling -- to articulate exactly what he saw in Morales that made the manager believe he'd be a worthy starter.

Right, however, is right.

That's not to suggest that Valentine has been infallible when it comes to evaluating. Mike Aviles, whom Valentine judged to be a less-than-appealing option at short during spring training, has played far better than the manager expected.

But even the best talent evaluators stumble at times and when players exceed expectations, there's little damage done.

Valentine's on-target assessment of how to best utilize his roster -- exemplified not only by his evaluation of Bard and Morales, but his ability to fashion a working bullpen alignment after closer Andrew Bailey went down late in spring training -- is telling and suggests that he deserves a bigger role in such future decisions.

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

world_series_francona_epstein_102416.png

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.