Little change in roster, big change in culture

Little change in roster, big change in culture
March 31, 2012, 7:54 pm
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The players, by and large, are the same. Of the nine expected to be in the starting lineup next Thursday, seven started at their position last year, and when Carl Crawford returns, the number will increase to eight.

The starting rotation, meanwhile, features the same Big Three.

For a team which experienced an epic meltdown last September, relinquishing a 9 12 game lead in the process and edged out of the post-season in the final inning of the final game, the 2012 Red Sox closely resemble the 2011 Red Sox -- for better or worse.

There were no free agent splurges or blockbuster deals, no mission to overhaul the roster. The Sox carefully watched the payroll and focused on changing the culture instead.

In the winter of their discontent, the most impactful move the organization made was not to its roster of players, but rather, in the manager's office.

Bobby Valentine, then, is the ''X factor.'' Strong-willed, assertive and involved, he will not go unnoticed.

Two weeks ago, Valentine was asked about putting his stamp on the club.

Valentine demurred, insisting that it was his goal to mostly stay out of the way and "provide'' whatever it is that the team required.

Surely, he was being immodest. Few modern-day managers have a more direct hand on the teams more than Valentine, known for his unorthodox ideas, creative strategy and a dominant personality.

In a sport in which managers seem to be more caretakers than catalysts, Valentine is the exception to the rule. As such, how he does his job will have a significant effect on the success of the Red Sox.

Said one long-time evaluator who has known Valentine for years: "This will either go really well, or really bad.''

Indeed, it is difficult to find people in the game who are neutral on the subject of Valentine. For some, he is a brilliant motivator and strategist; for others, he is seen as manipulative and overbearing.

Much will depend on how his players respond. Had ownership and management tried -- and there's evidence to suggest that they did just that -- they could not have found a more dramatic contrast to his predecessor, Terry Francona.

It's hardly unusual for teams to choose managers whose style represents a complete 180-degree shift from the man whom he replaces, and in that sense, Valentine is a textbook choice.

While Francona zealously protected his players in public -- even if he was not above criticism and discipline in private -- Valentine is known for his almost casual critiques of players' shortcoming.

And so it was that, in the opening weeks of camp that he assessed outfielder Ryan Sweeney's mechanics as "horrible,'' and breezily noted that reliever Mark Melancon had, during one particularly rough outing, demonstrated an ability to "back up the bases.''

(Days later, Valentine insisted that the remark about Melancon was meant to be playful and stemmed from a self-effacing remark that Melancon himself had made to the manager. For those in attedance, however, it clearly did not come off as such).

While Francona was almost paternal with his players, Valentine serves as more of caustic boss, unafraid to make less-than-flattering assessments.

In a market such as Boston, where fan interest and media scrutiny run high, that may provde a delicate balancing act.

Those who know Valentine best regard him as a superb teacher and strong evaluator. The former could come in handy as the Sox work to integrate the likes of Jose Iglesias, Ryan Lavarnway and Will Middlebrooks over the next year or so.

As for the latter, this area, too, bears watching. By nature, managers tend to view personnel decisions differently than do general managers.

Managers are focused on the here-and-now, while GMs typically take a longer view, one based less on immediate results and more on career development.

Eventually, Valentine and first-year Ben Cherington will clash (reports of infighting over Iglesias would seem to be overstated) -- how those differences are resolved, and by whom, could go a long way in determining how successful Valentine will be in Boston.

Valentine's theories -- he said earlier in camp that pitching from a full windup is outmoded -- can be outrageous at times, but they seem designed more to shock and entertain than to revolutionize the game.

His in-game style will be more aggressive than Red Sox' fans are accustomed to. While Francona was more than satisfied to wait for his powerful lineup to unleash its might and eschewed "small ball,'' Valentine tends to be more unorthodox. Look for some unique defensive alignments, more baserunners in motion and a generally more aggressive style.

Potentially, though there are potential weaknesses -- shortstop and the bullpen, to name two -- this is the best roster Valentine has inherited. The lineup -- essentially unchanged except for the departure of J.D. Drew -- led the majors in runs scored and the rotation could be dominant if both Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz rebound from 2011.

It will be the job of Valentine to find capable back-of-the-rotation solutions and manage his bullepn effectively.

But ultimately, Valentine will succeed or fail based on the talent provided him. If the 2012 Red Sox play as 2011 Sox played from May through August, when they compiled the best record in the American League, Valentine will be hailed as a turnaround specialist.

If they stumble out of the gate -- as they did a year ago -- or fold down the stretch, he will be judged harshly.

For this, what is likely to be the 61-year-old's final major league managing job, it is win or else.

And in that respect, even if his methods and personality are unlike any Red Sox manager in recent history, he is no different.