March 26, 2013

Tom Caron: April 1: A new tale of two cities

BOSTON - The new season begins where the old year ended.

Last Oct. 3, Red Sox were beaten 14-2 at Yankee Stadium, their eighth-straight loss to finish off a miserable season.

Next Monday, the Sox and Yankees meet as the two legendary franchises navigate uncharted waters.

Neither is expected to win the AL East. In fact, most publications will pick one or the other to finish last this season.

If neither makes the postseason, it would be the first time that has happened since the introduction of the wild card in 1995.

The Yankees have been hearing about the impending end of the dynasty for years. Yet they are still the defending division winners.

The Red Sox are in a completely different situation. They are trying to rebound from their worst season since 1965.

The Red Sox will be better than they were a year ago. Only three of the players from that final game of 2012 will be in the starting lineup next week.

They've added veterans like Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, Shane Victorino and Johnny Gomes. Will Middlebrooks is healthy again after missing the second half of last season.

They've rebuilt the bullpen with big-league additions, including Joel Hanrahan and Koji Uehara. They've bolstered the rotation with Ryan Dempster.

But is it enough?

Injuries are already a concern as they begin the 162-game marathon. David Ortiz won't be ready for the start of the season with problems related to his strained Achilles tendon.

And Drew has been slow to recover from a concussion he suffered during spring training.

In a way, those injuries could open the door to a glimpse of what could make the 2013 Red Sox better than anticipated.

With Ortiz on the sideline, Gomes (who has struggled at the plate this spring) could get some time at DH while he works on his swing. That would allow Jackie Bradley Jr., the most electrifying player in camp, to play in the outfield every day.

Bradley hit a home run Sunday off Cliff Lee, a great sign that the left-handed hitter can handle himself against left-handed pitching. Twitter has been filled with cries of "#playJBJ" for weeks.

Meantime, Jose Iglesias has quietly been hitting .273 for the Sox this spring. He dedicated his off-season to getting stronger and improving his approach at the plate. It has worked through a month of at-bats in Florida. With Drew out, Iglesias will get a chance to show his stuff for real next week.

We all know 2013 is the long-awaited bridge year to the future. Bradley and Iglesias might be key parts of that future, and it might be arriving earlier than we think. After all, Middlebrooks jumped into the lineup earlier than expected a year ago and will now be relied on to provide right-handed pop.

As we wonder what some of the older free agents will do to help this team, don't overlook the infusion of young players.

It could be the difference between a team that's hovering around mediocrity and one challenging for a wild-card spot.

Tom Caron is the studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on the New England Sports Network. His column appears in the Press Herald on Tuesdays.

 

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