The Boston Red Sox begin their second century at Fenway Park with a lot of changes. Considering the way the first century ended, that's good.
Since missing the playoffs with the worst September collapse in baseball history — and post-season reports of players consuming fried chicken and beer during games — they've switched their manager and general manager and their approach to free agency.
No expensive contracts like the ones they gave Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford before last season. Instead, they stocked up on second-tier players who provide depth — outfielders Ryan Sweeney and Cody Ross, catcher Kelly Shoppach and infielder Nick Punto.
The Red Sox let closer Jonathan Papelbon go to Philadelphia for a $50 million US, four-year contract and replaced him with Andrew Bailey, who gets $3.9 million in a one-year deal. With strong free agent classes expected after the next two seasons, Boston may be saving its money for future investment.
"Other clubs are catching up in payroll," Red Sox owner John Henry said. "I think we have to be more careful with how we spend our money. There's a lot to consider with baseball economics going forward."
They still have one of baseball's highest payrolls, but Ben Cherington, who became GM when Theo Epstein took over as president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs, was somewhat constrained in his spending.
The Red Sox should be able to save some money on post-game refreshments. New manager Bobby Valentine replaced the more laid-back Terry Francona and banned alcohol from the clubhouse. The Boston Globe reported that starters Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and John Lackey drank beer and ate chicken during games while their teammates were in the dugout and on the field.
"We're not here to drink. We're here to play baseball," said designated hitter David Ortiz, who avoided arbitration with a $14,575,000 contract for 2012. "This ain't no bar. If you want to drink, drink at home."
The Red Sox went home early last year.
Boston was 7-20 in September and blew a nine-game lead. On the last day of the regular season, the Red Sox were beaten for the American League wild-card spot when they lost and Tampa Bay won.
"I've never been on a team that went 7-20," second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "I've won every year of my life. I was embarrassed. I hope a lot of the guys were, too. We can turn it around and have a great season."
Perhaps, but the competition in the AL East should be stiff.
The New York Yankees upgraded their rotation with Hiroki Kiroda, Michael Pineda and, perhaps, Andy Pettitte. The Rays have a young, deep and very talented stable of starting pitchers. A second wild-card team has been added in each league, but the competition for that should be tough with the improved Los Angeles Angels trying to overtake the Texas Rangers in the AL West.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox haven't won a playoff series in three years.
"We're going to be good," said Lester, tabbed by Valentine as the opening day starter at Detroit on April 5. "With the exception of one month, we were the best team in baseball."
Beckett is expected to get the call for the home opener on April 13 against Tampa Bay. And one week after that, the Red Sox open a three-game series against the Yankees exactly 100 years since the first game at Fenway.
Boston won that opener 7-6 over the Highlanders — New York's nickname before it became the Yankees — and went on to a franchise-best .691 winning percentage and a World Series championship. The Red Sox plan a season-long celebration, including a pre-game ceremony on April 20.
"We are going to do it in a major, big-time way," Red Sox president Larry Lucchino said. "This is an important year for us."
Especially on the field.
5th rotation spot unsettled
Lester, Beckett and Clay Buchholz are set at the top of the rotation. Setup man Daniel Bard has had a solid exhibition season transitioning to the starter's role, but the fifth spot seems unsettled with Felix Doubront and Vicente Padilla among those competing.
Tim Wakefield, the knuckleballer who was part of that rotation for most his 17 years with Boston, retired. So did catcher Jason Varitek, who spent all 15 of his major league seasons with the team.
"Whether or not a team wins a championship or comes in last, there's always concern how the attitude will develop in a new year," Valentine said. "Considering there were some major issues last year at the end and some major changes here in the beginning, I'm concerned about the attitude. But attitude filters down."
He said Beckett and Lester "have been showing a fantastic attitude."
Boston will start the season without left-fielder Crawford, recovering from left wrist surgery after a disappointing season. But Jacoby Ellsbury, the AL runner-up in the MVP voting, Kevin Youkilis, Pedroia, Gonzalez and Ortiz should provide plenty of punch.
"I feel pretty good and confident that they're going to show all of us that late 2011 is not what the Red Sox are about," Cherington said. "They have a chance to define what we're about moving forward."
And show their fans that they deserve their support.
"There's some good, there's some bad, but they're the best fans in baseball," Beckett said, "and I think we need to earn that trust back. The way we have to do that is just go about our business the way we have in previous years and win ball games. That's going to be the best way."