The Boston Red Sox announced Monday the passing of team Hall of Famer Bill Monbouquette because of complications from leukemia. Monbouquette, 78, died on Sunday at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
A native of Medford, Massachusetts, Monbouquette, who was affectionately referred to as "Monbo," was signed by the Red Sox out of Medford High School and spent the first eight years of his 11-year career with the team. He was a four-time All-Star with Boston, going 96-91 with a 3.69 ERA in his time with the team.
At the end of his playing career, Monbouquette served 38 years as a scout and coach for several teams, retiring from baseball in 2005. In recent years, Monbouquette was a frequent visitor to Fenway Park. He was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2000.
Monbouquette is survived by his wife, Josephine, as well as three children, Marc, Michel, and Merric, and three grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.
“He’s going to be awesome,” Kelly said. “He carried our team -- the [St. Louis] Cardinals -- for multiple years. He was the best hitter on our team, hands down. We had Matt Hollidays, we had Lance Berkmans. But check out any playoff games, any stats, the guy was our best player, 100 percent.
No doubt a high expectation to live up to. But when Craig got his say hours later, he spoke with confidence about how good he feels now compared with what he was in his stint with the Red Sox after being traded to the team by the Cardinals at the July 31 deadline.
“I can’t reiterate enough that I feel really good physically,” Craig said. “I’ve had time to lift and just get ready physically and work on some things mechanically and this and that. It’s been good.”
The side of Craig that Red Sox fans are unfamiliar with is the one Kelly spoke of. As a full-time starter with the Cardinals, Craig earned National League MVP votes in 2012 and 2013. He was considered among the most dangerous hitters in the game, especially with runners in scoring position, where he hit a robust .454 in 130 at-bats in 2013.
Then came a Lisfranc injury to his left foot in September of 2013 that completely derailed Craig. He returned to face the Red Sox in the World Series, but still dealt with the pain. Opting to let it heal naturally, he struggled at the plate last season, hitting .237 in 97 games with the Cardinals. After the trade to Boston, it only got worse -- a .128 average in 29 games.
“My foot injury definitely impacted my preparation for last year,” Craig said. “My foot felt good obviously for the majority of the season. I think it just impacted some leg strength and this and that. You can talk about it all day but the bottom line is I’ve had time this offseason to feel good and get stronger and actually build toward something for this season.”
One problem: As of now Craig is a man without a starting position on this year’s Red Sox. With Mike Napoli manning first, David Ortiz at designated hitter and an already crowded outfield, where Craig fits in remains to be determined. The team has spoken to him about seeing time at third base -- a position he played in the minors -- but even then Craig falls behind Pablo Sandoval on the team’s depth chart.
Craig isn’t worried about it, however. He feels it will all take care of itself. He took the first month of his offseason off to clear his head, spending time with his wife, Marie, and daughter, Eden. He hasn’t paid attention to any trade rumors that have surrounded him this offseason. And he knows when the Red Sox traded for him, they traded for the everyday player he once was. The player he knows he’s capable of being again.
The player that Kelly speaks so highly about.
“He’s definitely motivated and I can see the drive,” Kelly said. “He’s not nicknamed ‘The Baseball-Whacker Guy’ for nothing. He’s going to go out there and hit some balls hard off that wall.
“It’s going to be fun watching him come out and he’s going to start whacking and people are going to be like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know he could do that.’ Well, he can do it.”
The last-to-first-to-last-again Boston Red Sox have completed yet another overhaul, importing Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, as well as expecting full seasons from Rusney Castillo and Mookie Betts, to reinforce an offense that sputtered to a 27th-overall wRC+ finish in 2014. But that's nothing compared to the changes in the rotation, in which six of the nine pitchers who started at least 10 games last year are gone.
In place of Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jake Peavy, Rubby De La Rosa, Allen Webster and Felix Doubront, the Sox head into 2015 with a rotation fronted by Rick Porcello, Wade Miley and Justin Masterson, as well as holdovers Joe Kelly and Clay Buchholz. For a team that entered the offseason simply needing to find enough arms to field a team for the season, it's an interesting collection of potentially useful arms.
That said, the idea of "Rick Porcello, Opening Day starter" isn't exactly going to sell tickets, and that's the main criticism leveled at Boston this winter: "Where's the ace?!" Having whiffed on the chance to bring Lester back and so far unable to satisfy Philadelphia's demands for Cole Hamels, the Red Sox don't appear to have the guy needed to make a postseason run. Maybe they don't, but maybe they don't need to. Here's why the Red Sox are just fine the way they are -- for now, at least.
Just look at his former teammate, Max Scherzer. Scherzer entered this offseason as one of the top free-agent pitchers before signing a seven-year, $210 million deal with the Washington Nationals.
Porcello said he didn't talk to Scherzer much during the entire process. But he definitely recognized the end result, prompting him to text Scherzer after the deal was complete.
"I text messaged him and said, 'Good for you, you lucky you-know-what,' " Porcello said.
It could be Porcello in the same shoes as Scherzer next offseason. Having just been traded to the Red Sox by the Detroit Tigers in December, Porcello said Saturday at the team's Baseball Winter Weekend that he isn't yet ready to consider signing an extension to stay in Boston beyond the one year he has left on his current contract.
"I just got here and met the guys last night, so I think it's premature for that," Porcello said. "I'm just trying to settle in and fit in with everybody and get to know the guys and get to know the staff."
Porcello and the Red Sox avoided arbitration earlier this month with a reported one-year, $12.5 million deal. At 26 with six major league seasons already under his belt, Porcello would represent an interesting free-agency case given his age.
While he hasn't come close to posting Scherzer-like numbers yet in his career, he did enjoy his finest season in 2014, going 15-13 with a 3.43 ERA and eclipsing the 200-inning threshold for the first time. Given the money that teams have paid for quality starting pitchers in recent years, Porcello acknowledged there are clear benefits to such, although he's more focused on just pitching well in 2015.
"Growing up you played baseball because you love playing the sport and then the money stuff gets thrown around. And obviously for somebody -- in a personal, financial standpoint -- that's a huge opportunity and a big thing to look at," Porcello said. "But I think, at least for me over the course of my career, no matter how much money I'd make, I'm not happy unless I'm playing well. That's first and foremost."
Of course, the Red Sox are likely to be interested in extending Porcello given the premium talent (Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes) they gave up to acquire him. But as spring training approaches and the negotiating window before the season starts to close, it appears Porcello doesn't have his mind set on the matter right now.
"I think right now the most important thing on my mind is getting to know the guys and fitting in to the clubhouse and preparing to have a good year," he said. "Whatever else happens, it happens. My focus is on the baseball aspect of things and getting ready to perform."
Porcello joked that now that Scherzer has made "all those big dollars," he may not have time for him anymore. With another strong season, Porcello figures to put himself in a similar situation next offseason.
He could be the next lucky you-know-what.
The Red Sox first baseman suffered from a condition known as obstructive sleep apnea, a disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts while your throat muscles intermittently relax and block your airway during sleep. When the airway narrows or closes and constricts a person's breathing, it lowers the level of oxygen in the blood. The brain senses the impaired breathing and rouses the person in order to reopen the airway. Those awakenings can be so brief the person doesn’t remember them.
There were numerous nights, Napoli said, in which he woke 50 to 100 times, which left him so sleep-deprived he’d sometimes nap during batting practice just so he could play in that night’s game.
So tough, Napoli said, that at the end of the past season he told Red Sox officials he was considering retirement, unless he underwent surgery to correct the condition.
"I was feeling, I’ve got to have surgery or I’m not going to play anymore. That’s how bad it was," he said. "I had a really bad episode one night. I would wake up, and I couldn’t breathe. I’d kind of freak out. You wouldn’t know where you were.
"I came in and I said, 'I need to see the doctor now.' I wanted the surgery yesterday."
The procedure, known as maxillomandibular advancement surgery, is typically a last resort for those afflicted with obstructive sleep apnea because of what it entails: a face-altering, three-to-four hour operation in which both the upper jaw (maxilla) and lower jaw (mandible) are moved forward, so the entire airway can be enlarged.
In November, two weeks after undergoing surgery on a toe that had troubled him most of the season, Napoli went to Massachusetts General Hospital, where the jaw surgery was performed by Dr. Leonard Kaban. Napoli had delayed the procedure a month because he needed three months from the time he stopped taking medication for avascular necrosis, a degenerative bone condition in his hips, after an MRI showed his hip was improving.
Nothing could have prepared him for what he underwent on Kaban’s operating table.
"It was a brutal process," he said. "It was probably one of the worst things I’ve ever done, to tell you the truth. They broke my upper and lower jaw and moved it forward. I spent two days in ICU [intensive care unit], and afterwards, there were 10 days of pain where I was just sitting there, I couldn’t do anything. I walked around a little bit.
"I still have some complications. I don’t have any feeling in my lips, just because they stretched out my jaw so far, all the nerves take time to get back. It’s like when you go to the dentist [and get novocaine]. You know when it gets tingly, [the feeling] is starting to come back? My upper lip is like that, but [not in] my lower lip, the front of my teeth. I can’t really feel the roof of my mouth. It could be a year, or it might not ever come back."
A harrowing story, to be sure, but one from which dreams are made of.
"I’m dreaming now," Napoli said. "The past eight years, I haven’t had a dream because I never went into REM [Rapid Eye Movement sleep, when most dreams occur), so it was always a battle playing in the game, trying to get through a game. Our game is a grind. You’re going every day.
"I know it’s going to be better for me. I wake up at 6 in the morning and start my day. I don’t remember the last time I’ve done that. I sleep eight hours."
Even the lip numbness has had an unexpected benefit: Napoli has given up dipping tobacco.
"Yeah, it’s awesome," he said. "I'm happy about that."
Napoli, who remained in Boston the entire offseason instead of returning to his Florida home, said he was given the go-ahead to begin working out about two-and-a-half weeks ago. Although unable to do his normal offseason workout routine, he insisted, "I haven’t really lost too much strength." Building up endurance is now the priority, and he expects to be ready for the start of the season.
"I started hitting. I’m throwing. I’m lifting weights. I’m running," he said. "I couldn’t clench my teeth for a certain amount of time, so I couldn’t do strenuous stuff, but I got the full go from the doctor.
"I don’t feel like I’m that far behind. I'm going down to [spring training] on the third [of February]. All the trainers are going to be down there. I'll hit outside, do all my stuff there. Everything is looking good."
There is a definite narrowing in the shape of Napoli’s face -- in part, perhaps, because of his weight loss and not just the surgery. On Saturday, his beard was neatly trimmed, and he was sporting a new tattoo on his arm. ("I’m not done yet," he said of the new ink).
Eating can be a challenge ("You don’t want to watch me chew"), but he is no longer spilling water the way he did in the first weeks after the surgery. The heavy snoring is gone, and an energy he hasn't had in years has returned.
"It’s been a good offseason," he said. "It’s been a tough offseason, but I think it was worth it."
He didn’t back down when asked about his prediction afterward.
“Yeah, I’m going to win this year,” Kelly said. “That’s what I told the radio guys. They didn’t believe me, so sucks to be them.”
Needless to say, the 26-year-old isn’t lacking in confidence. Traded to the Red Sox from the St. Louis Cardinals at last season's July 31 deadline, Kelly went 6-4 with a 4.20 ERA in 17 starts between the two teams. Although those numbers don’t jump off the screen, Kelly missed a good deal of time early in the season with a hamstring injury, in addition to having to adjust to the American League after being traded.
Looking forward to 2015, Kelly feels it will be a fresh start for him.
“Last year, getting hurt -- it was horrible for me,” Kelly said. “Getting hurt, I was gone for three months and then traded. I felt like I didn’t even have a season last year. It’s something that I’m looking forward to this year. Hopefully -- knock on wood -- I’ll pitch the whole year healthy and get through it and be pitching in October and not having any arm problems or any leg problems. Just go out there and kick some butt.”
Kelly certainly let his personality show Saturday in joking around with reporters while wearing a T-shirt that read “I’m not weird, I’m a pitcher.” However, he said he picks his spots when it comes to his mood and noted that on days he takes the mound, he’s a completely different person.
“I’m an angry dude when it comes to my start day,” Kelly said. “I’m trying to beat the crap out of everybody I see. I want to dominate every player, even if it’s my best friend. Those other four days, I want to be a good teammate, I want to be in the dugout, I want to be loud, I want to be cheering. ... It’s just my personality.
“But this is a fan fest. I’m having a good time. I’m having fun. I let my personality come out. But when it comes time to strap it on, I’ll punch you right in the nose before you get me, that’s for sure.”
It’s that type of bullish mentality that has Kelly believing he’ll back up the prediction. Whether you agree is your choice. But teammate Allen Craig, who came with Kelly in the trade from St. Louis to Boston, isn’t questioning him anytime soon.
“I wouldn’t bet against that guy,” Craig said.
Third baseman Pablo Sandoval and left fielder Hanley Ramirez haven’t often dealt with this type of weather. Ramirez, a native of the Dominican Republic, endured winter-like conditions in his time with the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs as a Red Sox prospect, but that was nearly a decade ago. Meanwhile, Sandoval, a native of Venezuela, had never seen snow before in his life.
That’s not the reason why either is looking forward to spring, though. For both, it’s about the start of a new season with a new team, and the two are expected to be among the earliest arrivals at Fort Myers next month.
Position players are expected to report by Feb. 24. Sandoval, who lives in Miami, is planning to make his first trip Feb. 2. Meanwhile, Ramirez will be there a week later, arriving Feb. 9.
Needless to say, the two are excited to make their mark as members of the Red Sox.
“I think my vacation has been too long,” Ramirez said. “It’s time to start working and get to know my new teammates.”
Of course, it’s not just teammates whom Ramirez will have to get to know. Having never played a game in the outfield at the professional level, Ramirez will spend time working with first base coach and outfield instructor Arnie Beyeler, as he learns the ropes at his new position.
“He’s a great guy, he likes to work,” Ramirez said. “He told me, ‘If you don’t feel comfortable on one play or whatever, you just tell me and I can help you.’ He’s got some ideas for me so he can make my job easier.”
At this point, Ramirez has begun basic outfield drills, including tracking balls over his head, ranging side to side, and hitting the cutoff man on his throws. He also quipped that after meeting speedy outfielder Mookie Betts over the weekend, he told Betts that he expects him to handle any fly balls that come their way.
All jokes aside, Ramirez sounded confident in his ability to handle the position.
“I think if I put in all the work that I need to put to get better, it’s not going to be that hard,” Ramirez said.
As for Sandoval, getting to Fort Myers early is just going to a new location to continue his offseason workout program. The 28-year-old plans to spend a week with the team there, then head back to Miami before returning for good.
“As soon as possible that I can get there to get better with the guys, get close with those guys,” Sandoval said.
Despite having a slow start at the plate last season that saw him carry a .177 batting average into the month of May, Sandoval isn’t concerned about getting off to a similar start this year. In his mind, it’s not how you start but how you finish -- which in his case was pretty good, as he hit .366 in the postseason while leading his team to a third World Series title in five years.
Sandoval reiterated Saturday that his decision to leave the San Francisco Giants was only because he was looking for a new challenge. He talked about how things had come full circle there, leading him to sign with Boston this offseason instead of returning to San Francisco.
He was, however, proudly sporting his 2012 World Series ring, which he said he will always wear until he gets his ring from last year.
“That is what I keep as motivation,” he said.
At the end of the day, it isn't about anything more for Sandoval or Ramirez -- no particular statistics or awards. It’s about winning, something the two are expected to help a team that finished last in their division last year after winning it all in 2013 do.
Sandoval already has three rings and is looking for his fourth. Meanwhile, Ramirez said his ring finger is ready for his first. That quest begins early next month.
“Most of the team’s [already] got rings,” Ramirez said. “We just want to [give] as many as we can to the city.”
"They kind of blind-sided me with that," Pedroia said. "I haven’t played in like three years, but they said the owner’s playing and he’s telling TV he’s going to kick your ass, so I guess I’d better get down there.
"I played with him for a little bit, then I got my timing down and started spanking balls."
Clearly, a three-year layoff didn’t affect his forehand smash as Pedroia disposed of Werner. And now, after two straight years of surgery on his left hand related to his thumb, the Red Sox second baseman unabashedly predicts that baseballs will be jumping off his bat the way they did before he was hurt.
"The big difference, I got a chance to lift weights," Pedroia said. "My upper body, it’s been awhile. It kind of shriveled up, you know. Not anymore.
"That's part of what makes me good, being able to work out in the offseason and build up, maintain it over the year and always stay on my lifting program. Last year I couldn’t lift a dumbbell. I lifted [with] my legs. My legs were strong, defensively I was fine because my legs were strong. But the upper body, if you can’t do the things you want to do, you’re not going to have the bat speed you normally have. That’s changed."
Pedroia’s offense has declined in each of the past four seasons, from an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of .861 in 2011 to .797 in 2012, .787 in 2013 and a career-low .712 last season, which ended for him Sept. 11 when he underwent an operation on his left hand with the cumbersome name of FirstDorsal Compartment Release with Tenosynovectomy. The surgery is designed to relieve something known as De Quervain's tenosynovitis, a painful condition affecting the tendons on the thumb side of the wrist.
According to the Mayo Clinic website, a person with De Quervain's will experience pain with every turn of the wrist, while making a fist or trying to grasp something. The condition developed after Pedroia tore a ligament in his left thumb in the opening game of 2013, an injury with which he played while missing just two games the entire season.
Pedroia declared he is fully recovered. "I’m ready, ready to go," he said. "Everything, man. If it started tomorrow, I’d be good.
"I’m very excited. Obviously after last year, we didn’t play very well. We’ve got a lot of stuff to prove."
Manager John Farrell had suggested this winter that the team might look to give Pedroia a little more rest than in the past, but the player wasn’t hearing of it.
"I plan on playing 162," Pedroia said. "He said that because my numbers were impacted by that [last season]. I started 178 games [in 2013, including playoffs] with a torn thumb. Obviously I’m human. The next year you’re going to have a tough time.
"[But] I’m back. My body’s back. I feel strong. I’m lifting. Everything is right back to normal."
General manager Ben Cherington had said during the winter meetings that when he spoke with Pedroia, the player told him he was going to hit .460, a Pedroia-esque type declaration.
"That's probably hearsay, man," Pedroia shot back Saturday. "I only talked to him once. I don’t know, I might have hit him with a ball."
But Pedroia said he already has been hitting with authority in the offseason, and he expects even better results this spring.
"The ball’s going to go farther," he said. “The balls are going 400 feet now -- and then, when you add five miles an hour, I’m not a chemist or anything, it’s probably going to go 500."
The message, then, for the folks who sit on the Green Monster?
"Duck," he said.
"He may not want to see me. He’s been real happy with the updates I’ve been giving him."
Holt plans to bring his infielder’s glove and outfielder’s glove again this spring. “At least I know I need those gloves," said Holt, who played every position but pitcher and catcher last season. When he plays first base, he added, he borrows Mike Napoli’s glove.
“I’ll be moving around, but I’m looking forward to it," he said.
He’s also looking forward to witnessing the return of a healthy Dustin Pedroia at second base. The two were partners on a fantasy football league team, Holt said, so they were in regular contact this winter. “Our team wasn’t very good, so those texts got less and less," Holt said. “He was probably mad that he chose me as his teammate.
“He was still the best second baseman in baseball last year with a hurt hand," Holt said. “I think he’s going to come back ready to go like he always does, and we’re lucky to have him on our team."
Betts has been mentioned as the player other clubs would most covet in any deal for a front-line starting pitcher. With camp now just a month away and the Sox indicating a deal is unlikely to happen before then, Betts said he is happy that he is staying put.
Betts was 2014’s biggest revelation for the Sox, posting an .812 OPS in 52 games while successfully learning how to play the outfield. He is in the mix for a starting position entering the ’15 season, although a healthy Shane Victorino might leave him without an everyday spot. Hanley Ramirez is slated to play left, Rusney Castillo appears set in center, and if Victorino, who is being paid $13 million in the last year of his three-year deal, is healthy, he figures to play right. But Betts figures to get plenty of playing time rotating between all three outfield spots if Victorino is the right-fielder.
He said he has been hitting since December, and is now taking batting practice on a daily basis. That didn’t keep the former Tennessee state high school bowling champion from hitting the lanes a few times this winter.
No perfect games. “I did have a 299," he said.
Switch-hitting free agent Pablo Sandoval was signed to a five-year, $95 million contract this winter to be the team’s everyday third baseman, but the right-handed-hitting Craig might gain some extra at-bats if he learns the position, Farrell said Thursday afternoon before the Boston baseball writers dinner. Left-handed-hittinhg Brock Holt loom as the team’s No. 1 option as backup at third base heading into camp.
Craig is one of eight outfielders with big-league experience on the team’s 40-man roster. He and the switch-hitting Daniel Nava are the two members of that group who also have played first base. The other big-league outfielders on the roster are Shane Victorino, Rusney Castillo, Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Bryce Brentz and Holt. That group doesn’t include Hanley Ramirez, who is expected to shift from the infield to become the team’s everyday left-fielder.
“Craig is coming off the worst season of his big-league career, his performance almost certainly the consequence of the Lisfranc fracture of his left foot, an injury that occurred in September 2013. Craig refused to blame the injury for his subpar 2014, but at minimum it prevented him from pursuing his normal offseason workout routine last winter and almost certainly led to some mechanical changes at the plate that impacted his play.
We had that conversation [about third base]. He's open to that. This is a very talented player who is having a good offseason physically.” -- John Farrell on Allen Craig
He batted just .128 in 29 games for the Red Sox after coming from St. Louis with pitcher Joe Kelly in the John Lackey trade last July, and overall batted just .215 in 461 at-bats. That was 100 percentage points lower than the .315 he hit for the Cardinals in 2013.
Craig is owed $25.5 million over the next three years, with a club option of $13 million in 2018.
“We talked to him," Farrell said. “We may look at some things defensively, give him more regular at-bats. We had that conversation [about third base]. He’s open to that. This is a very talented player who is having a good offseason physically.''
Farrell addressed a number of other topics:
-- He sounded highly encouraged about the physical status of right-hander Justin Masterson, who is coming off a season in which knee and oblique muscle injuries led to a 7-9 record and 5.88 ERA, the worst numbers of his career, in a season split between Cleveland and St. Louis.
“He’s in a good place," Farrell said. “Even prior to us signing him, he got a really good handle on what his physical needs were and had a detailed plan with his own rehab therapist that he’s worked extensively [with]. His throwing program began a little bit earlier this year. He’s feeling very confident in himself just by the way he’s feeling physically."
-- Christian Vazquez is regarded as the team’s “lead” catcher headed into camp, but new acquisition Ryan Hanigan, the Andover native, will push him for playing time and is more than a conventional backup.
-- Farrell plans to be at the team’s training facility in Fort Myers two weeks before the Feb. 20 report date for pitchers and catchers. Pitching coach Juan Nieves will precede him there and work with Masterson and other early arrivals before Farrell spells him. Numerous players intend to show up early, he said.
"I can tell you in conversations with a number of players that guys are eager to get down there and we’ll have a lot of players in camp well in advance of the report date," Farrell said.
-- Outfielder Shane Victorino, who is coming off back surgery, at this stage projects as a participant from the first day of camp, although the club will closely monitor his workload.
-- Koji Uehara has had a “normal” offseason, and while the Sox may make minor adjustments in the 40-year-old's workload, "he’s our closer," Farrell said.
“We fully expect him to come in like he has the last two seasons, ready to go," Farrell said. “It’s remarkable how he's kept himself in shape for such a long period of time.
“He’s our closer. We fully expect him to be very good again."
-- After 2014’s last-place finish, Farrell said he expects the team to have a similar chip on its shoulder mentality as the 2013 team.
“I do," he said. “We all shared responsibility for where things finished up. No one liked it. That has been a motivator for all of us as we reviewed what took place, as we reviewed the job that everyone individually and collectively performed. We come in eager and certainly hungry."
Speaking with reporters before the annual Boston baseball writers dinner, Cherington said that while the club may tweak the roster between now and spring training, he does not anticipate “big headline-grabbing moves."
“We like where we’re at," Cherington said. “We like the collection of pitchers we have. We feel like there’s upside, untapped potential with the group we have... There's enough pitching talent to put together a good pitching staff and compete for the division.''
Cherington noted that the Sox met with Shields and his agent Page Odle at the winter meetings, but added, “All I can say right now as far as starters are concerned, we’re focused on the guys we have. We’re pursuing opportunities to add depth in certain areas, but there's nothing on the front burner to grab headlines."
The Sox have also been mentioned as potential trade partners for such pitchers as Cole Hamels of the Phillies or Johnny Cueto of the Reds, deals that would cost them top prospects.
“We haven’t been limited in any way other than by ourselves," Cherington said when asked if the Sox had the kind of prospects teams were seeking in a deal. "There are guys we just don't want to move. We’d be able to have a conversation about any player.''
Since the start of spring training a year ago, the Sox have undergone a near-complete transformation of their rotation: Ace Jon Lester signed as a free agent with the Cubs; Jake Peavy, John Lackey, Felix Doubront, Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster were traded; Ryan Dempster retired; and Chris Capuano was released. The only holdover is Clay Buchholz, a profound disappointment in 2014. Joe Kelly came from the Cardinals in July in the Lackey trade, Wade Miley and Rick Porcello came in trades from Arizona and Detroit, respectively, and Justin Masterson was signed as a free agent.
Behind them is a young pitching corps comprised of Matt Barnes, Anthony Ranaudo, Brandon Workman, Eduardo Rodriguez, Steven Wright and Edwin Escobar, all of whom are on the team’s 40-man roster, and top prospects Henry Owens and Brian Johnson, who are not.
Cherington addressed a number of subjects in his remarks to the media:
-- Hanley Ramirez, who is making the transition from shortstop-third baseman to left field, has already been working on his outfield play in the Dominican Republic and is projected to arrive in Fort Myers in the second week of February, where coach Arnie Beyeler plans to work with him prior to the official opening of camp.
-- The Sox expect their other top free-agent acquisition, Pablo Sandoval, to be in good physical condition for the start of camp.
"Pablo’s always going to look like Pablo," Cherington said. "You’re going to notice him when he walks on the field. That’s not going to change. No concerns on our end at this point that he’s not going to be where he needs to be at the start of spring training. He’s been working out. He’s getting to Fort Myers early."
-- The Sox feel no urgency about addressing their overstocked outfield. They have eight players on the roster who have played the outfield in the big leagues, not including Ramirez, who is shifting to left.
"We don’t have to yet," Cherington said. “We’ll see where we’re at. I'd rather have more options than not enough. It’ll be a good thing for us if all those guys are healthy. It’ll be a good position for us to be in."
-- Shane Victorino is eager to reclaim his starting spot in the outfield.
"A motivated Shane Victorino out to prove something is a very good thing," Cherington said.
"I cannot be any prouder to take Red Sox Nation to the Hall of Fame with the logo on my plaque," Martinez said in a statement. "I am extremely proud to represent Boston and all of New England with my Hall of Fame career. I'm grateful to all of the teams for which I played, and especially fans, for making this amazing honor come true."
Smoltz was the only player on all of Atlanta's record-setting 14 consecutive playoff teams from 1991-04.
I’m trying to think of last offseason's consensus winner. Maybe the Yankees? They signed free agents Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran, a pretty impressive haul of big names. The Yankees saw their win total decrease from 85 to 84.
Which teams did have the largest improvement last season? Here are the top five:
Other than Seattle signing Robinson Cano, do you recall many big moves from those teams? The Giants signed Tim Hudson and Mike Morse, hardly the deals that foretold a World Series triumph.
So this list of five teams that I predict will improve the most in 2015 isn’t necessarily a list of teams that have received the most headlines this winter (2014 record in parentheses).
1. Boston Red Sox (71-91)
The Red Sox look like the obvious choice after an active offseason that saw them spend big dollars on Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez and add Rick Porcello, Wade Miley and Justin Masterson to the starting rotation. The rotation lacks the ace that everyone seems to think Boston still needs, but the projections at FanGraphs like the Red Sox at 88 wins -- fourth-highest in the majors -- thanks in part to a rotation that projects to 10.8 WAR, fifth-best in the majors (although with a relatively high ERA of 4.27).
Even if you’re not buying that ace-less rotation, it’s hard not to buy into a vastly improved offense. Red Sox outfielders hit just 26 home runs last season, last in the majors. They should have a whole new trio with Ramirez, Rusney Castillo and Mookie Betts. Sandoval is an upgrade at third base, and sophomore Xander Bogaerts has the ability to break out in a big way.
Also in Boston’s favor: There doesn’t appear to be a dominant team in the AL East. Granted, the Red Sox have lost 90-plus games in two of the past three seasons (they hadn’t lost 90 since 1966), but I think they'll avoid their first back-to-back losing seasons since 1992-94.
2. Houston Astros (70-92)
I wrote about the Astros on Wednesday, pointing out they had glaring holes at first base, third base, left field and the bullpen in 2014 and have addressed all those areas in the offseason.
The FanGraphs projection system isn’t as optimistic as I am, forecasting 77 wins. The Astros do have some regression candidates in Jose Altuve, Chris Carter, Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh, but I believe all four will be solid contributors in 2015, and I like George Springer’s chances to become a force in the middle of the lineup. The AL West is tough, and that will work against the Astros, but you can balance their expected improvement against possible decline from the Angels and A’s.
3. Chicago Cubs (73-89)
The Cubs are here not so much because I expect them to make the playoffs -- it will be a tall order to beat out both the Cardinals and Pirates -- but because they’re starting out from 73 wins, so there’s room to improve by 12 wins and get to 85.
Like the Astros, the Cubs carried a lot of dead weight in 2014 -- Darwin Barney, Nate Schierholtz, Junior Lake, Mike Olt, John Baker, Arismendy Alcantara and Javier Baez were horrible offensive contributors, each batting at least 200 times and posting an OPS+ of 70 or less. That’s bad, but Cubs fans already knew that. So they’ve traded for catcher Miguel Montero and center fielder Dexter Fowler. The Cubs also hope youngsters Baez and Alcantara learn from their struggles and will join rookies Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant to help improve an offense that ranked 12th in the NL in runs scored.
Oh, and then there’s Anthony Rizzo. He could be an MVP candidate. And the club spent a few pennies on Jon Lester. I hear he’s pretty good.
4. Chicago White Sox (73-89)
The battle between the Cubs and White Sox should prove to be one of the more interesting subplots of the season. The White Sox made several big moves of their own, trading for Jeff Samardzija and signing free-agent closer David Robertson, left fielder Melky Cabrera and first baseman/DH Adam LaRoche. The team already has two franchise players in Chris Sale and Jose Abreu.
The FanGraphs projection likes the Cubs a lot better than the White Sox -- 84 wins versus 77 -- and I do worry about the back of the White Sox rotation once you get past Sale, Samardzija and Jose Quintana. You also worry that so much rides on Sale and his ability to stay healthy. If the depth on the roster comes through, the White Sox have a chance to surprise in a division where the Tigers and Royals both could win fewer games.
5. Miami Marlins (77-85)
Two major reasons the Marlins could take a major leap forward: They’re young and they have two awful teams in their division. The Phillies and Braves actually project as the worst two teams in baseball via FanGraphs, so I could see the Marlins or Mets taking advantage and winning 90 games. Between those two, I like the Marlins a little better thanks to Giancarlo Stanton and his fellow outfield youngsters, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich. The rotation needs to stay healthy -- Mat Latos and Henderson Alvarez in particular -- but if that happens and Jose Fernandez returns in June and pitches like Jose Fernandez, the Marlins could be a wild-card contender.
Notable omission: The San Diego Padres. I don’t like the outfield defense. I’m not pumped about the third-base and shortstop situations, and I worry about the injury histories of Matt Kemp and Andrew Cashner. They’re going to be entertaining and I hope everything breaks right for them, but I’m not sure I see a 90-win team here.
Thrust into the starting catching role after the release of A.J. Pierzynski, Vazquez was entrusted with the position from July onward. With veteran David Ross serving as a mentor in the backup role, the team kept Vazquez on a loose leash, allowing him to learn on the job what it takes to be a major league catcher.
This year, Vazquez is expected to be the team's starting catcher. Meanwhile, Swihart is figures to be ticketed for Triple-A Pawtucket, where he hopes he'll soon get his shot the way Vazquez did last year to make an impact at the major league level.
"He got an opportunity and he ran away with it," Swihart said Friday at the team's Rookie Development Program workout. "If I can do that same thing, if I can go out there and be that competitive and that supportive and have the camaraderie that he had with all his teammates, that'll be good."
Considered by many to be the Red Sox's top prospect, Swihart is on the cusp of the majors. Between Double-A Portland and Pawtucket last season, the 22-year-old hit .293 with 13 home runs and 64 RBIs. In addition, he starred defensively, throwing out 45.6 percent of attempted base stealers during the regular season, including an Eastern League-leading 47.5 percent while he was with Portland.
"Overall get a little better each year," Swihart said. "Improve on something, improve your overall game, improve how well of a teammate you are, how well of a leader I am. Just go out there and improve everywhere I can."
While there was always an expectation that Swihart would hit, how quickly he has proven himself defensively has been a pleasant surprise for the organization. Relatively new to catching when he was drafted out of V. Sue Cleveland High School in New Mexico, Swihart has developed into an above-average catcher. He is expected to be able to stick at the position for years to come.
"He really focused his energy on the defensive side, which is what you'd ask of a guy and any of these guys when they get called up to the major leagues for the first time," Red Sox director of player development Ben Crockett said. "Those are the kind of basic expectations that the staff is looking for -- reliable, consistent defense, knowing what you're supposed to be doing, knowing where you're supposed to be."
Offensively, Swihart, a switch-hitter, has shown the ability to not only hit, but hit for power. Because of that, his ceiling is generally considered to be higher than that of Vazquez, who has elite potential defensively but has yet to prove himself with the bat.
"Each year [Swihart has] become more refined in his entire game," Crockett said. "At the plate it's a lot about consistency. It's a lot about staying within himself and staying with the approach he needs at the plate to be successful."
Asked how he has evolved offensively, Swihart said sticking with his approach has been the key to his success. After being asked to add 20 pounds last offseason to bulk up, Swihart said he has added nearly 14 more this offseason as he gets closer to reaching his dream of being a major league player.
He isn't starting to think about the majors yet, though. Instead, Swihart said he wanted to remain focused on what he needs to continue working on, including forming a relationship this spring with the Red Sox veteran starters.
However, his time is likely to come soon enough, maybe even this season. Until then, he'll continue to keep an eye on Vazquez at the level above him, hoping he, too, will be entrusted with that same type of responsibility once he finally gets the call.
"We'll see what happens," Swihart said. "I've just got to go out and play like I know I can play no matter where I'm at and just focus on that at that time."