Signing Grady Sizemore to a major league contract brings up the chief vulnerability on the Red Sox roster: they lead the league in rehabbed players. Up and down the roster we find players who have spent large chunks or whole seasons on the disabled list, players who are healthy today, but could be hurt tomorrow.
Last year, the Red Sox got lucky with injuries. Really? you say. They lost two closers, their number one starting pitcher, every member of their infield for twenty-one days or more, and an outfielder who played hurt most of the season. Why lucky?
First, they solved their closer problem with an aging Japanese import, who had a career season in the bullpen. No one knew how good he would be. Second, John Lackey came back from shoulder surgery in a dramatic fashion, worthy of “comeback of the year.” Third Jake Peavy pitched some of his best games in years, following a mid-season signing. Any one of these pitchers might have sunk the Red Sox pennant drive.
In the first half of the season, John Farrell kept his infield together with bailing wire. He played Middlebrooks at second at one point, and shortstop was covered by Jose Iglesias, while Stephen Drew languished on the disabled list. Iglesias astonished the world by hitting .400 in the early going. When Mike Napoli languished in an awful hitting slump, Mike Carp and Daniel Nava added more than adequate punch to the line-up. Later Napoli sat out with plantar fascitis.
The biggest injury story was Shane Victorino, who crashed into walls and stormed around the bases with abandon throughout the season, incurring an untold range of injuries. Victorino played hurt the whole season, as far as I can determine. Whether he could do that again is best known by his doctors.
With the exception of Iglesias and Drew and Xander Bogaerts, this is the team that Cherrington says he is happy with for 2014. They are the World Champions, so it is hard to argue, until you consider their physical vulnerability. Clay Bucholz is a significant question mark since he has never had a season off the disabled list, except maybe his first. Another wild card is Koji Uhehara, who enters the season as a 38-year-old closer, having never pitched a full season in that role before. You could say these are the anchors to the pitching staff, but they are not reliable anchors.
Of course, Spring Training brings another crop of almost-Major-Leaguers, and maybe the Red Sox know they have some aces in the hole. There are probably half a dozen pitchers who could be ready for the big time, if their confidence and location come to fruition. They have a cluster of catchers who may be ready to step up if the aging catching duo of Pierczinsky and Ross go down.
But you can’t have too much insurance on the bench with this corps of fragile and aging bodies. Maybe it wasn’t luck that the Red Sox had Uhehara and Carp ready to fill key roles on the team. Maybe it was the genius of foresight. Foresight needs to step up to the plate again this spring.
If the President needed evidence that everyone needs medical care eventually, he could exhibit the Boston Red Sox, with a Disabled List long enough to field a new team. O.K., so we might have some peculiar health at shortstop and catcher, but the rest of the line-up is intact or, I should say, infirm.
First, every member of the pitching staff, except John Lester, has been on the disabled list this year, and Lester has visited within the past twelve months. Their ailments range from the usual neck, elbow and shoulder complaints to esophagitis (Clay Bucholz). A full-time orthopedist would have more activity on this staff than the pitching coach.
The outfield has rotated through the disabled list from Spring Training on, with Carl Crawford a charter member and Jacoby Ellsbury an annual candidate for long-term rehabilitation. But the Sox were prepared. They acquired Ryan Sweeney, Cody Ross, and Scott Posednik as capable replacements, but they have all had fifteen days or more among the lame, the halt, and the blind. Add the benighted Darnell McDonald and you have two complete outfields who required affordable health care this year.
The infield has been more stable, but only because Pedroia and Youkilis played hurt the entire first half of the year. Both of these soldiers deserve honors for grit and refuse-to-excuse determination. Unfortunately Youkilis’ heroism could not overcome his encounters of the wrong kind with pitched balls. His injuries added a new page to the Merck Manual.
Will Middlebrooks could be the latest cursed third baseman, as he nurses a hamstring pull that could lead to the DL. Perhaps it is only a rite of passage, and Middlebrooks will return stronger after the All-Star game.
To be fair, the Red Sox have reclaimed some pitching from the chronically disabled list this year, including Vicente Padilla, Aaron Cook, and Franklin Morales. The rejuvenation of abandoned arms gives hope that an intact pitching staff might still be assembled. The challenge for the Sox has been to maintain a starting rotation with less than eight pitchers. Even six would be a good number of starters to carry into the fall.
The All-Star Break will be welcome relief for the walking and sitting wounded. If the Sox can arrive at mid-season still above .500, they should thank their deep Farm system and capable medical team. The heck with a deep bullpen; let’s stock up on trainers.