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Issues, right off the bat

Sox have things to keep an eye on

By Nick Cafardo
April 2, 2012
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - Andrew Bailey often has referenced the fact that he hasn’t started his Red Sox career the way he would have liked. He’s already dealt with a lat strain, and now he has a sore thumb that could land him on the disabled list to start the season.

This is not what you’re looking for regarding the man who has been tabbed as the closer to replace Jonathan Papelbon.

And it’s a terrible way for the team to start the season.

Manager Bobby Valentine decided to go with lefty Felix Doubront and Daniel Bard as his fourth and fifth starters, with the announcement made Sunday at JetBlue Park. There is risk in those decisions. Neither Doubront nor Bard ever has been a major league starting pitcher, though Doubront has at least made spot starts.

While it wasn’t easy for Valentine to have to tell Alfredo Aceves he was going to the bullpen, it was the right thing to do - even though Aceves was extremely upset about the call. Aceves was seen jawing with pitching coach Bob McClure while he was doing his side session Sunday.

Aceves has said that he prefers to start and he felt this was his opportunity. Except for one poor outing against the Phillies, he certainly showed that he could be a starter.

I asked Valentine if he would feel comfortable with Aceves finishing games and he said he would. With Bailey out, could Aceves emerge as the closer?

After all, Mark Melancon has not been very effective in spring training.

Franklin Morales also could be a possibility, but he’s been a bit behind because of a health scare, although he pitched winter ball and his arm could handle the workload.

Aceves deserves the chance to be either a starter or the closer.

Would he be a traditional closer in the sense that he would blow people away with his fastball?

No.

He would be different. The one concern is that Aceves is occasionally prone to having control issues. He is emotional, a good thing for a closer if it’s used the right way.

Closers are usually two-pitch pitchers, but Aceves would come in with a much different repertoire.

It’s never good to have pitching issues right away.

I’ve often said that the Red Sox would feel the loss of Papelbon. Was he worth the four-year, $50 million contract the Phillies got him for? One could debate that all day. But if the Phillies have stability at that position and the Red Sox don’t, then it was money well spent, and the Sox’ decision to not even offer a deal to Papelbon doesn’t look quite as good.

It appears Bailey’s injury isn’t major (though he’s returning to Boston to be examined). But could it be nagging? Could it be one that affects him just enough that he won’t be as effective? Sure. When Bailey has been healthy, he’s a top-flight guy, but the constant health issues have to be a concern.

Conversely, Papelbon was managed very well by Terry Francona and his pitching coaches. He was never overused, so he joined the Phillies coming off his best season with his shoulder in terrific shape. Bailey has a lot to prove. The biggest thing is that he can stay healthy, and so far he’s failed at that.

General manager Ben Cherington was right when he said the team doesn’t have a perfect roster, and he said most of the issues have been related to the pitching staff.

While Valentine has brought energy to a team that sorely needed it, issues such as a thinning pitching staff have cropped up. But it’s not like other teams in the division don’t have issues.

The Yankees start the season with their big offseason acquisition, Michael Pineda, on the disabled list with a sore shoulder. The Rays have offensive issues. We think the Blue Jays are on the verge, but are they really? Seems as if we’ve gone down that road before.

One can argue that without Jose Iglesias, the left side of the Red Sox infield is lacking range, but a quick glance around the league shows they are not alone.

The Tigers, generally considered one of the more solid teams in baseball, have perhaps an even slower left side in Miguel Cabrera and Jhonny Peralta (not to mention Prince Fielder at first base).

The Yankees have veterans Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter on the left side. But both probably will get better offensive production from their combinations than the Red Sox (Mike Aviles and Kevin Youkilis).

However, the lineup and defense will be the least of Boston’s worries.

The Red Sox need their top three starters to be very impressive. They all need to work more than 200 innings, and be effective to boot. One concern could be Clay Buchholz, who didn’t have a very good spring training.

Yes, he was healthy and “working on things,’’ but soon, in fact in that third game vs. the Tigers, the rust has to come off after not having pitched in a major league game for nine months.

If the front three don’t do their part, it would be awfully tough to depend on Doubront and Bard to bear that huge of a load. The goal for either would be 160 innings.

And we know someone likely will get hurt somewhere along the way. Basically, the Sox have Aaron Cook and Daisuke Matsuzaka in reserve.

Early-season woes can be overcome. The Red Sox got off to a 2-10 start last season, then were one of the best teams in baseball until their September collapse.

This is one of the better teams in baseball, but if your bullpen fails you and more specifically, if your closer can’t stay on the field, it could make for a long season.

The other thing that’s been happening is that lately there’s been less discussion about the September collapse and the beer-drinking/chicken-eating capers.

It seemed early on that players had a chip on their shoulder about the way last season ended. It became a rallying cry. But the topic is rarely brought up anymore.

Does this group need to be reminded to maintain that chip?

For sure, this team will have an underdog mentality. The expectations aren’t that high and players would rather it be that way than being the favorite. But they also shouldn’t forget that many of them authored one of the worst collapses in major league history.

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