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It sure feels like a bridge year for Red Sox

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  May 3, 2012 11:04 AM

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Will Middlebrooks made his major-league debut Wednesday night at Fenway Park (Getty Images)

In retrospect, going all the way back to the beginning of the offseason, maybe the Red Sox were just biding their time. Maybe the Red Sox had their eyes on 2013 far more than they ever did on 2012, and maybe the goal was to make them just interesting enough to draw your ire.

If it looks like a bridge year and feels like a bridge year ... it's a bridge year.

So here's question for you: given the way last year ended, would you be OK with that? Would you be OK with the highest average ticket prices in baseball and absurd parking rates to watch Will Middlebrooks and perhaps Ryan Kalish in lieu of Kevin Youkilis and Ryan Sweeney? The bet here is that you would. The bet is that Red Sox fans still angry over the conclusion of the 2011 would be tolerant of this season with the knowledge that there is a light at the end of the tunnel - in this case an infusion of youth and energy into a Red Sox clubhouse and core that feels stale and spoiled.

One of the biggest problems with these Red Sox, after all, is that they have remained unlikeable. Youkilis is already on the disabled list again. Josh Beckett is missing a turn over the weekend. The Red Sox felt like a team that needed a major shakeup over the winter and team administrators did not provide it. Instead, Sox officials patched together an offseason with low-cost and stopgap alternatives, from the bullpen to the starting rotation to shortstop and the manager's office.

Think about it: is Cody Ross here for the long term? Mike Aviles? Even Youkilis or Bobby Valentine? In some way, shape or form, all of them are keeping the seat warm for the next guy, just as Ryan Sweeney (who would be a good fourth outfielder) is keeping right field warm for Kalish, whenever he is ready.

And then there is the matter of Daniel Bard, whose greatest value to the Red Sox, right now, is indisputably in the bullpen. If the Red Sox were hell-bent on winning a World Series this year as they have been in the past, they would have Bard setting up or closing. Instead, the Sox have resisted multiple urges to shift Bard in the relief corps, all with the idea of making him a more viable and reliable starter in future years.

See a pattern here? Kevin Youkilis could be gone at season's end, the Sox holding a $13 million contract option on him for 2013. Daisuke Matsuzaka will be a free agent. David Ortiz will be up (again) and so will Ross and Kelly Shoppach. Additionally, the Sox will have decisions to make on players like Sweeney and Mike Aviles, arbitration-eligible players who may (or may not) price themselves out of backup jobs.

More importantly, by the start of next season, Middlebrooks, Kalish, Iglesias and Ryan Lavarnway all could be on the big league roster with full-time jobs. (Middlebrooks at third base, Kalish in right field, Iglesias at shortstop and, perhaps, Lavarnway at any combination of catcher, designated hitter and first base.) If the Sox get lucky, maybe even Lars Anderson and Felix Doubront will thrust themselves into the mix.

If all of this sounds premature with regard to 2012, it isn't. When the Red Sox made their decisions last fall, they did so with knowledge of the above. On some level, they expected Middlebrooks, Kalish, Iglesias and Lavarnway to make some transition to the major league level, so they traded lesser assets (Jed Lowrie, Josh Reddick, Kyle Weiland) to make whatever marginal deals they could. They weren't about to sacrifice 2013 for 2012, particularly after the way 2011 ended.

As a fan, here's the one question that really matters: could they have started the process earlier and cut ties with someone like Beckett? How much would that have hurt their chances in 2012? The Red Sox don't look anything like a championship contender as things stand, and something suggests that the Boston fan base would be far more content with a relatively mediocre team of enthusiastic, energetic younger player than players than overpaid, underachieving veteran ones.

The only real reason to keep some of the veteran pieces on this team is because, in theory, they are more established and have a better chance to win now, a belief that goes out the window so long as the Sox play .500 baseball.

Obviously, there is still a great deal of baseball to be played this season. If things go right, given the relative absence of a middle class in the American League this year, the Red Sox could make the playoffs. If and when they get Andrew Bailey, Jacoby Ellsbury, Youkilis, Matsuzaka and others back, they could be a far better team in the second half than in the first. But if the Sox have more series like the one they just had, losing 2 of 3 to the Oakland A's of the world, they may find themselves in an interesting position approaching July 31.

For the first time in a long time, at the July 31 trading deadline, the Sox could be sellers instead of buyers.

As for Valentine, he is easily the most expendable of all "commodities," a 62-year-old manager on a two-year contract who had been out of the game for 10 years. Barring some sort of dramatic and unforeseen turnaround, is there any reason the Red Sox would bring him back next year? The Red Sox could have hired (potentially) a longer-term replacement in Dale Sveum, who at least would have fit the profile of what the organization was under the height of the Terry Francona era. Instead, they opted for a stopgap. Valentine subsequently feels like just another piece of rental furniture of a house full of them, which cannot help but make you wonder:

Maybe the Sox have a far bigger renovation in mind in the very near future.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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