Sox can't just hit reset button

8/1/2014 - Boston Red Sox

BOSTON -- The familiar figure passing through the Red Sox clubhouse Friday offered some reassurance that there were some pitchers left here, after all, until he cracked wise.

"Maybe I got traded, too,'' Luis Tiant said.

No more trades for El Tiante, who was dealt once, signed as a free agent four times, released three times and purchased once in a big league career that began 50 years and 13 days before a 6-foot-7 Jersey kid named Anthony Ranaudo struck out boyhood hero Derek Jeter and beat the New York Yankees in his big league debut, 4-3, Friday night.

Funny thing about Tiant: His glory years with the Red Sox started at age 31, peaked at 35 and 36, and ended with him still going strong at 37. That dovetails pretty closely with the lifespan of the contract the Sox would have had to give Jon Lester to keep him in Boston. Different economics, then, of course, but evidently they trusted "old" pitchers more back then.

But Lester is not walking through that door anymore. Instead, he's posing, unsmiling, alongside Jonny Gomes for pictures in Oakland. John Lackey, meanwhile, was in St. Louis, endearing himself to Cardinals fans by pledging he will honor his major league-minimum salary next season. The referendum on the trades that lopped off the top two starters in the Sox rotation will be an ongoing one for the next six years or so. There are more pragmatic concerns for the Sox now; the clubhouse is not a debating society. There are evaluations to be made, opportunities to be gained, reputations to be earned, questions to be answered.

Oh, and there's one other thing, manager John Farrell noted Friday, not to be overlooked.

"This isn't a development setting right now,'' he said. "It's still about us going out and winning. This isn't a group of prospects brought in through trades. We brought in established big leaguers. Our focus should remain the same, and that is to go out and win each night.

"This isn't about going out and getting 'X' number of at-bats for a young guy or getting a certain number of starts for a young pitcher. We have youth in the rotation, but the expectation isn't going to change.''

But while the intent will still be to shake hands at the end of the night, as the Sox did Friday, in these last 53 games until Sept. 28 -- the day Derek Jeter is scheduled to bid the Hub adieu and the Sox say adios to a forgettable season -- the Sox will be trying to gain a head start on 2015.

It's not quite a revival of "Community Auditions," that relic of '60s-'70s TV, but it's close.

Here's your clip-and-save list of what the Sox will essay to learn in the coming weeks:

-- Cuban slugger Yoenis Cespedes, who will make his Sox debut Saturday afternoon against the Yankees after flying cross-country from Oakland on Friday, said upon arrival that "the legend of Fenway precedes itself." So does the legend of Yoenis, but what remains to be seen is how he adapts to playing right field, how many balls he bangs off the Monster and beyond, and whether he will warrant an investment of Lester-type money to keep him here beyond 2015, when he has an out clause that not only allows him to become a free agent, but one unburdened by a draft pick attached.

"I think more than anything we've been very clear internally that our need to upgrade and improve our offense was a goal,'' Farrell said. "We've been able to do that through these trades. To be able to bring in a middle-of-the-order, All-Star-caliber bat from a contending team is not typical.''

But can they keep him? Will he want to stay? The meter starts running Saturday.

-- The Sox need to get a read on left fielder Allen Craig, the other right-handed bat imported to upgrade a Sox outfield offense that was nonexistent for much of the season. Craig introduced himself to Sox fans last October with one of the most celebrated stumbles in World Series history, tripping over the legs of Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks and scoring the winning run on an obstruction call in Game 3 in St. Louis. Craig is signed to a five-year, $31 million deal that runs out in 2017, the Cardinals thinking he would be a middle-of-the-order bat for years to come. The Sox must discern whether his puzzling drop-off this season -- his .638 OPS was the ninth worst among all qualifying hitters -- is a result of the foot injury he sustained last year, just an aberration, or something more ominous.

"We'll get to know him,'' Farrell said, "and we'll get to know what he's been dealing with a little bit more specifically as his at-bats are witnessed here. We're clearly excited to have him."

Craig made a positive first impression Friday night, his third-inning double ending an 0-for-14 slide.

"It's new and it's different but it's good,'' said Craig, who was distressed to learn that the Cardinals traded him, especially when he found out while watching TV. "I had a good time.''

-- With Stephen Drew in pinstripes -- and playing second base -- the Red Sox realigned the left side of the infield, shifting Xander Bogaerts back to short and reinstating Middlebrooks at third. Despite Bogaerts' struggles, the Sox commitment to him is binding.

"He is going to go back to a position he was most familiar with," Farrell said. "We agree that the defensive component of his game was improving prior to the signing of Stephen Drew -- he was showing better range, particularly to the glove side, so he's going back to a position of familiarity."

Middlebrooks, his progress repeatedly interrupted by injury, is on much shakier ground.

"Hopefully, the injury bug that has followed him a bit is behind him," Farrell said. "This is really an opportunity to take advantage of his skills. The opportunity is in front of him right now."

-- Ranaudo left a strong first impression as the Sox embark on the most challenging task before them -- rebuilding a rotation that in the span of five days lost four-fifths of the arms that comprised a pennant-winning staff last season: Lester, Lackey, Jake Peavy and Felix Doubront.

Clay Buchholz is the lone holdover. Newcomer Joe Kelly, a sinkerballer who faced the Sox in the Series but lost more than two months of this season to a hamstring injury, was acquired in the Lackey deal; he's expected to face his old mates next week in St. Louis.

After that, it will be survival of the fittest among the kids -- Allen Webster and Brandon Workman and Rubby De La Rosa and Ranaudo and Matt Barnes and knuckleballer Steven Wright, who all began this season in Pawtucket; Edwin Escobar, who came in the Peavy deal and allowed just a run in six innings in his first start for Pawtucket on Thursday; and left-hander Henry Owens, just promoted to Pawtucket from Double-A Portland. In a perfect world, three will rise above the crowd and fill out the 2015 rotation. Boston GM Ben Cherington is more realistic, saying he expects the Sox will be looking for veteran pitchers via a trade or free agency this winter.

Still, the kids will have their chance to shine.

"There's a lot of leadership, a lot of ability and success that have left in [Lester and Lackey]," Farrell said. "But at the same time, we feel like there's a support and structure in place that will maximize the abilities of young guys with very good stuff. We will be challenged at times -- we anticipate that. But we're still in the process of sorting some things out, too."