Commentary

Red Sox start season in big hole

Andrew Bailey's thumb surgery gets Bobby Valentine's tenure off to shaky start

Updated: April 4, 2012, 2:35 PM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

DETROIT -- Recent history suggests that when the Boston Red Sox begin the season with a debilitating injury, it does not bode well for the Olde Towne Teame.

The worst season the Sox had this century came in 2001, when Nomar Garciaparra, the American League batting champion the previous two seasons, learned on the eve of the season that he would need reconstructive surgery on his wrist. He was never the same, appearing in just 21 games that season, and the Sox crumbled under the weight of their own self-induced misery, firing manager Jimy Williams and finishing just three games above .500.

[+] EnlargeBobby Valentine
AP Photo/David GoldmanBefore his first game as Red Sox manager, Bobby Valentine has been thrown a curve.

Then, a year after winning the World Series in 2004, the Red Sox parted ways with Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe, trusting that the gallantry of Curt Schilling would carry them through another season.

How did that work out? Ol' Bloody Sock made just three starts before going on the disabled list with recurring ankle issues and missed almost three months before coming back -- as a reliever.

Meanwhile, closer Keith Foulke, whose superhuman efforts in the ALCS against the New York Yankees earned him a ring but cost him the balance of his career, feigned fair health until he could fake it no more, his ERA hovering just under 6.00 and his knees needing more lubricant than the Tin Man. The Sox made the postseason, but were bounced in the first round by the Chicago White Sox.

And now this: Just when the prevailing storyline of 2012 was advertised as an ongoing arm-wrestling match between the novice general manager, Ben Cherington, and his love-him-or-hate-him manager, Bobby Valentine, the Red Sox introduce a medieval torture device to the saga -- the thumbscrew.

Andrew Bailey, the All-Star closer anointed to replace the indestructible Jonathan Papelbon -- he has never made a visit to the disabled list -- is scheduled to undergo surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament of his right thumb roughly 24 hours before Jacoby Ellsbury steps in against Justin Verlander of the Tigers in Detroit for the first pitch of the 2012 season.

The injury is commonly known as "skier's thumb" for the damage inflicted on the thumb when a skier tries to break a hard fall with his or her hand while holding a ski pole, which has the effect of pushing the thumb back in an unnatural position.

Originally, it was known as "gamekeeper's thumb," which has a more gruesome etymology -- Scottish gamekeepers are reputed to have ruined their thumbs by repeatedly twisting the necks of hares. If Cherington's hand involuntarily reaches for his throat while pondering his options at closer, it may be in subconscious sympathy with those unfortunate rabbits.

Bailey evidently was as helpless as a hare when he collided with Alex Presley of the Pittsburgh Pirates at first base and landed heavily on his thumb on March 21 in Bradenton. The severity of the injury was not immediately apparent, but after Red Sox doctors took a look Monday in Boston and a hand specialist in Cleveland confirmed their fears, Bailey scheduled his surgery, which typically entails a recovery period of three months -- at the minimum.

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The Red Sox over the winter reordered their medical staff, added new trainers and strength coaches, and jettisoned Dr. Thomas Gill. They did everything but discover the secret to averting the freak injury, one that threatens to wreak havoc with a pitching staff that already abounded with question marks.

And the sore thumbs on this team aren't limited to Bailey. Josh Beckett, who managed to keep his thumb discomfort a secret from the clubhouse "snitches" that preoccupied his attention at the start of spring, went to see two outside specialists -- one in San Antonio, the other in Cleveland -- in search of some "peace of mind,'' according to Valentine. It is hoped Beckett found some because the visits left everyone else associated with the Red Sox nervously wondering how long it will be before Beckett's thumb becomes a bigger issue.

Bailey's injury will require a reshuffling of a pitching staff whose pieces had barely fallen into place at the end of camp, Valentine only Sunday announcing that Venezuelan rookie Felix Doubront and converted setup man Daniel Bard would comprise the back end of the rotation. While Bard would appear to have the bona fides to return to the bullpen and serve as closer in Bailey's place, the Sox are disinclined to make that move.

Cherington said the team is committed to the conversion process, and Valentine said he was in accord. Given the nine-figure contract Matt Cain just claimed from the San Francisco Giants and Cole Hamels is likely to receive from the Philadelphia Phillies, it is understandable why the Sox are placing a premium on developing homegrown starters. Doubront and Bard give them four, along with Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz, both of whom are signed at what are now considered below-market deals.

But economics aside, the value of either closer innings or an eighth-inning man would seem to trump what Bard would bring as a No. 5 starter, especially with the Sox appearing to have more palatable options for back-end starters than they do in the back end of the bullpen. Vicente Padilla threw well in spring; if he fizzles, Aaron Cook is being stretched out in Pawtucket, and Daisuke Matsuzaka appears ahead of schedule and on track for a mid-June return.

[+] EnlargeAlfredo Aceves
AP Photo/Charles KrupaAlfredo Aceves' apparent imperviousness to pressure could land him the role as closer.

In the bullpen, meanwhile, Valentine's choices for closer without Bard in the mix would appear to be either Mark Melancon, who served the last-place Houston Astros in that role last season and pitched to mixed reviews this spring, or Alfredo Aceves, who has never been a closer but was discussed as a possibility for that role before the Sox traded for Bailey. Valentine has great trust in Aceves, who appears impervious to pressure, and may decide that Aceves could enforce last call in the toughest of neighborhoods.

The other option, of course, is that the Sox cast about for help from outside, not easily obtained at this juncture of the season. The Roy Oswalt speculation is certain to be revived, but Oswalt will need a run-up of at least a couple of months to be ready, and there is no reason to believe he will be any more receptive to Red Sox overtures now than he was when they were applying the full-court press earlier this offseason.

The unintentional beneficiary of the muddled pitching situation is Carl Crawford, the outfielder whose desire to rebound from the worst season of his career, which dovetailed with the first year of a $142 million contract, was sidetracked by a wrist injury.

The timing of Crawford's surgery was inopportune -- coming after the first of the year instead of immediately after the season -- and he then paid a price for his eagerness to come back, suffering a setback that assured he would not be ready for the start of the season.

Crawford was just beginning to hit against live pitching when the Sox broke camp, and while the team says he should be back before May, that is by no means assured. Just as uncertain is what kind of player he will be when he does return. The Sox are betting heavily that he can yet resemble the player he was for the Tampa Bay Rays, but unlike his heralded arrival a year ago, not once was the phrase "game-changer" uttered within his earshot.

Even with a negligible contribution from Crawford, the Sox still led the majors in runs scored last season, and with their core of All-Stars back, there is little reason to predict a major dropoff.

More may reasonably be expected from Adrian Gonzalez with his surgically repaired shoulder now fully healthy, and while Ellsbury may fall short of the power numbers he put up last season, he appears comfortable with the role of major impact player. Time will eventually catch up with Kevin Youkilis, who has taken a physical pounding over the years, but that time is not necessarily now.

The Sox patched and filled holes with quality role players like Cody Ross, Nick Punto and Kelly Shoppach, and you want to talk about a bridge year -- the Sox are on the cusp of adding premium youth in shortstop Jose Iglesias, catcher Ryan Lavarnway, third baseman Will Middlebrooks and outfielder Bryce Brentz.

But in the 100th anniversary year of Fenway Park, no one wants to hear about year 101. It is ever thus with Sox fans, never more so than after two consecutive years of playoff misses.

The collapse of 2011, with its accompanying mythology of beer-and-fried chicken-fueled ribaldry, may yet give way to greater melodrama, especially if Schilling's dire warnings of Valentine's unfitness for the job come to pass. Spring bore no evidence of brewing discontent, either in the nature of Valentine's interactions with Cherington, who is New Hampshire stoic to Valentine's bravura, or with the rank and file, who took to their tasks with noticeable energy and elan this spring.

It is in his DNA that Valentine will remain front and center all summer long. But how the Sox manage their fractured pitching staff will trump whatever headlines Bobby V makes in determining whether the Sox will be playing in October.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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