John Farrell: Pitching a priority
New Red Sox manager familiar with staff, thinks it has ability to succeed
BOSTON -- There are many areas the Boston Red Sox need to address and fix if they want to return to being a perennial winner in the AL East.
The organization took its first step over the weekend by hiring John Farrell as manager, and he was officially introduced during a news conference Tuesday afternoon at Fenway Park. At a time when the resurgence of the Red Sox's pitching staff, specifically the starting rotation, is so important, Farrell's presence back in Boston is crucial.
During his tenure as pitching coach for the Red Sox from 2007 to 2010, Boston's pitching staff held opponents to a league-low .254 batting average and led the league with 4,771 strikeouts. Starters Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz enjoyed tremendous success under Farrell's tutelage, as did reliever Daniel Bard and then-prospect Felix Doubront.
Farrell mentioned numerous times on Tuesday that pitching will be the focus as the team prepares for 2013 and the new manager said the entire team would take an aggressive approach. That will start with pitching.
"He wants the team to be prepared in a way when the players hit the field they're confident and can be aggressive and attack what they want to do and certainly that starts on the mound," Red Sox GM Ben Cherington said.
Farrell was quick to acknowledge that Lester had a trying season and Buchholz dealt with inconsistency. More importantly, however, both finished the season healthy and will have a normal offseason as they prepare for 2013.
Farrell has always been a big believer in the talents of left-hander Doubront.
"When you look at the names on the roster, there are quality arms on this staff already," Farrell said.
Farrell also mentioned the importance of John Lackey's return to the rotation after the veteran right-hander missed the entire 2012 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery.
"I think John Lackey will have a huge impact on the starting rotation next year," Farrell said.
At least on paper, and if healthy, the Red Sox have four quality starters ready for spring training. Lester, Buchholz and Lackey all have proved in the past to be solid top-of-the-rotation starters; now it's a question of if they can return to form.
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"Those are ingredients that lend you to believe and give you a reason that there's no reason they shouldn't return and regain the form that they showed in the not-too-distant past," Farrell said. "We'll fortify and will add to that rotation, but you look at every team that goes into the postseason and it starts with that rotation, the consistency of it, the quality of it -- top to bottom -- and I think we've got the very good makings of that right now."
Farrell and Cherington believe this pitching staff has the capability to succeed moving forward, but health and reinforcements will be crucial.
"You can't overemphasize the importance of a starting rotation," Farrell said.
Since Farrell's departure after the 2010 season, when he took the managerial job with the Toronto Blue Jays, Boston's pitching has been in a decline, especially in 2012 when the staff recorded the fourth-worst ERA (4.70) in the majors.
"We all recognize how important pitching is, particularly starting pitching," Farrell said. "You look at every team that's advanced to the postseason, which, let's face it, that's how we're going to be measured, not if we get to the postseason but how deep do we progress into the postseason.
"It typically starts and ends with the strength of your starting rotation, so that is a priority. Not only with the returning guys, which I think is a very strong core group when you consider Jon, Felix, Clay and the return of Lackey is going to be an important part of that."
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Lester had the worst season of his big league career with a 9-14 record and a 4.82 ERA. The veteran left-hander told ESPNBoston.com's Gordon Edes last weekend that Farrell helped mold him into the pitcher and player he is.
As manager of a division rival the past two seasons, Farrell has watched Lester pitch and noticed a difference, especially last season.
"From a pitching standpoint, there were some very obvious things with Jon that he and I have already talked about that you saw in his delivery that he kind of drifted into that might have affected his overall consistency," Farrell said.
Farrell and Bard also have exchanged a few text messages and voicemails in the past few days. The right-hander experienced the worst season of his pro career, which was spent mostly at Triple-A Pawtucket after more than two and a half seasons of dominating opposing hitters at the major league level as a reliever. An attempt to switch Bard into a starter was a dismal failure.
"Before getting a chance to talk with him in depth, I couldn't even begin to say what the steps to adjustments might be," Farrell said. "I think we all recognize it wasn't too long ago this might have been the best eighth-inning reliever in baseball. He's not injured, and that gives you every reason to believe he can regain that performance ability."
It wouldn't be a surprise if Alfredo Aceves is given an opportunity in the rotation, and Farrell is impressed with the right-hander's ability to work in any role on the staff.
Boston's bullpen was one of the lone bright spots for the Red Sox in 2012 and Farrell is expecting more of the same in 2013.
When Cherington and Farrell first met last Saturday, the one thing the soon-to-be manager told his new boss was that he wasn't about to take any of his relationships with the current Red Sox players for granted.
"The relationships are in place, to some degree, but they have to learn each other again," Cherington said.
Although Farrell already has built-in relationships with many players on the club, he knows they'll have to be re-established with him now the manager instead of a coach.
"Most importantly, because I've been here before, there will be no taking for granted that relationships exist," Farrell said. "I will work my butt off to earn their trust, to earn their respect and create an environment in that clubhouse that is a trusting one, a learning one, and yes, it'll be a competitive one and hopefully a very successful one at the same time."
Farrell admitted that the daily demands for a manager will not allow him to watch every bullpen session as he did when he was pitching coach, but he will take a hands-on approach and expects his new pitching coach to communicate well with the pitchers and Farrell.
"Certainly my conversations with the pitching coach will happen naturally because of my background," Farrell said. "That's what took place in Toronto and it would be no different as a former catcher managing a club and talking to a hitting instructor or positional coach. I see that dynamic being very comparable.
"The one thing that I will be very clear with the pitchers that were here prior, or I was with here prior, is that it becomes an open line of communication and not to bypass that pitching coach. There can be no confusion in message."
After years of speculation, Farrell finally is the manager of the Red Sox. It appears to be a perfect fit at this point, but there's still plenty of work to be done in order to bring this organization back to dominance in the AL.
"Obviously, we believe he can make a difference because we hired him, but he doesn't make a difference by walking in the door," Cherington said. "He's got to get to work and he knows that."
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