- Gordon Edes, ESPN Staff Writer
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ESPN formed a panel of baseball writers, analysts and contributors to rank the top 500 players in the majors based on how they're expected to perform in 2013. Quite frankly, the Red Sox did not fare well, with Dustin Pedroia as the top-ranked Sox player at No. 42.
What you'll find below is a slightly different exercise. I was tasked with ranking each player on the expected Red Sox roster (including guys who are likely to start the season on the disabled list, indicated by an asterisk) based on their importance to the 2013 team.
Here's my ranking, 1-29. What's yours?
1. Jon Lester
If Lester regains the form that produced the second-highest winning percentage in history (behind CC Sabathia) for the vast majority of his career, the Red Sox will regain their equilibrium. If he pitches the way he has since September 2011, the Sox will be sunk this summer and Lester will be wearing a different uniform come next season.
Pedroia remains the linchpin of this team, expressed with his bat, glove and will. He played through a debilitating thumb injury last summer, which impacted his stat line until he was fully healed and produced at the same ferocious rate he has throughout his career. He remains the tone-setter, only adding to his reputation when he played the last three games of the season with a fractured finger.
At 28, Buchholz is at a fulcrum point of his career, where he either ascends to the next level or proves too inconsistent to build a rotation around. No one questions his stuff, but that stuff has to translate to 200 innings of reliable performance. Time to jump off the seesaw.
4. Mike Napoli
Sometimes it feels like a sci-fi novel. An apparently healthy, productive ballplayer tormented by an unseen force that could take everything away. A diagnosis of a debilitating hip condition has already cost Napoli millions, even though he has experienced no symptoms and on the field this spring made a seamless transition to first base while exhibiting the power swing that made him so attractive in the first place. But how certain can we be that it will last?
Ellsbury told one reporter this spring that he can eclipse his MVP-runner-up performance of 2011, when he may have been the game's most dynamic position player. If so, he certainly didn't tip his hand this spring, when he neither hit a home run nor stole a base entering the last couple of days of camp. Let's see what happens when the lights go on in April.
It remains to be seen if opposing pitchers will be pounding Middlebrooks inside, suspecting that he may be tentative because of the fractured wrist he sustained last August. They didn't do so this spring, and Middlebrooks crushed stuff away. His power takes on even more significance in the absence of David Ortiz.
7. David Ortiz *
It defies belief that the Red Sox would have signed off on David Ortiz's two-year, $26 million contract extension without ironclad assurances from their medical staff that he would be fully recovered from his strained Achilles tendon. And yet, it is more than eight months since he incurred the original injury and Ortiz is still spending his time out of sight on a treadmill. His presence in the middle impacts the entire order; a prolonged absence will be keenly felt. Back, and the Sox can compete.
Victorino's three-year, $39 million contract is the one that opposing talent evaluators most readily mock, given the outfielder's significant slippage last season (.229/.296/.333/.629 against right-handed pitchers) and at an age (32) where players whose games are built on their legs can begin to wobble. Victorino's slow spring (.139 average) did nothing to quiet the sniping, though he was swinging the bat better at the end of a camp disrupted by the WBC.
Doubront took some hits when he arrived in sub-optimal shape, complaining of shoulder discomfort. He made fast work of those issues with a strong performance this spring, though what the Sox need most from the left-hander is greater economy with his pitches; he averaged more than four pitches per batter, the 16th most of any pitcher in baseball, according to Baseball Prospectus.
10. Jonny Gomes
Manager John Farrell has said the team will go with a revolving DH in David Ortiz's absence, but if Jackie Bradley Jr. makes the club, many of those ABs will fall to Gomes, who won't be citing Curt Schilling as evidence he can hit righties as well as lefties (1-for-18, 11 K's). The Beard has demonstrated a great knack for being part of a winner (Rays, Reds, Athletics) and the Sox are banking that streak doesn't end here.
11. Joel Hanrahan
Hanrahan might rate a notch or two higher excepting for the fact if he falters, the Sox have an All-Star closer in the wings in Andrew Bailey. Given that this is a walk year for him, Hanrahan has loads of incentives to put up big numbers, and appears to have the right temperament to thrive in the Fenway crucible.
Saltalamacchia's feast-or-famine approach at the plate -- 25 home runs for the season, .195 average after June 1 -- may not ensure a long career in Boston, especially since he is entering his walk year. The Sox brought him veteran support in David Ross, but the biggest burden will still fall on his shoulders, and how he guides this pitching staff may ultimately decide his future.
13. Ryan Dempster
This is not the same pitcher who was the ace of a terrific Cubs team in 2008, but Dempster, who turns 36 in May, brings great value in durability (four straight seasons of 200-plus innings, 180 innings in 2012) and ability to compete, even if his stuff is down a notch or two. Skeptics question his ability to survive in the AL, but with such a strong pen, six good innings a start from Dempster would go a long way.
14. Stephen Drew *
After missing 11 months with a severely fractured ankle, Drew played measurably better late in the season for Oakland, but persistent concussive symptoms have sidelined him for the last three weeks of spring training. Jose Iglesias makes for a good safety net, but the Sox were banking on Drew giving them an offensive boost Iglesias can't provide.
15. Andrew Bailey
Outwardly, Bailey has adapted willingly to a setup role, while pitching this spring like the closer the Sox thought they had acquired a year ago. Bailey will pitch plenty of high-leverage innings, and is likely to get the occasional save opportunity.
16. David Ross
The Red Sox are adamant in their denials, but there were signs this spring that the Sox intend to team the veteran Ross with Lester, who pitched his worst with Saltalamacchia behind the plate. Ross still can throw with the best of them, but at 36 can't be expected to catch more than 50-60 games, max.
17. Andrew Miller
With his big league career hanging in the balance after washing out with two teams, Miller has settled into his role as left-handed specialist with the Sox, and earned high praise from scouts this spring for the bite on his slider as well as for the command of his high-90s fastball. Miller's confidence, and importance, are both on the upswing.
18. John Lackey
For all the glowing reports on Lackey this spring, the Sox must temper expectations for the right-hander, who is 34 and 17 months removed from Tommy John surgery. As a fifth starter, the Sox can occasionally skip his turn if he needs extra time to recover, and it is an open question if he will be able to maintain his stuff as his workload builds. But Lackey is ecstatic to be pitching pain-free, and could prove a big surprise.
19. Alfredo Aceves
Aceves is John Farrell's primary insurance policy if one of his five starters goes down, which is a key reason the Sox will tolerate the occasional odd behavior from Aceves, who crossed the line into insubordination with ex-manager Bobby Valentine. Aceves remains one of the few pitchers who can throw multiple innings on multiple days out of the pen, then give you five innings as a starter in a pinch.
20. Koji Uehara
A better track record health-wise, and Uehara would rate even higher in importance in the Sox bullpen. When healthy, he's one of the best relievers in the game, with a splitter confounding to hitters from both sides of the plate. But at 38, Uehara pitched just a combined 54 innings over the past two seasons for the Orioles and Rangers, so he'll get the white-gloves treatment from Farrell.
21. Jackie Bradley Jr.
When camp started, the Sox made it clear that Bradley was ticketed to return to the minors, perhaps even returning to Double-A Portland. That was before Bradley turned camp into his personal coming-out party, winning over management and teammates both with his textbook defense, plate discipline and electrifying performance. With Ortiz out, the Sox decided Bradley's future is now, although potentially just temporarily (which is why he's ranked this low) -- the Sox will not keep Bradley in Boston unless he's playing regularly. If nothing else, Bradley has provided an exciting glimpse of the future.
22. Junichi Tazawa
One of the few bright spots in a dismal 2012, Tazawa was a compelling example of a pitcher much better in his second year removed from Tommy John surgery than his first. His velocity sat in the mid-90s, and with a terrific splitter, Tazawa, like Aceves, can give the Sox multiple innings from the sixth on, and may prove to be a closer-in-waiting.
23. Daniel Nava
Nava's primary value remains as a fourth outfielder who hits from both sides of the plate, but he also passed a crash course in playing first base, proving himself as a viable option to back up Mike Napoli. He has enough power, and the ability to draw a walk, to make a meaningful contribution off the bench.
24. Pedro Ciriaco
Back spasms kept Ciriaco off the field for much of the last two weeks of camp, but his ability to play third base in addition to the two middle infield positions gave him the edge over the other contenders for a backup infield spot. He tapered off after a hot start last season, but his baseball card is stamped CYK: Certified Yankee Killer.
25. Jose Iglesias
There were encouraging signs that Iglesias was making progress at the plate, though some scouts remain dubious. He put on 11 pounds of muscle in the offseason, tweaked his mechanics at the plate, showed off better bunting skills and of course continued to play all-world defense. He will open the season at short, and even if Drew returns relatively quickly, Iglesias could push the Sox to consider trading Drew at the deadline.
26. Franklin Morales *
A bulging disk in his back will place Morales on the DL at the start of the season, and he may need a good month once he gets back on the mound before he's ready to rejoin the club. The Red Sox value him as starting depth, but he needs to get healthy.
27. Craig Breslow *
The Red Sox signed Breslow to a two-year deal in the offseason, indicative of the high regard in which they hold him, only to have the veteran lefty miss all of camp with shoulder discomfort. He's still not back on the mound, so he probably won't be back before May at the earliest.
28. Mike Carp
Picked up in a spring trade from the Mariners, Carp showed little in camp, but has first-base experience and his left-handed swing is conducive to going the other way in Fenway. He beat out Lyle Overbay, who is now a Yankee, for a backup job.
Mortensen was out of options, which is the primary reason the Red Sox optioned Daniel Bard back to Pawtucket to work on regaining his form. Mortensen figures to be a short-termer, but if he pitches well early, the Sox might find a willing trade partner.
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