|Red Sox Likeliest to Overcome 2011||| Print |||Send|
Written by Jim Mancari (Contact & Archive) on February 20, 2012
In 2011, the wild card spots in each league came down to the final day of the season. The St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves entered the day with identical records, and so did the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays.
There hypothetically could have been two one-game playoffs to determine the wild card had both teams per respective league won or lost.
However, it was the eventual World Series champion Cardinals and the Rays that won their games -- the Rays in dramatic extra-inning fashion -- to advance to the playoffs.
Looking back at their seasons based solely on records, you'd think the Braves and Red Sox had good years. The Red Sox won 90 games in a tough division and the Braves 89 wins in the first year after the great Bobby Cox retired.
The Braves held a firm lead on the NL wild card but let an 8 1/2-game lead slip away in just 23 days, including being swept by the Cardinals. Atlanta was 10-20 down the stretch. Boston meanwhile held a nine-game lead over the Rays on Sept. 4, but the Sox went 7-20 in the month of September to lose its lead completely.
Both teams will attempt to get off to hot starts in 2012 to clear their memories of last year's late-season collapses. But based on offseason moves, the Red Sox appear to be in a better position than Braves -- on paper, of course.
Boston hired Bobby Valentine to take over for Terry Francona as manager. The collapse was so bad that the organization felt it needed a change at the top. Granted, Francona technically resigned, but it's likely that he wouldn't be in the team's plan for 2012 anyway.
Valentine should be able to inject a sense of urgency into his players with his fiery attitude and hard-nosed style.
The Red Sox are also returning the entire core of their team. Scoring runs shouldn't be a problem, assuming Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Jacoby Ellsbury all stay healthy.
Carl Crawford can be a key factor to Boston's season. He struggled in the first year of his hefty contract, but maybe he'll be a little more comfortable this year. However, he will miss some time early on recovering from a wrist injury.
The one area the Red Sox may struggle with is starting pitching. Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz can arguably match up with any other team's top three starters. But from there, the Sox will rely on Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves -- normally relievers -- or veterans Aaron Cook and Carlos Silva to fill the final two spots since John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka will be sidelined.
Barring any major injuries, the Red Sox will play with the fire they exhibited earlier in the season last year before the collapse.
Though the Red Sox may seem more primed to overcome the collapse, that doesn't mean the Braves won't be hungry early on. Fredi Gonzalez had this team playing great baseball throughout the summer, but the momentum fizzled out abruptly.
Atlanta doesn't exactly have the offense that Boston has, but Dan Uggla, Brian McCann, Martin Prado and Freddie Freeman can provide some strong offensive punch. Even the aging Chipper Jones constantly gets clutch hits.
Just like Crawford will be an X-factor for the Sox, Jason Heyward will need to revert back to his rookie form for the Braves. He hit just .227 during his sophomore slump last season.
But even more so than the Sox, starting pitching will either make or break the Braves. Tim Hudson may miss a few starts early on, which will deprive Atlanta of its ace. Jair Jurrjens and Tommy Hanson had good seasons in 2011, but Jurrjens has been injury prone the last two years and Hanson has just 77 professional starts.
Compared to the Braves' other starters, though, Hanson is a seasoned veteran. Atlanta will rely on Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor for the final two rotation spots and some combination of top prospects Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran to fill in for Hudson. These pitchers all have the talent to succeed, but the odds that all of them click all season long are very slim.
So both the Red Sox and Braves will have question marks heading into the season, but then again, what team doesn't? However, the questions surrounding these two teams are much more glaring based on the late-season collapses. On paper, the Sox may have the edge, but both teams will be poised for revenge in 2012.