Veterans, youth ready to shine in Sox Infield

Spring Training games started this week around Major League Baseball, another milestone for fans and another sign that the regular season is fast approaching. Last week I took a look at the Red Sox outfield situation, and there was some uncertainty about who would be making the Opening Day roster. There’s speculation on where Jackie Bradley Jr. will start the season and what to expect from Grady Sizemore. However, the infield roster positions seem pretty set in stone. At this point, it is a matter of what to expect from each spot.

There are two absolute locks in the infield, Dustin Pedroia at second and Mike Napoli at first. Pedroia, barring injury, will be on the field 160+ games again. Fans know what to expect from him, though don’t be surprised if he adds a little more pop as his thumb injury sapped some power from his 2013 campaign. Napoli is coming off a very good year for Boston, not only hitting for power and run production but playing solid defense at first base. The one new thing I’m looking for him to improve upon is his strikeout rate. This has been a part of his game for most of his career, but he has said that he was bothered at the amount of strikeouts he had last season. The Sox will probably trade some extra strikeouts for more homers, but getting his strikeout rate down should help his overall numbers in 2014.

As of now, Stephen Drew remains unsigned but doesn’t appear likely to end up in Boston. Should the Sox change their mind and sign him, he would take over at shortstop everyday. I don’t think they should go in this direction because I truly believe in what they already have on the left side of the infield: Xander Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks.

Bogaerts, the number two prospect in all of baseball, showed the Sox what he can do on the brightest stage, performing very well in the postseason and taking the starting third baseman job. Now penciled in as the starting shortstop, we should generally see the same things we saw at the end of last year. A word constantly associated with Bogaerts is “poise,” and anyone who watches him play every day can see that. He is not intimidated by any stage and remains collected on the diamond. He can drive the ball to all fields while showing plate discipline. As with any young player, there will be learning curves along the way and he will continue to grow and add to his game. However Bogaerts is one of the future superstars of this game and I expect an impressive year from him.

(Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Middlebrooks is the organization’s former number one prospect, but fell on hard times last season. After struggling with Boston he was demoted to Pawtucket and played on and off after being recalled. Despite these struggles, Middlebrooks is penciled in as the every day third baseman and his production remains one of the biggest questions for this team. He has the potential to hit 30 home runs as his power, specifically his opposite field power, is above average. When I first saw him play this aspect of his game really stood out and still does. Even in a down year last season he hit 17 homers in 93 games. So what does he have to do? Too many times last year at both levels he rolled over outside pitches to shortstop instead of taking what the pitcher gave him and shoot the ball the other way. This would allow him to display his opposite field power better while raising his average. While we may have to accept that Middlebrooks will never be a .300 hitter, being a .250 hitter with 25-30 home runs will do the job towards the bottom of the order. The organization doesn’t want to give up on him because of his great potential, but if he can’t take steps in the right direction this year he may be in another uniform before season’s end.

For backup infielders, look for Mike Carp and Daniel Nava to play first base when Napoli is out of the lineup. Carp has more experience there but Nava has worked since the start of last year to improve at this spot. The only other infielder on the roster is Jonathan Herrera, who can play second, third, and shortstop. Herrera was acquired when the team sent Franklin Morales and Chris Martin to Colorado in December. A good utility piece, his versatility gives the Sox some insurance should Bogaerts or Middlebrooks struggle at any point. He doesn’t offer much in terms of power or speed, but he’s a solid infielder who hit at .292 last season. He’s not someone I’d be comfortable relying on for an extended period of time, but as a backup infielder he’s a great fit.

This group has proven talent as well as potential All Stars. With Bogaerts likely starting off hitting around the six spot in the order and Middlebrooks hitting around eight, their production will make the Boston lineup one of the deepest in all of baseball.

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Should Baseball be an Olympic Sport?

by TIM SCOTT

The glory of winning Olympic gold, the pride of representing your nation, and the dreams of success on the international stage are the driving forces behind anybody’s Olympic aspirations. Whether it be in the summer, or in the winter (like this year’s Sochi Olympics), many athletes share the same passions, bonding on a platform of athletic ingenuity while participating in the competitive atmosphere of sports.

However, like many removed Olympic sports before, baseball players around the world have not had the opportunity to revel in those dreams for many years. Ever since the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to remove baseball and softball from the Olympic Program after the 2008 games in Beijing, supporters of the sport have feverishly tried to restore the sport’s status on the Olympic stage. Despite strong advocacy from many supporters, baseball and softball were not selected by the IOC for the 2020 Olympic program, instead choosing to reinstate wrestling.

Baseball was first played in the 1904 Summer Olympics, and after many years of intermittent competition, became an official Summer Olympic sport in 1992. The popularity of baseball at the Summer Olympics spanned globally, as eight teams and 160 athletes were able to participate in the Summer Olympics. Cuba may have won the most medals during the five Olympic tournaments (3 gold, 2 bronze), but it was the global appeal of baseball (each populated continent had representation at some point during the five tournaments) that made the Olympic tournaments more unique, and intriguing to watch.

However, in the grand scheme of Olympic planning, baseball was fighting a losing battle against other globally-defined sports, such as golf and rugby sevens (the two sports voted into the London Olympic Program). In an interview with MLB.com in 2008, former IOC head Jacques Rogge stated that in order for baseball to rejoin the Olympic program, “you would need to have a sport with a following, you need to have the best players and you need to be in strict compliance with WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency). And these are the qualifications that have to be met. When you have all of that, you have to win hearts. You can win the mind, but you must still win the hearts.”

PROFESSIONALISM

Essentially, Rogge argued that professionalism, globalism, and clean competition are the three main factors behind baseball’s inclusion into the Olympic program. The first problem affecting nations such as the United States is the fact that professional athletes should compete in the Olympic Games. In the past, the United States sent minor leaguers and Major League free agents to the Olympic Games, and have finished with mediocre results (1 gold, 2 bronze). The obstacle for the United States is trying to convince America’s best baseball players to step forward from their comfortable confines, and represent the nation on the international stage. This would mean trying to tamper with the Major League season, which runs during the traditional Olympic calendar. A proposal that resonated throughout the MLB was to suspend the season one month while professionals played in the Olympic tournament. Although that could lead to international success, most players and fans would not be in support of that policy, due to the notion that fans would miss watch their teams for a month (similar to the NHL and their Olympic guidelines) and that players would have to interrupt their training regimens and pitching cycle in order to join the American team on the international stage.

Countering the removal of baseball from the Olympic program, the major professional baseball leagues created a tournament sanctioned by the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) known as the World Baseball Classic. There, 16 teams would be grouped into pools, and the best teams from each pool would have the opportunity to compete for the championship. Despite successful tournaments in 2006, 2009, and 2013, the support for the tournament in the United States has been minimal, due to the lack of big-name players participating in the tournament. Despite having players like Ryan Braun, Giancarlo Stanton, Joe Mauer, and David Wright in the fold, most people did not take to the excitement of the tournament, simply because high-profile players (Justin Verlander, Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw, etc.) did not elect to participate in the tournament. Although the sport of baseball has tried to recapture its glory on the international stage, the rapport for international support for the United States baseball team has struggled due to the lack of big-name professional players donning the red, white, and blue with the aim of winning the championship.

GLOBALISM

Alongside professionalism, globalism is another issue that baseball has to work out in order for its Olympic status to be renewed. On the surface, this issue seems minimal, as 51 countries have sent players to play in the Major Leagues since 1876. However, the depth of this international passion, as evidenced by the lower number of Major Leaguers in some countries, seems to be a concerning factor for the IOC. Despite a large contingency of Major Leaguers from the Dominican Republic, Japan, Canada, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela, many countries that participated in the Olympics and World Baseball Classic did not have many Major League players to their name. For example, Italy, a team that has been a consistent participant in the World Baseball Classic, has no active players in the Major Leagues. In order to maintain their competence, players with Italian descent chose to play for Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic, a policy that can’t be carried over in the Olympic Games. Since some countries have to depend on international mercenaries to fill out their rosters, it may be alarming for the international support system that most countries can’t field teams of talented players to compete against the likes of professional juggernauts (USA, Japan, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, etc.).

In order to fill this international void, the Major Leagues has established many initiatives to rally international support for the sport in many countries. Most teams have established training programs in countries such as China and Aruba in order to develop talented players. Also, teams have traveled to nations where baseball hasn’t prospered to find raw talent. One example occurred in India, where the Pittsburgh Pirates signed two Indian pitchers after their participation in the reality TV Show Million Dollar Arm. Although Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel have not broken into the major leagues yet, their influence and admiration throughout India has helped the nation develop a following for baseball that was barely present in prior years. In effect, the programs established by the MLB has developed an international admiration for the game, spreading the game’s popularity worldwide, and helping its case to restore its Olympic status.

CLEAN COMPETITION

In addition to professionalism and globalism, clean competition is needed in order for baseball to thrive as an Olympic sport. Due to the recent scandals involving performance-enhancing drugs that have rocked the Major League community, many initiatives have been taken by Major League baseball to protect the pureness of the game. In compliance with WADA and other drug prevention programs, the MLB has suspended numerous Major and Minor League players for 50 games or more for drug violations. The effects these initiatives as the translate to the international level are a major factor towards the sport’s inclusion as an Olympic sport. The IOC, who has had to endure many drug scandals throughout its tenure, wants to ensure the purity of sport during their Olympic competitions, and believes that baseball should clean up before it is reconsidered as an Olympic sport. If many players comply with the drug policies set forth by Major League Baseball and WADA, then that would significantly affect the prognosis of baseball as an Olympic sport.

If baseball can emphasize its professional, global, and pure standards that have made it a popular game throughout the world, then it should be reinstated as an Olympic sport simply because of its international support. Nationalism and dedication, which are the heart and soul of the Olympic competitions, are two things that baseball brings to the table effectively. Ever since 1992, three countries (Cuba, United States, and South Korea) have been able to tout themselves as the strongest baseball nations on the Olympic stage. Being able to call oneself the best in something is a feeling that is rarely duplicated, making the nation and its people feel confident and stronger in the process. If the IOC wants to have nationalism and loyalty thrive within the confines of their games, then they should definitely reconsider bringing baseball back to the Olympic Games. Whenever baseball is restored into the Olympic Program, it will return stronger than ever before, capitalizing on the opportunity to repair the mistakes made in the previous five Olympic baseball tournaments.

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Versatile Sox OF good without Ellsbury

As the Red Sox enter 2014 as defending Champions, this team is different from the team that won it all last season. With the season approaching rapidly, I will take a look at what the team has done in the offseason to improve, replace departed pieces and get ready to contend again. In the weeks leading up to Opening Day I’ll evaluate the Sox infield situation as well as their pitching, but we’ll start today by looking at their 2014 outfield.

There may be no bigger change to the Red Sox lineup than the centerfield position. Most people knew that the team would not be able to resign Jacoby Ellsbury this offseason, and his departure left a hole not only in center, but atop the Sox lineup. While losing someone of Ellsbury’s caliber may cripple some teams, it opens the door for possibilities in Boston. As they say: the more things change, the more they stay the same, and that would hold true for Jackie Bradley Jr. as he again will be a huge story throughout spring. Questions about his ability to be an everyday centerfielder have lingered throughout the offseason, though he is all but sure to be the starter on Opening Day. The question is, can he handle it?

Bradley, who will turn 24 in April, is not going to be what Ellsbury was last season. He won’t steal 50 bases nor will he anchor the top of the lineup. But that doesn’t mean he won’t be productive, especially for a centerfielder. Bradley will not have to do the things Ellsbury did when batting towards the bottom of the order. His patience at the plate and ability to work his way on base will be valued at that spot, giving Boston a deeper lineup than most teams. He can make plays on the base paths, though not nearly to the extent of Ellsbury. Bradley also will not hit for much power, though he could reach double digit home runs by season’s end. What Bradley can do, and do better than Ellsbury, is field his position. Anyone who has seen Bradley play knows he is a natural in centerfield, gliding to balls others wouldn’t get to while making tough plays look routine. While people will be hesitant to say Bradley is a better defender than Ellsbury, those who get to watch him play everyday will not be surprised with the comparison. To expect Bradley to have an All-Star season is setting the bar too high, but those who doubt he can play at this level will see is a budding star.

For all the things Bradley can do, the role of leadoff hitter is not yet one of them. That role will be filled by postseason hero Shane Victorino. Victorino slots nicely into the leadoff spot after batting second most of 2013, a move that also allows Dustin Pedroia to go back to the two spot where he is more comfortable. His biggest concern will be health, as he is coming off surgery on his thumb and wrist not to mention a back injury that held him out some games in the playoffs. Managing him throughout the season will be important, and that should be doable as the Sox have plenty of outfield options. A healthy Victorino will play an important part in the Sox offense again, as his skills and knack for the big hit will be on display again.

With those two spots pretty much set, leftfield will see a platoon again between Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes. I usually don’t like platoon situations as the main option for a team, however with the unselfish attitude that this team possesses it works very well. Nava will see a bulk of the action again, not only because he would hit against right handed pitching but because of his lineup versatility. He can hit anywhere in the lineup and give a solid at bat each time up. Gomes will get the starts against most lefties, though he will have plenty of at bats whether it’s in the starting lineup or as a pinch hitter. “Mr. Intangible” showed what his game is all about throughout the 2013 regular and postseason. He along with Nava will have very similar roles as they did a season ago, and they should both thrive in these roles again.

Newly signed Grady Sizemore will be the competition in centerfield for Bradley, and what to expect from him is truly unknown. He’s played 112 games since 2010, none since 2012. In his prime, he was an elite player who could do it all. Now, the Sox hope he can regain any of his old form while providing insurance behind Bradley. Regardless of his success, he will be managed physically to ensure he doesn’t sustain another injury. I expect him to be another member of the Sox outfield platoon, with the chance to see some starts should Bradley struggle.

A man people forget is Mike Carp, who had a very good season in his platoon role. An outfielder and first baseman, Carp will have his share of at bats against right handed pitching and as a pinch hitter, whether it is in left or at first. My question is would the Sox want to keep six outfielders on their roster? While Carp is the backup first baseman, Nava can also play first. Victorino, Nava, and Gomes are locks to be with the big league team all year long. Bradley is unlikely to get sent down unless he really struggles, so he too is a lock for a big league spot. The team didn’t sign Sizemore to a guaranteed contract just to release him early in spring. So that leaves the 27 year old Carp as the potential odd man out. Keep in mind that this is my pure speculation, but his $1.4 million salary along with his age and production seem to make him a tradable asset. What the team could get back for him or would be looking to get back for him is unknown, but he is a guy that can start on other MLB teams. Another option could be Sizemore starting the year on the DL or carrying one less pitcher, but trading Carp is not out of the realm of possibility.

With the amount of versatility and talent this outfield has, this group should be one of the deepest positions on the team. Everyone can play multiple spots and hit all around the lineup, a huge advantage for the team. 2014 should see continued success from the Red Sox outfield, even without Ellsbury.

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Busy week for P-Bruins

It was a challenging week for the Providence Bruins, playing four games in seven days for only the second time all season. Add on some call-ups, returns, injuries and trades and it makes this week that much more challenging for the P-Bruins. Despite all of this, the team rose to the occasion by winning three of four games and taking seven of a possible eight points. Providence also jumped from ninth to sixth in the Eastern Conference.

Providence started their week beating the St. John’s IceCaps 3-2 on February 4 behind good goaltending from Malcolm Subban and goals from Matt Lindblad, Craig Cunningham and Anthony Camara. The following night the two teams faced off again, with the Bruins earning a point in a shootout loss.

After two days off, Providence ended their five game road trip in Manchester with another 3-2 victory. Niklas Svedberg got the call in net and performed well while 8 different Bruins scored points. Their week concluded with a home game against the Springfield Falcons which they won 3-1. Svedberg played well again while Mike Moore, Tyler Randell and Alexander Khokhlachev netted goals.

Perhaps the biggest news for the team had nothing to do with their play on the ice. The Bruins traded Carter Camper, who has a toe injury, to the Falcons in exchange for Blake Parlett. Parlett is a good defenseman, as he has posted 4 goals and 14 assists in 39 games this season and fills a nice need for this team. However losing Camper is a blow to the Bruin offense. Camper, who was set to be a free agent at the end of the year, was the third leading scorer at the time of this trade and beginning to step into the role of a team leader.

Unfortunately, the other big news is on the injury front. Leading scorer Nick Johnson was injured during this stretch along with Zach Trotman and Andrew Cherniwchan. Jarred Knight remains out and Joe Morrow suffered a scary knee injury. After thinking he would be out for the season with a knee injury, he is only expected to miss six weeks with a knee cap injury.

If any team can handle the roster shake ups, it would be Providence. The Bruins, third in the AHL with 163 goals, have 10 players with 24 or more points, so the scoring has been very balanced with no one player carrying the team. With the amount of roster changes all season, Providence has been forced to do this.

As the season enters its final months, Providence looks to be in good shape so long as the injury bug doesn’t bite them too long. Though they have some key guys out, their other stars like Cunningham, Khokhlachev and Florek remain while players like Ryan Spooner and David Warsofsky are back from Boston. Add in winning goaltender play from both Svedberg and Subban and Providence is in good playoff position.

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Key P-Bruins coming back

The halfway point of the AHL season has recently passed, and the Providence Bruins remain in good position to make the postseason for the second consecutive year. The P-Bruins sit at 20-13-1-5, and their 46 pts are good for second in the Atlantic Division and sixth in the Eastern Conference. However, it has been rough going for the team in recent days. The team dropped 2 of 3 games over the weekend while scoring just 1 goal in 9 periods over that stretch. The only win they had came on the 10th, a 1-0 shootout win. Goaltending was not a problem, as the combination of Niklas Svedberg and David LeNeveu gave up 3 goals in 3 games. The offense has struggled and looked out of sorts, including a 0-11 power play total. The team, despite that horrid stretch, is still 5th in the league in power play efficiency and has been a good offensive team most of the season.

Why were they in a rut in recent days? It likely stems from the loss of some of their play makers. Ryan Spooner, Justin Florek, and Matt Fraser were important members of their scoring attack, and while they survived their promotions for a time, consistently putting up production without your stars is difficult. Spooner, who was the lone P-Bruin named to the AHL All-Star team, will likely remain in Boston for a while, but Florek and Fraser have been sent back down and will be back in action tonight for Providence. Florek scored his first NHL goal against the Kings on January 9th, and his 22 AHL points are good for 5th on the team. Fraser has been the best goal scorer in all of the AHL over the past 3 seasons, and despite only playing in 23 games, his 16 goals lead the team. With most of their talent back in the fold now, I expect the offense to pick right back up and blow off last weekend as a fluke.

Florek and Fraser’s return will complement the rest of the Bruins talent, as giving Carter Camper and Alexander Khokhlachev more scoring options will spark the Bruins offense and give them more scoring chances. When together, the Bruins top lines have been very productive. Nick Johnson and Florek, aside from being top 5 scorers on the team, both have a rating of +12. Camper leads the team in scoring with 29 points and assists with 21. Craig Cunningham is on pace for another 25 goal season with 13 goals so far. These players have all played well together, so getting them back together, at least for the time being, makes this offense a big threat again.

Another unit of strength for this team has been defensemen. A unit that has played well all year continues to impress, as 5 of 7 defensemen on the roster have positive ratings. Joe Morrow, one of the lone defensemen that doesn’t, leads the group with 22 points. David Warsofsky continues to be the team’s best defenseman, posting 19 points and leading the team with a +13 rating. Should the Boston Bruins suffer another injury to their defense, Warsofsky would be the likely candidate for promotion with how well he’s played. Among the other notables, Zach Trotman hasn’t put up the offensive numbers that Morrow or Warsofsky have, but has still played very well. The young defenseman has a solid +12 rating, and every time I watch him play, I like him even more.

Providence looks to get back on track tonight with Svedberg starting in net against the Scranton Penguins.

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