After a September collapse that knocked the Red Sox out of the playoffs, many fans and analysts expected the organization to make some big sweeping moves this offseason.  While a shakeup with field and front office management occurred in late-September and early-October, the on-field talent remained largely the same.  Sure, Jonathan Papelbon was allowed to leave via free agency; Marco Scutaro, Jed Lowrie, Kyle Weiland, and Josh Reddick were traded away for relievers; and Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek were given nothing more than non-roster invitations to Spring Training.  Still, outside of Papelbon and Scutaro, none of the others mentioned were expected to play major roles on the 2012 team.

Still, despite last year’s team being largely in tact, several questions (whether fair or not) remain as we head into Spring Training.   On Sunday, Tim Britton at the Providence Journal, addressed a few of his questions in his morning column.  While he asked some pertinent questions, it got me thinking about a few of the questions I have regarding the 2012 Red Sox.  Here are a few of them:

What Can We Expect from Daniel Bard?

I see this as the biggest question facing the Red Sox this season.  We already know that the front three of Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholz have the potential of being one of the most dominant trios in the major leagues, provided they can stay healthy.  After that, it’s anybody’s guess what the Red Sox will get out of the fourth and fifth slots in the rotation.

After spending three years dominating as Papelbon’s understudy out of the bullpen, Bard is being given a chance to stretch out his arm and nail down a job in the starting rotation.  While no one doubts his stuff (plus-fastball, plus-slider), many have expressed concern about how he’ll react moving from one role to the other.  People are quick to mention the failures of making this transition (like Joba Chamberlain), but it’s interesting that few remember the successes like Derek Lowe or Alexi Ogando.*  Clearly, there will be an adjustment period.  After making the transition, he will need to be more efficient with his pitches; rely more on his change-up to neutralize lefties; and adjust to facing hitters 2-3 times through the lineup as opposed to just once.  Furthermore, he’ll tire quicker that most starting pitchers at his age because he won’t have built up the same level of endurance and arm strength.  He’ll be kept on innings and pitch limitations for the entirity of the season.  As a result, he probably fits better out of the fifth slot in the rotation, as opposed to the fourth.

* Note:  I don’t think Chamberlain was a failure, but many do.  I believe his issues were a function of injury and poor handling by the Yankees.

So what can we expect out of Bard?  Well, here’s what a few of the major projection systems say about him so far.  I’m not including ZiPS or Bill James because the only projections I could find for him were from October when the plan was for him to remain in the bullpen.

OLIVER – 3.10 ERA, 4.3 fWAR, 165 innings

RotoChamp – 3.43 ERA, 161/56 K/BB, 155 innings

PECOTA (partially projected as starter/reliever) – 3.61 ERA, 133 innings

The projection systems see him performing favorably in 2012.  Ultimately though, I see him throwing 150-160 innings of 3.75 ERA ball, while producing around 2-3 fWAR.  I’m anticipating lower strikeout and higher walk rates, but that’s to be expected.  We probably won’t see too many starts that extend beyond 6+ innings this season unless he finds a way to be extraordinarily efficient.  As a result, the Red Sox will need to make sure they get at least 170-180 innings out of the other open slot in the rotation.  If they don’t, it could have adverse affects on bullpen performance and fatigue.

Will Kevin Youkilis Remain Healthy and Productive?

As David Schubert said in his guest column here at Fire Brand, “‘Kevin Youkilis‘ and ‘full season’ aren’t going to be seen in the same sentence without the words ‘won’t be playing’ somewhere in between.”  I tend to agree.  As productive as Youkilis has been for the Red Sox over the years, we’ve learned to enjoy it knowing that an injury was probably lurking somewhere around the corner.  Over the last three seasons in particular, the injury bug has limited his time on the field as he’s suffered through an assortment of nagging hip, hernia, hand, and back injuries.*  Still, despite only playing in 358 of a possible 486 games, he’s managed to produce 13.7 fWAR in value; making him the 23rd most valuable player in baseball in that time.

* Go about one-third of the way down the page to view his injury history.  It’s lengthy to say the least.

All of that said, Youkilis is about to enter his age-33 season, and appears to be on the decline.  After producing a .400+ wOBA for three straight seasons, Youk’s production came crashing down last season.  While a .366 wOBA (126 wRC+) is still very good, it was a far cry from what we’d come to expect out of the fiery, goatee cloaked corner infielder.  Theoretically, through hard work and determination, we he could rediscover his 2008-2010 form.  Unfortunately, a big rebound seems unlikely given his age.

Defensively, he seemed to suffer after crossing the diamond to third base, and lacked the lateral range and quickness he previously exhibitied at first base.  Not surprisingly, these deficiencies were reflected in the objective defensive metrics:  UZR (-2.3), DRS (-5), and FRAA (-1.3).  Some of issues were likely the result of getting reacquainted with playing the position, so it’s possible he could rebound defensively in 2012.  Still, considering his age and injury history, it’s probably safer to project him as being below average defensively at third.

Will Cody Ross and Ryan Sweeney Pay Dividends in Right Field?

Last season, the veritable right field pu pu platter of J.D. Drew, Mike Cameron, Josh Reddick, and Darnell McDonald was downright terrible, producing a combined .652 OPS*.  This season, the Red Sox have two players capable of forming an above average platoon in Ross and Sweeney.

* For reference, that’s equivalent to Yunieksy Betancourt’s 2011 production.  Yikes!

Sweeney is an incredibly athletic outfielder with a decent arm and great range.  Although he’s best suited for one of the corners, he can play all three positions in a pinch.  Considering the vast dimensions of Fenway’s right field, he seems like he’d be the ideal successor to Drew.  Barring an unforseen slump, he should do a great job preventing runs.  Offensively, he’s a bit limited, but he gets on base and hits righties pretty well.

Ross, on the other hand, tends to be more offensively oriented.  He has good power, improved patience at the plate, and mashes lefties.  His offensive performance against righties has been pretty mediocre throughout his career, and should be considered a liability.  Given his power capabilities, he’ll probably be the first man off of the bench for critical pinch hitting situations late in the game.  Defensively, he has below average range a decent arm.  As a result, he should hardly be considered to be an ideal candidate to play right field.

If the Red Sox use Ross and Sweeney in a strict platoon (or at least something reasonably close to one), they could get considerable value out of right field.  Given the environment around major league baseball currently, that seems unlikely.  Still, it’s a combination that should not only pay dividends, but also far exceed last season’s production.  Plus, in a worst case scenario situation, Ryan Kalish should be ready to play by mid-season.  If one of them falters, he could slide right into the lineup.