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Some new faces for Red Sox, but not a complete overhaul . . . yet

Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz throws

Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz throws the ball during a spring training baseball workout. (Feb. 15, 2013) Credit: AP


When the Red Sox returned to the clubhouse Friday after nearly four hours together on the field for the first time, Dustin Pedroia already knew two things.

Life is better around JetBlue Park, the team's spring training home.

And Will Middlebrooks is a slob.

"I know I'm low maintenance," Pedroia yelled over to Middlebrooks, "but we have to do something about this!"

Pedroia was gesturing to a large pile -- shirts, shoes, boxes -- that had crept from Middlebrooks' locker to the edge of the one belonging to his cranky neighbor.

Pedroia is only 29, but the former MVP is one of the few remaining links to the Red Sox's glory days, otherwise known as any time before September 2011.

Middlebrooks, 24, is supposed to be the next Pedroia, the successor to Kevin Youkilis at third base in a process expedited last season by, of all people, departed manager Bobby Valentine. Middlebrooks batted .288, with an .835 OPS, and had 15 home runs and 54 RBIs in 75 games.

In other words, Middlebrooks is one of the few things to go right for the Red Sox since they blew a nine-game wild-card lead over the Rays with a month to play in 2011. Last season, described by David Ortiz as "a disaster," the Red Sox went 69-93, the first time they finished with fewer than 70 wins since 1965. But if there are reasons to believe in Boston again -- not many outside this clubhouse do -- Middlebrooks belongs on that list.

"I think everyone in here has a chip on their shoulder," he said. "They want to prove people wrong. It makes you push a little harder."

Those words prompt a visitor to do a double take. Chip? Prove people wrong? This talk sounds more like what a person would hear a few miles down the road at the Twins' facility, which is at the other end of Daniels Parkway in Fort Myers.

But there's no need to check the GPS. This is the right place, so-called Fenway South -- it says so on the walls -- where a mixture of middling free agents, a few reliable holdovers with World Series rings and new manager John Farrell is supposed to transform the Red Sox into, well, the Red Sox again.

How urgent is that mission? Before the first full-squad workout Friday, the annual address, usually given by the manager, was delivered not only by Farrell but by general manager Ben Cherington and the franchise's upper management trio of principal owner John Henry, chairman Tom Werner and CEO Larry Lucchino.

"To a man, everyone in that room associates the name Red Sox with winning," Farrell said, "and that came out in conversation throughout the offseason. That's why I said there's been an eagerness to get back down here and get started to rewrite that script.

"The different degrees of embarrassment, the different degrees of knowing that what transpired last year isn't the norm or allowable. We have to rewrite that story."

It's looked more like a remodeling effort so far, with some of the franchise gutted to remove the rotten and useless parts. The work actually began last season with the trade of Youkilis on June 25, continued with the Aug. 26 mega-swap that shipped Josh Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez to the Dodgers -- accompanied by nearly $240 million in salary -- and concluded with Valentine's firing.

During the offseason, the Red Sox added more than $65 million to their 2013 payroll on free agents, the most expensive being a three-year, $39-million contract for Shane Victorino. They also handed out lucrative deals to Ryan Dempster (two years, $26.5 million), Jonny Gomes (two years, $10 million) and Stephen Drew (one year, $9.5 million).

Reshuffling the roster certainly has given the impression of dramatic change, but it doesn't automatically alter the course of the franchise. The scars of the past two seasons remain, and they feel fresher than the World Series memories of 2004 and '07. It wasn't merely a bad dream, and until the Red Sox get to play another game that counts, all they can do is promise a turnaround.

"Nobody likes the past couple years," Jon Lester said, "but I don't think anybody has the right code or a wand they can wave to get us back to what we were. We have to earn it."

Lester accepts his share of the blame for what happened. After averaging 16 wins from 2008-11, including 19 in 2010, Lester's ERA ballooned to 4.82 last year and he finished 9-14.

Adding to the intrigue, Lester can become a free agent after this season, with the Red Sox holding a $13-million option for 2014. Although Lester is the ace of the Boston staff, his name surfaced in trade chatter during the offseason as potential bait for Royals outfield prospect Wil Myers, who wound up getting moved to the Rays for James Shields and Wade Davis.

Should the Red Sox stumble again this season, Lester won't be the only one dangled as bait before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

Jacoby Ellsbury, also in his walk year, no doubt is headed to the open market next offseason. He already seems weary of that narrative, dodging interview requests on camp's first official day. Ellsbury turns 30 in September, and he's only a year removed from finishing runner-up for MVP in 2011 (32 homers, 105 RBIs, 39 steals, .928 OPS).

Like most championship clubs, the Red Sox core has eroded over time, and Ortiz, who tried to play on one leg through an Achilles injury last season, is only becoming more vulnerable at age 37. The burly Big Papi is a reminder of happier days, but it appears the ticket-buying public isn't all that interested in nostalgia anymore.

Just this past week, Lucchino finally admitted that Fenway Park's sellout streak of 793 games, a record for U.S. professional sports, is likely to end in April, maybe as soon as the second home game. The Boston media questioned the legitimacy of the streak last season -- pointing out empty sections of seats -- but the Red Sox didn't bend in their assertion.

Just when it appears a lot is changing, however, some things stay the same in Boston. One of the first questions asked on the first day was whether alcohol will be allowed in the clubhouse. After the chicken-and-beer fiasco under Terry Francona in 2011, Valentine famously banned beer last season.

"I don't know if there's going to be beer or not," newcomer Gomes said, puzzled by the conversation. "But we're not kids in here. We're grown men."

The Red Sox can't get back to baseball soon enough. Winning again might take a bit longer.

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