Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Looking Ahead: Boston Red Sox

  • Ryan Howard won the NL MVP Award, and Justin Morneau took home the AL MVP Award. I'm too tired of arguing to discuss why they were such bad picks, so go listen to Keith Law and Rob Neyer discuss the same.
2006 W-L Record: 86-76
2006 pW-pL Record: 81-81
Runs Scored: 820 (6th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 825 (11th in AL)
Free Agents: Alex Cora, Keith Foulke, Alex Gonzalez, Jason Johnson, Gabe Kapler, Javy Lopez, Mark Loretta, Doug Mirabelli, Trot Nixon, Carlos Pena, David Riske

2007 Projected Lineup:
1B -- Kevin Youkilis

2B -- Dustin Pedroia
SS -- ???
3B -- Mike Lowell
LF -- Manny Ramirez
CF -- Coco Crisp
RF -- Wily Mo Pena
C -- Jason Varitek
DH -- David Ortiz

2007 Proj. Rotation:
Curt Schilling
Daisuke Matsuzaka?
Jonathan Papelbon
Josh Beckett
Tim Wakefield/Kyle Snyder/Matt Clement

2007 Proj. Closer: ???

Offense and Defense:
The Sox offense was disappointing in 2006. They went from consistently leading the league in most offensive categories to just barely above-average. The good news is that they were still getting production from the right side of the defensive spectrum; Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz were MVP candidates, Mike Lowell and Kevin Youkilis held down the infield corners both offensively and defensively, and Trot Nixon and Wily Mo Pena managed satisfactory numbers in right field.
The Sox' trouble in 2006 (as it will be in 2007) is getting production up the middle from the skilled defensive positions. At catcher, the Sox are stuck with Jason Varitek, who is on the downhill slide of his career. Varitek hit a mere 238/325/400 in 2006. Most of the Sox' downfall was blamed on the loss of team captain Varitek. That's just silly, as the pitching numbers above show. Varitek hit poorly and, at age 35, won't be getting much better next year.
In the middle infield, the Sox tried to get by with Mark Loretta and Alex Gonzalez. Gonzalez was a pretty big nothing (255/299/397), although his defense is either Gold Glove-quality or simply above-average, depending on which stats you favor. Second baseman Mark Loretta was more of a disappointment, as he showed no signs of his San Diego form with a 285/345/361 batting line. Both men will depart as free agents in 2007, leaving the Sox with holes to fill there.

But the biggest disappointment was probably center fielder Coco Crisp. Crisp struggled with injuries that sapped his offense (264/317/385 in 105 games), while former Red Sox Johnny Damon lit up New York with the Yankees. Crisp will likely improve in 2007, but it's still questionable whether the Sox would be better off cutting ties and getting an upgrade somewhere.
So the Sox are left with these holes to fill: Catcher, Center Field, Second Base, Shortstop. The Sox are stuck with Varitek at catcher for two more years, so there's nothing for them there. They also traded away competent backups Kelly Shoppach and Josh Bard, leaving them with nothing to replace the Cap'n when he went down with injuries. A good backup catcher would be a solid investment for '07, especially if they can hit.
At second base, the Sox will go with young Dustin Pedroia. Pedroia has hit well in the minors, showing a good batting eye, a strong batting average, and doubles power. It's questionable how much of his minor league stardom will translate to the maj0rs; predictions vary widely depending upon whom you ask. Regardless, Pedroia is what the Sox will have to go with, especially since they'll be dropping lots of money elsewhere.
Center field may take a more creative solution. Word is that the Sox are energetically pursuing J.D. Drew. I'm not sure how this would shake things out; they may shift Drew to center field and trade Crisp, or leave him in right field and trade Pena. Either way, Drew would be a good investment, especially for a team with few guarantees over the long term. The Sox have several young outfielders at Triple-A that could make a contribution in the big leagues, such as Brandon Moss, David Murphy, and Jacoby Ellsbury. But it's questionable whether they're good enough to be big-league regulars or just fourth outfielders.

Shortstop is also a big problem with no internal solution. The Sox are rumored to be pursuing Julio Lugo, but there are several teams in on him, since he's by far the best free agent shortstop. Without him, the Sox may do what they did last year and just settle on a punchless glove man for the role.

The Sox' starting pitching outlook is much brighter than it was last year. That ugly 11th-place finish in runs allowed showed a pitching staff devastated by injuries and lacking in the depth to compensate. But with the shift of Jonathan Papelbon to the rotation, and the presumed signing of Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Sox have already taken a big step forward to improve themselves in that regard.
(I must correct a statement I made earlier; if the Red Sox fail to sign Matsuzaka, their posting fee is refunded, and Matsuzaka is not eligible to sign with any other MLB team.)

Even so, very little is guaranteed, and there are considerable question about each pitcher in the rotation. If everything goes well, a starting rotation of Schilling/Papelbon/Matsuzaka/Beckett/Wakefield would be one of the best in the league. But that's assuming a lot. Schilling and Wakefield both turn 40 next year. Schilling is coming off a productive and healthy 2006, so that's a comfort, but he's still a power pitcher entering the danger zone of injuries and regressing performance. The same could be said of Wakefield. Wakefield missed a good deal of 2006 to injury, but other than that, he's usually been a durable source of quality innings, and a very valuable man to have in the #5 spot.
With Papelbon, the question isn't so much effectiveness as health. Papelbon was the most dominant relief pitcher in baseball last year until injuries prematurely ended his season. Will those injuries reoccur? How will Papelbon adjust to the shift back into the rotation? These are big questions that make it difficult to predict his future with any certainty.
Just as unpredictable is Daisuke Matsuzaka. This is assuming -- of course -- that the Red Sox can indeed sign him in the 23 days they have left to do so. Even if they do, there's always the question of how Matsuzaka's performance will translate across the pond. Clay Davenport's translation system has Matsuzaka ranking with the elite pitchers of our time; so it would seem that his dominance will translate well to the states. But he's a 26-year-old with a lot of innings pitched who's used to pitching on 5 days of rest (I believe). How will he adjust to the bigs? While all of that is legitimate concern, it still seems to me that Matsuzaka -- if he signs -- is the closest to a sure thing that the Sox pitching staff has.
There are even some concerns about Josh Beckett. Beckett was supposed to be the #2 co-anchor behind Curt Schilling, but his 2006 performance leaves him looking more like a #3 or #4. Beckett posted a 5.01 ERA and allowed a career-high 36 home runs. I doubt he'll continue pitching in the 5.00-ERA range, but his peripherals would indicate that he's not going to be as dominant as the Red Sox hoped. The pressure is on him in 2007 to prove that he can pitch in the AL.

The Sox bullpen is also in flux. Veterans include Julian Tavarez and Mike Timlin, neither of whom is particularly reliable for future prediction and both are only getting older. The Sox have no closer, wisely letting Keith Foulke walk, and will probably replace him either with a trade or with one of their young relief arms. The Sox have several young arms that could step in as closer, but there would likely be a steep learning curve, as none of them has been able to stick in the major leagues just yet. That learning curve is especially steep in Boston, where the fans aren't known for their patience with pitchers who blow saves.

Offseason Outlook:
The Sox should pursue safer, more reliable free agents such as Julio Lugo and J.D. Drew. Their offense has a sound base of production already, and it's just a matter of supplementing it with better offense and defense up the middle.
I also don't think that the team should trade Manny Ramirez. In this new world order of baseball salaries, Manny's $20 million annual salary is no longer considered to be that outlandish. It seems possible that the Red Sox could actually consummate a deal this time, but I don't really see how it would help the team. Manny still hits like an MVP with a startling consistency, and there's simply no way you could replace that contribution. If the Sox trade Manny they will likely be picking up part of his salary. This makes a potential deal even less attractive; the Sox will be paying $8-10 million a year just to get rid of Manny, with only $10-12 million to spend on an actual player. And as this offseason has shown us, a $12 million annual salary won't even get you the likes of Alfonso Soriano or Aramis Ramirez -- so there's no chance that you can acquire a player of Manny's stature.
The only real reason to trade Manny is if you can get some sort of embarassingly good offer in return, or if his attitude and performance simply becomes untenable. His performance is above reproach; Manny's prickly attitude and fussiness have never affected his offensive potency. And although it's easier said than done, the Sox would be better off just living with his headaches, especially since there are precious few scenarios whereby trading him would improve your ballclub.
On the pitching side of things, the Sox need to resist the urge to overspend (at least, apart from Matsuzaka). If they can sign the Japanese wunderkind, their pitching staff will be in as good a shape as they can manage it, playing with the hand they were dealt. It's going to be a challenge to keep up with the Yankees and Blue Jays when it comes to spending sprees, but you simply must resist it. Your team is still volatile and unpredictable, but it's the best you can do with what you've got to work with.

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