It is time to look ahead to 2007. The Red Sox in 2006 had many, many problems. Lack of offensive production (820 runs scored as opposed to 910 in 2005, 949 in 2004, and 961 in 2003) was a big problem. The Sox scored their fewest total of runs since 2001. But that season, we allowed 80 fewer runs than we allowed in 2006.
The lack of production was felt worst at catcher, short-stop, center-field, and right-field. Varitek, Bard, and Mirabelli combined for a measly .226 average, with 18 homers (6 from Mirabelli), and 80 RBI. That just isn't the kind of production we're used to seeing. However, Varitek's defensive and game calling prowess make him the full-time catcher for the 2007 Sox. His leadership doesn't hurt, but one can wonder how effective that leadership truly is considering how the team imploded at the end of the year.
If Wakefield is going to be back as a starter, we need to keep Mirabelli as a backup catcher. If not, I think we can look elsewhere. Dougie is a good power hitter, but that's it. He hit .193 and struck out 54 times. That's a K every 2.98 at-bats (Wily Mo Pena was at a strikeout per every 3.07 ABs). Mirabelli also struck out 1.74 times per hit he got. That just isn't productive. Now, Mirabelli wasn't the reason the Sox didn't score runs, but we can improve production there. With Tek turning 35 by April 11, we're going to need a backup catcher to come in, probably every fifth day. That's about 100 at-bats, at least, and 130 to 160 plate appearances. That isn't small potatoes.
The Red Sox could trade for a replacement backup catcher, or they could try to pick one up via free agency. Mirabelli is a free agent at the end of the season. Sandy Alomar Jr., who hit .274 last year as a backup, is a possibility. However, he will be 41 years old. Henry Blanco is also a free agent. He hit .266 in 241 ABs last year. He also added 6 homers. His OBP was .304. Robert Fick will be a free agent. He also hit .266. Furthermore, he can play first-base as well as the corner outfields. Greg Zaun might be a possibility, but it is doubtful he will take a job as a backup catcher. He'd also be expensive. What the Sox need to do at backup catcher is get somebody who will hit around .250 with at least a remote threat of power. We need a guy who won't be a hole in the lineup when he plays. He also needs to be defensively capable, and ideally, capable of pinch hitting off the bench.
First base was not much of an offensive or defensive weakpoint in 2006. Youkilis did his job with a .381 OBP. However, first base is typically a power position, and we lacked power there. Youk only hit 13 homeruns. Twenty-two players listed primarily as first basemen had more homers than Youkilis. We need power to come from somewhere in the lineup. We hit 192 homers as a team last year, which was 6th best in the league. Not bad, but in 2004 we hit 222. Homeruns are the biggest run producing plays in the game and we need to hit a few more of them. However, there is only one very good power hitting first basemen available in the free agent market. Nomar Garciaparra. I think if we were to sign him, we would want to put his offensive talents to use at short-stop.
We don't need a backup defensive first-basemen. This has been something the Sox have been high on ever since Doug Mientkiewicz came to town. You only get four or five bench spots open for position players and one of those is a catcher. Having a guy whose sole purpose is to be a defensive replacement at first-base is a waste of a roster spot. Guys like Olerud, who could hit and start regularly, were good. However, the JT Snow experiment failed miserable. I'd like to see the Sox sign a guy like Robert Fick because he can be a backup catcher as well as backup first-baseman and outfielder. We want to use our bench spots to get guys who are versatile and can fill several holes and play several roles.
Second base wasn't an offensive hole, but we didn't get too much production out of it. Loretta was a solid player with a .285 average, but his OBP was less than outstanding for a #2 hitter at .345. I think #1 and #2 hitters should have an added OBP of .750 or higher in order to be considered a truly great 1-2 combo. Youk and Loretta were at .726 total. In 2004, Damon and Bellhorn were at .753. I think the Sox could put Dustin Pedroia in at second base. I think we need some insurance just in case he needs another year in the minors. Pedroia did hit .305 in AAA with a .384 OBP and he just might be able to fit in at the spot, but it'd be nice to get someone who we know will hit and hit very well. I'll get to that in a bit. Also, Pedroia is capable of playing short-stop.
Third base was an offensive plus for us. Mike Lowell hit .284 with 20 homers, and 68 extra basehits. Nothing there needs to change.
Short-stop was an offensive black hole for us once again. Gonzalez hit .255 with an OBP below .300 and a slugging percentage below .400. This was what we expected out of him, but I think we should try to get more production out of the position. Pedroia could very well be the short-stop in 2007. Once again, however, I think we could use some insurance.
The middle infield spots are the most up in the air spots on the team. Gonzalez, Loretta, and Cora are all free agents. Pedroia is on the verge of breaking in to the team. I think it is safe to say that the Sox will not bring Gonzalez back as a starter for 2007 due to the lack of offense. Gonzalez was a 1 year fix while we waited for Pedroia.
We could re-sign Loretta and have Pedroia start at short-stop. We could move Pedroia back to second base and sign someone to play short-stop. Personally, I like the idea of keeping Loretta around while we bring Pedroia up as well as adding an additional player to the middle infield mix. I think the ideal candidate would be either Nomar Garciaparra, or Alfonso Soriano.
Nomar put up very good numbers last season. Nomar hit 20 homers, knocked in 93 runs, and hit .303. Soriano put up 46 homers, 95 RBI and hit .277. Both of these guys would be ideal #5 hitters in our lineup, or #3 hitters if Manny leaves. Both players are also versatile. Nomar can play SS, 1B, and 2B. Soriano can play 2B as well as the outfield.
If I had my druthers, we would sign Soriano and have him split time between second and the outfield. Loretta would split time with Soriano at second and Pedroia at short. If Pedroia isn't hitting well, we can send him down to AAA for another year and then have Loretta start at short with Soriano playing second base.
We could use a really good middle infielder on the bench, especially considering the defensive liability a Mark Loretta at short-stop might be. This might be a case for Alex Gonzalez to remain with the club. I think we could grab a solid middle infielder off the free agency list or through a small trade. They just need to be solid defensively and capable of playing multiple position. A little speed couldn't hurt, either.
The outfield is very up in the air. Manny was productive, but proved that him being himself can be detrimental to the team. Coco was a no go. Trot was average, at best, and probably will not be back in '07.
I'd love to hang on to Manny. But if he wants to go, then he's got to go. But if we can't get good value, then we shouldn't trade him. I'm glad I'm not the one who has to deal with this problem that Dan Duquette has left us. Ideally, he'll change his mind about leaving and will stay here. Even if he does, I think we should get someone like Alfonso Soriano. We're going to need a large bat in the lineup to replace Manny if he goes, or help the team score runs if he stays.
I think we should give Coco another year in center-field. He started off nicely then the injury seemed to affect how he played. He's too talented and too young to just give up on.
Now, if we get Soriano, but Manny leaves, we'll have a gap in the outfield. But there are two players out there that can fill it. Dave Roberts and Kenny Lofton. Neither player will hit a lot of homers, but they'll get on base, play good defense, and steal bases left and right. Roberts hit .293 for the Padres last season, with a .360 OBP. He stole 49 bases in 55 attempts. Lofton hit .301 with the Dodgers, also with an OBP of .360. He stole 32 bases in 37 attempts. Either of these players would fit in nicely to our outfield and could possibly take the leadoff spot in the lineup. Both are free agents. Roberts has a slight age advantage at 34 compared to Lofton at 39. However, Lofton could be signed for a single year and possibly at a discount because he is at the end of a career without a World Series ring.
Even if we retain Manny, AND sign Soriano, I think we should go after a guy like Lofton. His speed off the bench and his ability to play the field could help us tremendously. Moreover, if Coco continues to struggle, we'll have a solid replacement waiting in the wings.
Do I even need to discuss the DH position? I think we're fine here.
Ideally, these are who my starting position players would be for 2007:
C Jason Varitek
1B Kevin Youkilis
2B Alfonso Soriano/Mark Loretta/Dustin Pedroia
3B Mike Lowell
SS Dustin Pedroia/Mark Loretta
LF Manny Ramirez
CF Coco Crisp/Kenny Lofton
RF Alfonso Soriano
DH David Ortiz
The best lineup:
1. Kevin Youkilis
2. Mark Loretta
3. David Ortiz
4. Manny Ramirez
5. Alfonso Soriano
6. Mike Lowell
7. Coco Crisp
8. Dustin Pedroia
9. Jason Varitek
That middle of the lineup is simply sick. This lineup could score 950 to even 1,000 runs. You're never out of a game with that kind of a lineup.
The bench needs improvement, as stated above. I'd love to see Robert Fick be picked up as a backup catcher who could also fill in at first and in the corner outfield. I think Alex Gonzalez could be kept as a backup middle infielder, if not we could go with Alex Cora or perhaps both. Gabe Kapler has always been a hard working, productive bench player for us and I'd like to see him continue with us in 2007. Kenny Lofton could be a good pickup as a defensive replacement/pinch runner/part-time player.
As disappointing as the offense was last season, the pitching was even more so. Our ERA was 11th in the AL at 4.83. We were 10th in hits allowed, 8th in homeruns, and 9th in walks. We were flat out bad. Our best starter was Schilling, who finished the season with slightly above average numbers of 15-7 with a 3.97 ERA.
We're stuck with Beckett in the rotation, and Schilling (thank God) will be back for another season. But we still need some help at the front of the rotation. I think the Red Sox really need to go out and get an Ace. Right now, we're without one. You can get away with that if you have 4 really good starters. However, the Red Sox only have 1 and he will be 40 in less than 3 weeks.
Barry Zito is the biggest name out there. He's not as stunning as he once was, but he was 16-10 with a 3.83 ERA last year which isn't half bad at all. He'll definitely give us 220 very good to great innings, which the Red Sox are in desperate need of. He will be very desired by the rest of the league, though, so he might come a bit too expensive.
Daisuku Matsuzaka might be the answer to the Red Sox prayers. The 26 year old Japanese star (so popular that people born the same year as him are called members of the Matsuzaka generation) is on the market. Every team in baseball has scouted him and most teams want him.
He's 26 but already a legend in Japanese baseball. In high school, he won the coveted national championship. He threw 17 innings in a game (250 pitches), then got the save in the next game. To win the title, he threw a no-hitter. In Japan's Pacific League, he has put up impressive numbers. In 8 seasons, he is 108-60. In 204 games, he's thrown 1402.2 innings or 6.9 innings an appearance (not all his appearances are starts, which makes the stat even more impressive). He has 72 complete games and 18 shutouts. He has 1355 strikeouts (8.69 per 9 IP), 502 BBs (2.7 to 1 K to BB ratio), and a WHIP of 1.14. These are all Japanese League stats, which means they should be looked at almost as AAAA (not a typo) stats.
He's going to be an expensive pickup for whoever wants him. The Seibu Tigers (his current team) are offering the rights to negotiate with him to the highest bidder in MLB. The price is said to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 to $30 million. That is extremely high, but once you consider the financial benefits of signing him, the price can be looked at as more of an investment.
Japan is an untapped market for the Red Sox. The Yankees and Mariners dominate that market and the Red Sox have a very meager market share. This is probably because the Red Sox don't have any Asian born talent at the moment. We had Nomo a few years ago, and Tomo Ohka, as well. However, we have never had a superstar on the level of an Ichiro or a Matsui. The additional revenue that could come from expanding Red Sox Nation across the Pacific could potentially pay for the negotiating rights fee as well as the signing.
As a player, he'd be an unknown. Japanese players have both flourished and struggled in MLB. There really hasn't been too much of a pattern. However, Ichiro and Matsui seem to be good examples of star Japanese players thriving in the US. Matsuzaka already has this status in Japan. It is probable he will do well in the US. Will he dominate? That is unclear.
He has a wide variety of pitches. His fastball is clocked at 90 to 96 MPH. He also throws a splitter, changeup, and slider. It's rumored he has a gyroball in his arsenal. A gyroball is a pitch thrown with a spiral like that of a football. It looks like a fastball delivery, but the way the ball spins throws off hitters timing if thrown properly. Imagine how much Varitek could help this guy get MLB hitters out with this guy's variety of stuff.
My dream rotation would be as follows:
1. Barry Zito
2. Curt Schilling
3. Daisuke Matsuzaka
4. Josh Beckett
5. Jon Lester*
*=if healthy. Lester is currently undergoing chemo in Tacoma. Hopefully everything will work out for the best.
Notice two names absent on that list? Tim Wakefield and Jonathan Papelbon.
I think Wake is still a decent starter, but we can do better. I also still think he is a good pitcher and we should keep him on the club. He's worked well out of the bullpen in the past. His style of pitching is great for bullpen duty, too. Imagine facing Beckett's fastball then have to change gears against Wake's knuckler. I'd like to see him used in a middle-relief role. He could also be a spot starter if necessary.
Papelbon should be the closer. Yes, the shoulder might pose a health problem if he isn't kept on a regular schedule. However, one of the few things that was working for us last season was our closer. Why change it? Not only do we risk having a closer not as effective as him, he also might not be that effective of a starter. It's very risky.
There are also NO really good closers out there in free agency. Gagne's option might not be picked up, but that is wishful thinking.
The Red Sox already re-signed Mike Timlin, which isn't too bad of a signing. However, we can't depend on him for 70 appearances like in 2006. He's turning 41 in March and already has 1099.2 innings and 961 appearances worn into that right arm. I definately think the Red Sox need another strong set-up man this season.
Julian Tavarez finished 2006 strongly and I think having him in the pen will be very nice. He could be a feature set-up man who can pitch multiple innings. That's a huge asset to have in those close games in which the starter leaves after 5 or 6 innings.
Two open spots left in the bullpen. Javier Lopez could be a good situational lefty for us in 2007. We didn't see much of him last year, but what we did see was impressive. If he doesn't work out, we still have DiNardo, Hansen, and Delcarmen available to us.
Jose Mesa is a player we should seriously consider trying to sign. In 79 appearances and 72.1 innings, he had an ERA of 3.86 with the Colorado Rockies. Colofreakinrado! He had 19 Holds to lead the Rockies. He's a guy that could be our featured set-up man in front of Timlin.
So here's my ideal bullpen:
Closer: Jonathan Papelbon
Set-Up: Jose Mesa
Set-Up: Mike Timlin
Set-Up/Middle: Julian Tavarez
Middle/Long: Tim Wakefield
Lefty: Javier Lopez
Not too shabby.
This team, of course, would probably be expensive to field, and it depends on a lot of outside factors. It probably won't be the team the Sox field in 2007, nor will it probably be all that close. This is just the team that I'd field in my little dream world. It would win the World Series, though.