This will be a "bridge" season, or so the Sox have declared. What kind of bridge? A sturdy, solid bridge? A bridge to nowhere? Or the Tacoma Narrows?
I'll tell you what it won't be: a bridge to the playoffs.
All the positivity in this town is really starting to piss me off. Everyone's looking on the bright side of the Red Sox' offseason comings and goings. You lose Jason Bay's .384 OBP, 36 HR, and 119 RBI, but you've gained infield and outfield defense.
The saving grace for the offseason was signing John Lackey. At every other position that the Sox made moves, they got worse. But Lackey adds much needed depth and consistency to the rotation, and that's where the preview will start.
To counter the irrational exuberance of the mainstream Sox fan, I've gotten more and more cynical the last 2 years. So when people suggest that the Sox have "the best rotation in baseball," I answer "They do if Beckett performs like he has 1 out of the 4 years he's been here, if Daisuke suddenly changes the nature of who he is, Lester pitches past the 6th, and Clay Buchholz grows up."
Josh Beckett was great at times last year. And he was mediocre at times. And he was awful at times. The optimist will point to his 17-6 record. I'll point to his more indicative 3.86 ERA. That's not a horrible number, but it speaks to his inconsistency and (for a #1 pitcher at least) his unreliability. What do I expect from Beckett in 2010? More of the same random crapshoot luck. He'll finish with a similar W-L record, but his ERA will flirt with 3.90 and 4.00.
Jon Lester was the true Ace of the '09 staff. He was steady, consistent, reliable, predictable. 24 of his 32 starts were Quality Starts (6+ IP, 3 or fewer ER). But many of those were the 6 inning, 3 earned run variety. There's no reason to not expect more of the same dependability from Lester, but don't expect him to be a Cy Young candidate either. He doesn't dazzle, he just does his work. He still has trouble with the Rays, and that could prove troublesome. But I think a 15+ win season with an ERA close to 3.60 is a reasonable expectation for Lester.
The afore mentioned John Lackey was a nice acquisition. Then again, that's compared to the signings of Mike Cameron and Jeremy Hermida. Lackey's similar to Lester. He's solid. But unlike Lester, he hasn't thrown 180 innings in a season since '07. He's a good pitcher for a #3, but if he were anything above a #3, I'd say that something was wrong with that rotation.
Then there's Daisuke, who's becoming my least favorite player on the team. Anyone else (except maybe Ortiz), who concealed an injury so they could play in the meaningless, half-assed WBC would become a villain in their town. Except Boston, where there's little outrage that Daisuke was paid $8.3 million last season to make 12 awful starts. But at least Japan, as one of the few teams that makes a maximum effort, won the WBC. I don't know what to expect from Daisuke, but I'm guessing a lot of 120 pitch, 5.1 inning starts.
Then there's Buchholz. He's not bad to have at the bottom of the rotation, but that's pretty much it. He's inconsistent, equally capable of brilliance and horror. He still has growth potential, and could someday be a frontline, middle of the rotation kind of pitcher. I think he'll have a decent, respectable season, winning 11+ games with an ERA slightly below League average.
Finally, the ageless Tim Wakefield. Who actually does have an age, and it's 43. 44 in August. Wake is a good back-up plan, and I'm thrilled the Sox aren't relying on him to be a regular in the rotation. The past few years, the Sox' strategy to fill their 5 starting spots was to have 3 reliable starters, then 4 or 5 "potential" guys to complete the quintet. John Smoltz, Bartolo Colon, Brad Penny et cetera.
Don't expect much from Wakefield. We saw him wear out last year. He's having a great Spring, but will he last to summer? Not as a starter he won't. Nevertheless, a fine asset to keep in the bullpen and/or as a spot-starter.
Speaking of the bullpen...
I'm not a big fan of it. Surprised?
Papelbon's the closer. And I'm not even going to talk about what happened at the end of the ALDS once this sentence is over. But I will talk about how unnecessarily dramatic his Saves were. He no longer has the sheer power to dominate hitters. And I think he and the Catchers know this. While he still got the job done (38 saves in 41 opportunities), I have some doubts that he'll be able to keep it up for much longer. Closers rarely remain prominent for more than 4 seasons. And I think the sun may be setting on Papelbon's tenure as an All-Star reliever.
But there is Daniel Bard waiting in the wings. Bard's fastball still scares hitters. He has the stuff to be a closer, but does he have the mental makeup? I think so. But that being said, he'll be a set-up man to start the season. And while there's no reason to doubt he'll succeed, his 49.1 innings of mop-up work last year are hardly reason enough to doubt that he'll fail.
The bullpen lacks depth, which makes Matsuzaka's, Lester's, and Lackey's tendencies to have shorter starts much more worrisome. Let's say Papelbon and Bard are lights out in 2010. That's the 9th and 8th innings covered. What about the 7th?
There is Hideki Okajima, who had a 3.39 ERA. But ERAs for mid-relievers can be quite deceiving. Okajima had an up-and-down-and-up-and-down season. He at least left most of his inherited runners on base. But the fact is, he's 34, and has been a bit of a question mark in this country. I think he's a capable #2 set-up man, but you can do better.
Manny Delcarmen is next on the bullpen totem pole. He had a much less impressive 4.53 ERA. The really unfortunate thing for Delcarmen is that his season deteriorated as it wore on. He had an awful September, allowing 15 hits and 8 walks in 7 innings. In the season as a whole, he allowed 8 of 33 inherited runners to score, and opponents had a .370 OBP off him. He became a mainstay in games the Sox were trailing late, but it was only to save the rest of the bullpen, because he allowed so many of those deficits to increase. I have no faith in him in a close game.
Scott Atchison was a lights out reliever last year. In 75 appearances, he pitched 90 innings, and had an electrifying 0.889 WHIP... for the Hanshin Tigers of Japan's Central League. He last pitched in the Majors in '07, earning a 4.11 ERA in 22 appearances for San Francisco. Maybe this 34 year old Brian Daubach of Pitching can fool hitters for 60 innings here in the States. Maybe he's a diamond in the rough. But maybe he'll continue to be Scott Atchison.
Now we get to the position players. It's amazing how obsessed Red Sox Nation is with defense these days. Apparently defense wins championships in baseball, too. The term being used is "run prevention." To me, that's always meant mostly pitching, possibly supported by solid defense. But the Red Sox Front Office wants you to believe that this was a concerted, thought-out strategy of theirs, to sacrifice run production for "run prevention."
There are some good hitters on the Sox, just not enough of them. Not only are the days of Manny Ortez over, so are the days of Bill Mueller, Johnny Damon, and Orlando Cabrera.
Behind the plate is one of the best Sox batters. Victor Martinez was a godsend last year. He hit .336 with the Sox and .303 overall. He's a career .299 hitter with an OBP of .372. That's excellent for his position. Unfortunately, he's a much better hitter when playing 1st base. Last year, his average was .048 higher, his OBP .042 higher, and his slugging .117 higher when he played at first base. The Sox can shift him to 1st, and have Youkilis play 3rd, but that means Jason Varitek would be inserted.
Jason Varitek sucks. There, I said it, get over it. He hit .209 last year. It's possible that V-Mart's presence can help keep Varitek fresh (he hit .250 in April of '09). Then again, he hit .195 in August and September, when he was losing at-bats to Martinez. He's also turning 38 on April 11. 38 year old catchers do not improve offensively.
For my money, Kevin Youkilis has been the Red Sox' MVP the last two years. He's steady, reliable, productive. 27 HRs last year, with 94 RBI, a .305 average, and .413 OBP (2nd in AL). He also provides flexibility, playing Gold Glove calibre defense at 1st, but also being solid at 3rd. He allows the Sox to fully utilize guys like V-Mart and Mike Lowell. And I think you'll see another Youkilis type season, just shy of 30 HR, close around .300 average and .400 OBP. If only the Sox had more power guys to hit behind him, he'd be an excellent #2 hitter.
First base will be busy for the Sox. Youkilis and V-Mart will share the bulk of the time, but Lowell could be over there too. Youkilis' defense at 3rd is better than Lowell's, so in order to get both bats in the lineup, the two might have to trade positions. Frankly, I'm not too optimistic about Lowell. He's 36, and the injuries keep mounting. He's a good part-time player, but that's all.
Dustin Pedroia is one of the saving graces of the Red Sox' offense. His numbers in '09 weren't as good as his MVP season, but .296 hitting 2nd basemen are few and far between. He's got 15 HR power, aided in part by the Green Monster, and he's a consistent .300 hitter with an OBP that hovers in the .370s. You can't ask for much more from a #2 hitter.
Adrian Beltre is apparently the best fielding 3rd baseman in history. That's what the Front Office wants us to believe, and most of The Nation has bought it hook, line and sinker. And while he's won two Gold Gloves, and has a career .957 Fielding Percentage at 3rd (average=.956), I'm not going nuts over his addition to the team. He hit 8 homeruns last year. He hit .265. If he were the only mediocre bat the Sox had in their lineup, they could get away with it. But he's just the tip of the iceberg that will ultimately sink this Red Sox season.
Marco Scutaro hit .282 last year, with a nice .379 OBP. But that's very abnormal for this 34 year old short-stop. He's never come close to numbers like that. He walked 90 times in '09, his previous career high was 57. Maybe after 14 years of pro ball (8 in the Majors), he's finally figured out how to hit. Maybe it was an aberration. He's a solid fielder, with an FP .006 higher than average. But he's got good range. I have no beefs with his acquisition, because there wasn't much choice at short-stop. But I'm not expecting anything more than .265 with no power and a .340 OBP.
The Red Sox have a utility guy named Bill Hall, who can play just about every position, but can't hit for crap.
The outfield has seen the biggest loss of production with the departure of Jason Bay. But once again...
Ellsbury shifts to left field, which I think is a sensible decision. He's fast, but doesn't get a great break on the ball. His arm is also the weakest in the outfield, so a smaller left field to patrol will help him in both departments.
Offensively, I still hesitate to swoon for Jacoby as the rest of RSN has. "He's wicked fast!" And that's great. I like how fast he is, I like giving the pitcher something to think about, getting into scoring position with infield singles, and he rarely gets thrown out. But if he's not ON BASE, then he can't STEAL A BASE, can he? His OBP of .355 last year was a nice improvement from 2008, but he needs to continue that improvement.
Mike Cameron... what the hell? A 37 year old journeyman (the Sox are the 7th stop of his tour of the Majors) with a career .250 average. BUT HE CAN FIELD! Think about the run production of Jason Bay. He knocked in 119 last year, and scored 103 times. He hit .360 with runners in scoring position. He led the team with 36 homers, which means 36 of those runs he scored, he knocked himself in. Do you think Mike Cameron's glove will prevent 36 runs from scoring? If you do, you may be a Pink Hat.
The hopes of Red Sox Nation ride on JD Drew's various sensitive body parts, it's just nobody realizes it yet. When healthy, Drew has shown some sparks of productivity. He hit 24 homeruns in 137 games last year. But he was a ghost in big situations, hitting .213 with runners in scoring position, and .133 with the bases loaded. But in '08, those two figures were .288 and .500. JD Drew can always be labelled as "capable of doing better." If he does finally realize his full potential, the Sox lineup grows teeth. If he doesn't, they'll be looking for dentures.
But what happens if (when) Drew is out of the lineup? There's the afore-mentioned Bill Hall. There's also Jeremy Hermida. Hooray. The 26 year old ex-Marlin hit .256 in 429 ABs for Florida. Back in '07, he hit 18 homers with a .296 average. But it seems as though pitchers figured him out. Maybe he'll improve in the AL. Hitting at Fenway couldn't hurt. But I doubt he'll provide anything more than what JD Drew will.
The Red Sox have infielders and outfielders that can't hit, so why not a designated hitter who can't? Everyone in Boston fell in love with David Ortiz all over again in 2009. He struggled, persevered, and finally came out victorious, with 28 total homeruns after failing to hit one until 134 ABs into the season. He also had that outstanding .238 average (6th on the team), and that .332 OBP (also 6th). And he's only 34. But at least he's still clutch, with his .238 average with runners in scoring position (now THAT'S consistency), and his 1 for 12 performance in the ALDS.
David Ortiz is more like Troy O'Leary in 1999, with a much lower average, and no clutch hitting.
So here's a potential lineup. It starts off GREAT, then it just collapses into unbearable torture. It's like a Buffalo Bills' season.
1. LF Ellsbury
2. 2B Pedroia
3. 1B Youkilis
4. C Martinez
5. DH Ortiz
6. RF Drew
7. 3B Beltre
8. SS Scutaro
9. CF Cameron
You can add Mike Lowell to improve things a bit:
1. LF Ellsbury
2. 2B Pedroia
3. 3B Youkilis
4. C Martinez
5. 1B Lowell
6. DH Ortiz
7. RF Drew
8. SS Scutaro
9. CF Cameron
Maybe it's not that bad. Then again, after Lowell, that's likely to be 2 easy innings of work for an opposing pitcher.
So the Red Sox won't score tons of runs, certainly The Big Inning, or Crooked Number Inning will be rare. But so will errors. And the starting pitching will keep them ahead, until Manny Delcarmen has to pitch the 7th because Daisuke/Lester/Lackey have hit 110 pitches.
I'm not optimistic. I do think the Sox will finish in 2nd in the East. But the Yankees will win easily. The Wild Card will be close, but the Sox will never lead that race after July, and will fall short, facing mathematical elimination in the last 10 days of the season.
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