The Boston Red Sox' 2009 Slightly Premature Preview
This is gonna be a little experiment driven by necessity.
I'm borrowing the idea of joint and several liability from law to solve an irritating little glitch. The idea is to write a single article, lop it in two, and have the two parts work autonomously. More accurately, it's to write two articles at the same time that are the product of a single thought process.
It may work or I may thoroughly confuse myself and end up writing about the National Football League by the end. We'll see.
The "little glitch" was that, with only the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox left in my preview series, I was locked up.
Ironic, because I was also giddy with excitement—these are the sexy celebrities of my world. Forget Jennifer Aniston, Meagan Fox, Meagan Good, Jessica Alba, etc. Well, don't forget 'em, but you see what I'm getting at.
I don't give a flying fornication about Hollywood—my deviant time-drain is Major League Baseball and these are the two biggest names in town.
Anyway, I sat down to write about the Pinstripes and got about a paragraph into it before I found myself thinking about the BoSox. I got another couple sentences and found my mind back on Beantown.
Further adding to my angst, the stuff I had on screen regarding the Yanks was garbage. So I tried starting with Boston—the same thing happened with the roles reversed.
Therein lines the problem with Boston and New York baseball: It's not impossible to separate the two, but it's frequently easier if you don't. The two franchises have a pseudo-symbiotic relationship.
Heretofore, it was a parasitic symbiosis with one team dominating and the other carried along by the rival's wake.
First, the Yankees rose to prominence and rumbled off a string of World Series wins. Their success buoyed the profile of Boston and forced them into a corner. Either the Red Sox had to become a punching bag for their biggest rival or they had to answer the bell.
For those of you not around in 2004, the Sox answered the bell.
That flipped the paradigm and suddenly Boston was the trolling shark with New York playing the little minnow that cleans its teeth.
The Yankees responded by throwing money at the problem. And then more money. And then more. None of it worked as the Sawks began to dominate the rivalry—maybe not in the regular season since those games always seem to be tight, but in the postseason and public perception.
Then came this offseason and the $400 Million Spending Spree in New York. It's a little early, but I think a new day is dawning—I think New York has put together so much talent in all areas that it's a shark again.
Don't think for a second that means Boston has become a minnow.
Its offseason acquisitions weren't as expensive or showy, but they were just as shrewd. Make no mistake—Boston is still a very dangerous shark. In fact, I think it's the shark that will still be swimming in November.
Take a look at the roster:
Projected starting lineup
First base—Kevin Youkilis
Second base—Dustin Pedroia
Third base—Mike Lowell
Left field—Jason Bay
Center field—Jacoby Ellsbury
Right field—J.D. Drew/Rocco Baldelli
Designated hitter—David Ortiz
Hot damn, I love that lineup! And I'm not a particular fan of the Red Sox.
Catcher's almost a total void, but Boston can easily sacrifice the offensive production from the typical professional backstop if it feels Varitek's leadership/game-calling are important assets.
Pedroia's got a little tweak going, Drew's always good for several over the course of the year, Lowell will surely go down at some point, and Ortiz probably won't make it through 162 games unscathed. But injuries are something all teams must deal with and Boston has the bench to do just that.
Baldelli will probably float around the outfield and DH to basically qualify as an everyday player, but the true bench looks pretty stout.
Julio Lugo's turn as a starter in Boston has been a notorious flop, but he's more potent than your average back-up. Mark Kotsay is a gamer and could probably still start for some clubs. Josh Bard fell of a cliff last season, but he swung the bat pretty well in prior years.
Boston also may opt to break camp with its top prospect—first baseman Lars Anderson—in tow. Baseball America lists the 21-year-old stud as the 17th up-and-comer in all of baseball, so he might click right away. So far, he's struggling in Spring Training.
Top prospects Chris Carter (26, outfield) and Josh Reddick (22, outfield and Boston's No. 5 prospect) are both in camp. Carter is treading water while Reddick is scalding the pill. There doesn't seem to be much room for either, though, so they'll probably head to the minors come April.
He's not with the club, but I've got to mention top prospect Casey Kelly. Baseball America lists him as a pitcher/shortstop. What is that?
I've never seen it before—I've heard of guys getting converted from one to the other, but never simultaneously doing both. I'm fascinated.
Ace—Josh Beckett (R)
Second spot—Daisuke Matsuzaka (R)
Third spot—Jon Lester (L)
Fourth spot—Brad Penny (R)
Fifth spot—Clay Buchholz (R)
Talk about an embarrassment of riches.
John Smoltz isn't even up there because he's not supposed to be ready until May/June, but reports had him throwing 90 mph as early as January and the Boston team doctors are calling him a freak of nature due to his shoulder's response to treatment after surgery.
Tim Wakefield has always been a reliable option and he's still in the mix since he's getting a lot of starts so far in Spring Training. Justin Masterson was once a top prospect and he's almost surely relegated to the bullpen.
Furthermore, Boston has its No. 2 and No. 4 prospects in camp. Michael Bowden is No. 2 and the 22-year-old righty has seen some starting action in exhibition (got lit up). Flamethrower Daniel Bard is No. 4 and the 24-year-old (in June) righty is pitching very well, but out of the 'pen.
Let's say the Red Sox have several nice options and leave it at that.
Closer—Jonathan Papelbon (R)
Set-up—Takashi Saito (R)
Set-up—Hideki Okajima (L)
Set-up—Manny Delcarmen (R)
Set-up—Javier Lopez (L)
Set-up—Ramon Ramirez (R)
It's odd looking at this roster and New York's after previewing 28 other professional baseball franchises. I say that because, next to each other, the two rosters look very close (and next to Tampa's as well).
Next to the rest of baseball? They're like night and day—the weaknesses are tiny and to collateral parts like the catcher or the bench or the fifth spot in the rotation or the middle arms in the bullpen.
The essentials are very good and, often, the best in baseball.
On offense, get ready for Jason Bay.
He gave a preview after coming over to Boston last year, but it's gonna get better. He's in his prime at 30 and built to swing for the Green Monster. In 2008, he bounced back from a knee injury to hit .286 with 35 doubles, 31 home runs, 111 runs scored, 101 RBI, 10 stolen bases, a .373 on-base percentage, and an .895 OPS.
And he played over 100 games in the Pittsburgh Pirate lineup. Like I said, look out.
Because the Pirate lineup did not feature guys like Kevin Youkilis.
Youk is a defensive machine along with raking to the tune of a .312 average with 43 doubles, 29 bombs, 91 runs, 115 RBI, a .390 OBP, and a .958 OPS. Those numbers are insane and he's 30 as well so 2009 should see about the same, if not better, production.
The Pirate lineup did not feature guys like Dustin Pedroia.
Although I think the AL Most Valuable Player award should've gone elsewhere, it's tough to argue with Pedroia's '08 campaign—.326, 54 doubles, 17 homers, 118 runs, 83 RBI, 20 swipes, .376 OBP, and .869 OPS. This from a 25-year-old (26 in August) second baseman.
Let us not forget the mental toughness this kid's got. Like him or not, what he's been able to accomplish since the anemic start to his career in '06-'07 is remarkable.
How about a table-setter like Jacoby Ellsbury? Think that kid might enhance Bay's production?
The 25-year-old water strider struggled for stretches in '08 and has been brutalized for his low-ish on-base abilities, but his final tally was dandy—.280 with 22 doubles, nine taters, 98 runs, 47 RBI, 50 steals, a .336 OBP, and a .729 OPS. Additionally, it was Ellsbury's first full season in the Show so his plate discipline figures to get better and that OBP will rise.
In any event, such a gripe proves just how robust Boston is. Only a truly elite team could care about such things when you've got speed, good peripherals, and defensive prowess like Jacoby.
Jed Lowrie probably won't make the All-Star team at any point, but he's a good glove and can help at times with his bat. At the very least, the name on his jersey doesn't read "Lugo."
J.D. Drew, Mike Lowell, and David Ortiz have all settled into very similar territory.
That territory looks like this—a stint or two on the shelf, good average, good power, and pretty good defense (very good from Lowell). Granted, Big Papi provides his D by not taking the field. The best days from all three are well in the rear-view mirror, but each is still dangerous.
And I still want zero part of Ortiz in a big spot if I'm toeing the slab.
Rocco Baldelli could explode back into the career arc he was on before his mysterious ailment derailed it. If that happens, the Red Sox just stole a perennial 20-plus homer/.300 hitter. Obviously, the "if" is enormous.
Regardless, that offense figures to put some crooked numbers on the board in Fenway or wherever they play.
Bad news for the rest of MLB because Boston's staff should be one of the stingiest.
At the top, the Sawks open with the ferocity of Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Beckett has always been fragile and it seems he always will be. But, when healthy, the guy is as nasty as they come and probably at the top of the list of big game pitchers going today. Even while struggling with a back injury in '08, he posted a 1.19 WHIP and almost a K per inning.
Early reports put Josh in the best shape of his career, the implication being he's physically right and will be back to his dominant self in '09.
As for Dice-K, it's time for me to cop to being wrong about this Japanese import.
For some reason, I though his brilliant record last year was the product of superlative run support rather than great pitching.
Hmmm, I was really, really, really wrong—18-3, 2.90 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, .211 batting average against, 154 Ks against 94 walks, and only 12 dongs surrendered in 167-plus innings pitched.
The wildness will always be a part of Matsuzaka's game, but it's an effective part as his WHIP and ERA suggest so it's time to acknowledge that Dice-K has become every bit the ace he was supposed to become. I didn't think it would happen and it has.
With two aces up front, the rest of the rotation doesn't need to be great. Of course, the baseball gods don't give their gifts based on need.
Jon Lester could already be an ace in some rotations, he was arguably Boston's best postseason pitcher in '08, and he's currently the Sox No. 3.
Clay Buchholz already has a no-no to his credit, but he's a longshot to make the rotation.
Tim Wakefield is a proven winner even if his knuckleball is losing a shade of consistency. John Smoltz will join the rotation before midseason and he's a former Cy Young with plenty in the tank (if you believe him, which I do). Brad Penny is a bum as an ace, but he should be incredible as a No. 4 (or 5).
And the rotation gets even stronger upon closer inspection of the bullpen.
Jonathan Papelbon is probably the best closer in the Bigs. He blew five saves last year in 46 chances, which is more than some other guys in the running, but he closes for Boston. That ups the ante because the 9th inning is pressure-packed for any team.
Plus, he whiffed 77 guys in 69-plus innings, registered a 0.95 WHIP, 2.34 ERA, walked only eight guys, surrendered only four homers, and I've been told he enters some games to "Master of Puppets." I'm sold.
While the closer's probably got the filthiest arsenal in that 'pen, the other guys and new acquisitions Takashi Saito/Ramon Ramirez aren't walks in the park. I can say from first-hand observation that Saito's as brutal as they come on opposing bats and the same has been said about Ramirez (the main piece in the Coco Crisp deal).
Manny Delcarmen, Hideki Okajima, and Javier Lopez are all holdovers from a successful pen last year. They should be just as effective in 2009 except they'll be exhibiting their wares in earlier frames.
Seriously, with all the plus arms ready for relief work, Boston might have to pull the starters by the 7th inning just to generate the appearances necessary to keep everybody sharp.
That's not a normal problem, but I bet it's a nice one.
If you make a living playing Major League Baseball and you don't happen to have a Red Sox uni hanging in your locker, you might not want to step back from this picture and drink it all in.
Because the overall work is a masterpiece of interlocking talents and redundant protection.
The offense revolves around a core group of hitters in their prime and veterans capable of splattering the ball all over the park. The starting pitching could probably feature a seven-man rotation without much difference from Nos. 4 through 7 and the bullpen could arguably start trotting out closer-caliber arms with nine outs to go.
On paper, this roster lacks the glitz and glam of the New York Yankees, but that profile comes with a price—all eyes will be fixated upon the Yankees. They already are.
For a franchise used to having every single move scrutinized by the national media, the Boston Red Sox are flying about as under the radar as possible due to the volume coming out of New York City. That should allow them to find their rhythm in relative (national) peace and quiet.
When two teams are as closely stocked as the Yankees and Red Sox are, it's usually something intangible that makes the difference.
The boys from Beantown have continuity, confidence, momentum, and the novelty of muted hysteria on their side.
By November, they should have another World Series trophy as well.
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