Now that the baseball season is winding to a close and the races are essentially over, it's time to look back and evaluate what went on in 2009.
The Sox were picked to finish in third place by most publications and that is exactly where they are right now. Though they were in the race for the division most of the year, they never built enough momentum to take a lead and fell out of the race in late August.
So what went right and what went wrong? I've broken down the performance of the Sox hitters by position and assigned a grade. I'm leaning mostly towards offensive production, though defense is a factor.
A.J. Pierzynski was one of the most productive catchers in the league at the plate this year. He is hitting .312 on the year with a .797 OPS, good for fourth in baseball at his position (minimum 450 plate attempts). While he doesn't take many walks, Pierzynski's a solid contact hitter that doesn't strike out often.
While he struggles to throw out base stealers, Pierzynski calls a solid game and doesn't make many mistakes. He's also one of the Sox's smarter base runners, though he has little speed.
This grade is mostly based on the performance of Pierzynski, since Ramon Castro and Corky Miller combined for fewer than 100 at-bats.
Overall, the Sox are solid but not stellar at this position. Pierzynski is a good hitter given his position but not a true impact player.
Paul Konerko has been arguably the most dependable player in the Sox lineup. He's the team leader in both home runs and RBI and his lowest OPS in any month was .778.
However, I can't justify giving him a higher grade. Konerko is a good hitter, but first base is one of the most productive positions on the diamond. Paul ranks 17th out of the 23 first basemen with at least 450 plate attempts in OPS. While I can't complain about what Konerko has done this year, numerous players at his position have had better years.
I'm actually giving him a bit of a bonus for his defense. While he doesn't have good range, he catches basically everything thrown at him and is very good at digging throws out of the dirt. Without Konerko at first, the Sox's other infielders would likely have more errors.
The Sox have tried a number of players at second base and none of them have really claimed the position. Brent Lillibridge started the year at the position, but he didn't last long, given his terrible performance at the plate.
Since then, the position has been handled by Chris Getz and Jayson Nix. Both players have some talent, but neither can be considered even an average starter. Getz is the better contact hitter and has better speed while Nix has considerably more power and takes more walks.
Both players need significant improvement to be considered dependable players. Among second basemen with at least 250 plate attempts, Nix ranked 19th and Nix ranked 30th.
Though these guys could be passable as the ninth hitter in the lineup, it is a position where the Sox could pursue an upgrade in 2010.
One could make an argument that this grade should be higher because of the performance of Gordon Beckham. He is clearly one of the major reasons to be excited about the future of the organization. There were times that he was the best player on the Sox roster and he could be a star in the future.
There are two reasons why I chose this grade:
1) Beckham's overall numbers are solid, but he was quite streaky. He hit .267 in June, .330 in July, .223 in August and .357 so far in September. While that is to be expected from a rookie, it does downgrade him a bit for this season.
2) Josh Fields played 48 games at third, which also hurts the overall grade. Fields was terrible at the beginning of the year, failing to post an OPS over .700 at a very productive position on the diamond.
The only reason this spot would be a weakness in the future is if Beckham moves to a different position.
Alexei Ramirez is one of the more frustrating players on the roster. While he is extremely talented, his play has been quite erratic and his focus seems to fade at times.
Overall, Ramirez was a fairly average shortstop this year. He was slightly above average at the plate (12th out of 28 shortstops with at least 350 PA) and slightly below average in the field (16th of 21 qualified in fielding percentage, 11th in range factor and 12th in zone rating).
Ramirez has good tools but doesn't get the most out of them. At the plate he has good contact skills and solid power, but his sub par plate discipline hurts his overall impact. In the field, his range and arm strength are assets, but he has a tendency to botch relatively easy plays and often makes weak throws to first when trying to turn a double play.
I think the Sox will bring him back next year and hope that he polishes some of the rough edges to his game, especially given his highly affordable contract. However, it wouldn't surprise me if they tested his value on the market either.
The struggles of Carlos Quentin really hurt the Sox this year. Though he still hit for solid power and got on base from walks and HBP a lot, his inconsistent batting average really hurt his numbers. Quentin never got into a groove this year, before or after the foot injury.
This grade would be about a letter lower if not for Scott Podsednik. The midseason pickup had a solid year for the Sox. Besides hitting over .300, Podsednik also showed surprisingly good gap power with 36 extra-base hits this year. Unfortunately he had to move to center field late in the year, which is less than ideal.
The left field spot will be interesting for the Sox in 2010. Will Scott Podsednik return? Given his performance, I would think he will. However, that would cause some issues with the lineup.
Podsednik should really only play left field. So should Quentin. But Quentin has played right field in the past. With the expected departure of Jermaine Dye, I expect to see Quentin in right next year. A new acquisition is also possible.
This was easily the weakest spot on the Sox roster. Brian Anderson and Dwayne Wise were bad at the plate and Alex Rios has been a disaster since the Sox acquired him.
Even if you include Rios's Toronto numbers, that only makes his season OPS .680, good for 28th in the league among center fielders with at least 380 plate appearances. What's really depressing is that Anderson and Wise were even worse.
Rios will have the center field job next year, so the Sox will have to pray that he returns to his career norms. Rios is a highly skilled player that can do it all, but he had an absolutely horrendous year. When he's on his game he is capable of hitting .300 with 20 homers and has good speed and defense. He wasn't close to that production this year.
Right Field—A for the first half, F for the second
Where has Jermaine Dye gone? He was excellent in the first half, posting a .302/.375/.567 line. He would have received my vote for team MVP at that point. Realistically, he should have been an All-Star, and you could argue that he should have been a starter.
However, his production has cratered in the second half. Since the break, he's hitting .166 with a .535 OPS, which would be bad for a glove-first shortstop much less a right fielder. Frankly, I don't understand why he hasn't seen more time on the bench.
I doubt that Dye will return next season. His option is $12 million, which is far too much at this point in his career. The team also seems to want to add more speed and defense, both of which are huge weaknesses for Dye.
This is definitely a position where the Sox could try to add someone next year.
Jim Thome was pretty productive while he was with the Sox. He got on base at a very good clip and was an effective run producer. Now that he has been traded to the Dodgers, the Sox have essentially rotated their outfielders and Konerko at this spot.
I'm not sure what the Sox will do at this position next year. Replacing Thome's production could be difficult. Dye could be their DH next season, but not for $12 million. Tyler Flowers also doesn't make sense because they couldn't move him to catcher in the game without losing the DH, forcing them to carry three catchers.
I wouldn't rule out the Sox rotating their regulars at DH to give them some rest. However, they would need to add some more depth to be able to do this effectively. It's also possible that Thome could return at a lower price. There are few teams that will be interested given his age and lack of a position.
If you add up the grades, you end up with about a C, which gives you an average to below-average offense overall. When looking at the numbers, that seems about right. The Sox were 12th in the American League and 18th in all of baseball in runs scored. That's definitely below average (especially from the AL perspective), so apparently I graded on a bit of a curve.
Can it be fixed for next season? Possibly. Gordon Beckham should have a bigger impact next season even if the only difference is more at-bats. Carlos Quentin also has the potential to be much better and it would be hard for Alex Rios to be any worse.
However, losing the production of Dye and Thome could hurt. The Sox will probably need to add at least one decent hitter to improve their situation next year. Someone that can get on base would help significantly considering that Podsednik led the likely returnees with a .354 on base percentage. It is hard to say how feasible that will be. They added large salaries with Peavy and Rios, but were also due to lose a lot of salary commitments as well.
As I will discuss in my next article, the Sox don't necessarily need to have the best offense in the league to be competitive next year given their pitching talent. However, they will need to be better than they were this year.