The inconsistency of the Sox offense was one of the bigger issues for the team this season.
At times they would crush the ball all over the yard, but far more often, they would struggle to put rallies together. It didn't take an elite pitcher to put the Sox offense to sleep either; in fact they could make guys like David Huff and Sergio Mitre look like Zack Greinke.
The Sox finished 19th in baseball in runs scored (12th in the AL), but were worse after the break, ranking 23rd and 13th, respectively. Combined with their bullpen struggles, those results were especially damaging and cost them a lot of close games.
Can the Sox fix their offensive issues? Given the composition of their roster, it could be difficult.
Outlook for Returning Players
Assuming what GM Kenny Williams will do is extremely difficult, but I expect this group's core to return. Jermaine Dye is the one regular that I don't expect to return given his late-season fade and his hefty option for 2010.
However, I have mixed feelings about fielding the same team from 2009.
On the one hand, I see some players who could have a much better year. Gordon Beckham had a productive rookie season and could break out. Even if his production were to remain relatively static, having him in the lineup for another 50 games would be a big upgrade over what Josh Fields gave them early in the year.
It's also reasonable to expect that Carlos Quentin and Alex Rios will have better seasons.
Quentin had an injury plagued year and struggled with his batting average, but he still showed good power (his home run total projects to about 33 in 155 games) and still got on base nearly as often as A.J. Pierzynski and Alexei Ramirez, who both hit for a much better average. Even a bump to a .260 batting average would allow him to be a difference maker. That is, assuming he can actually stay healthy.
As for Rios—he simply had a down year. Even though it was the worst season of his career, he was still a bit more productive than the Brian Anderson and Dwayne Wise duo in center field. Hopefully his late hot streak (he had 16 hits in his last 53 at bats) is a sign that he will return to his career norms next year. Even his somewhat disappointing .798 OPS last season would be a sizable advantage over what the Sox have had in center the last few years.
Some will also argue that players like Ramirez, Getz ,and Nix could improve with more experience.
However, things also have the potential to go very poorly.
Quentin has been injury prone and only sporadically productive for his entire career outside of 2008. Depending on him to be a key middle of the order hitter could be hazardous. Rios' performance also seems to be trending downwards even though he's theoretically entering his prime. Alexei Ramirez is also far from a lock to produce to his talent levels.
There are also the players that may not produce as well as they did in 2009.
Scott Podsednik was basically left for dead before this year and came up with a surprisingly strong season. He actually had a better year at the plate than he did in 2005. Expecting him to do that again is extremely hazardous given that he hit .261, .243 and .251 in his previous three seasons. Given that he has little extra base power and doesn't take a ton of walks, he could be in for a huge decline. They also have to come to terms with him first and may not be comfortable giving him a multi-year, lucrative deal.
Some would also argue that Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski are due for a decline. While neither had a year grossly out of line with their career norms, both are reaching their mid-30's and may have peaked.
They also had Jim Thome in the lineup for most of the year, who was one of their biggest power threats and had the best on base percentage on the team. It is hard to envision them replacing his production at that spot, especially if they rotate their regulars at that spot like Williams has publicly mentioned.
If everything goes right for the Sox, they could be a better offensive team with no significant acquisitions. However, it seems more likely that everything will even out and create an offense similar to the one fielded this year. It's also not out of the realm of possibility that it could get even worse, which is a very scary thought for Sox fans.
Upgrading the Offense
In my opinion, the Sox are unfortunately in a very difficult position with their lineup.
While they didn't really have a consistently elite hitter, they had respectable options at nearly every position. They posted at least a league average OPS at every position except for center field and second base (I'm counting Alexei even though he fell a little short because he plays one of the toughest positions on the field).
That makes it a lot harder to drastically upgrade their lineup. Any player that is definitively better than what the Sox have at most positions is going to cost quite a bit on the market.
This also isn't the strongest free agent market, making things even tougher for Kenny Williams. Players like Matt Holliday and Jason Bay will likely be out of their price range, and you can't exactly acquire someone like Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez or Carl Crawford without sending some serious talent back in the deal.
I'm sure Williams will explore deals to bring in players of that caliber, but those types of scenarios probably aren't realistic. Any team is probably going to ask about Gordon Beckham, Daniel Hudson and Tyler Flowers as centerpieces to the deal. Some might even try to get John Danks or Gavin Floyd, an even less appealing proposition. I seriously doubt the Sox would trade any of those players, and there is a fair drop-off in young, cheap talent in the organization after those players.
There are a few free agents that could interest the Sox assuming the price doesn't get too high. One of their biggest areas where they need improvement is on base percentage considering that no one on their current roster is a lock to finish with an OBP above .350 next year.
The easiest position for the Sox to upgrade on the market is second base. Orlando Hudson and Felipe Lopez are both free agents and are coming off strong seasons. Either player could give them a more dependable option at the position.
However, I'm not sure how much the Sox would be willing to spend to get either player. Hudson and Lopez have career on base percentages of .348 and .338 respectively.
They might decide that they'd rather spend the several million to acquire one of those players elsewhere and stick with Getz at second, who has a much smaller contract and posted a .324 OBP this year. I realize that both players are more proven and typically have a higher slugging percentage than Getz, but they also might believe that Chris is due for improvement and that his speed negates the difference.
One guy I think they would spend the money for is Chone Figgins. The Sox have supposedly liked him for quite some time and would like to add more speed to the lineup and improve their on base percentage if you believe the media reports. Figgins has posted OBP's of .393, .367 and .395 the last three years while stealing at least 30 bases in each season. He would definitely give them a stronger and more dependable option at the top of the lineup.
The only thing I think might stop them is his potential price tag. Figgins could be in line for a five year deal, something that could scare them off given that he will turn 32 in January. They'd also probably balk at the price if it goes well over eight figures.
If they did sign him, they'd also have to figure out where he would play. Second base and left field could make a lot of sense, but he has played well at third base the last two years. They could conceivably move Beckham to short or second, but would probably rather keep the left side of the infield the same.
One guy I would like to see them pursue that could make a lot of sense for them is Bobby Abreu. He would almost certainly lead the team in on base percentage and is still capable of doing a lot of damage at the top of the order. He also still runs surprisingly well given his age. There also wasn't much of a market for him last year, which could work in the Sox favor if he hits the market again.
Assuming that it won't take a long term deal starting at $10 million a year to sign him, I think that would be the best and easiest way to upgrade their lineup. My only caveat is that I really hope they would play him in left field or at DH because he is as poor a fielder as Jermaine Dye has been in right field.
Of course the major issue with these last two players is that the Angels would have to let them go. They probably have more than enough financial flexibility to keep one or both of Figgins and Abreu. However, Vladimir Guerrero and John Lackey will also be free agents and they let Mark Teixeira and Francisco Rodriguez go elsewhere last year. They could end up committing too much money elsewhere and let one of them go.
Kenny Williams will have his hands full trying to upgrade this offense. Though they should have some money to spend in free agency, he will likely have to get creative if he wants to add the impact bat that they desperately need if they intend to field a good offense.
However, their starting pitching gives them some margin for error with the offense. Their rotation should be among the best in baseball, so they won't necessarily need a top-10 offense to contend. That said, they will need to be at least a little bit better. Even in 2005 when the pitching staff carried the team, the Sox were 9th in the AL and 13th in baseball in runs scored.
The Sox will need to find some way to improve their consistency, get on base more often, and drive the runners home when they get chances. Those areas could determine whether they reach their potential next year or have another disappointing season.