In 2008, for the first time in several years, the Red Sox underwent little roster turnover to begin the season. Almost every face on Boston's opening day roster was familiar, a stability born of the increasing numbers of Red Sox players under the team's long-term control. Will this trend continue in the years to come? This piece begins a series of articles (check out Part Two and Part Three of this series as well) that will examine the Red Sox roster position by position, and predict the team's composition in 2009 and beyond. The first article will study Boston's infield.
One of the few major decisions the Red Sox will face this off-season is what to do at the catcher position. Jason Varitek is having his worst season as a pro, batting .223/.315/.370, and at the age of 36 many wonder if he'll ever wield an all-star caliber bat again. A month-by-month look at his numbers, however, reveals a more complicated story. Tek started off the season in fine form, with an OPS (on base plus slugging percentage) of .809, and a sizzling May line of .299/.407/.506. (.913 OPS). As hot as he was in May, though, he was just as cold in June and July, failing to eclipse the .200 mark in batting average, and the .300 mark in either on base or slugging percentage in either of those months. Now, in August, Varitek is seemingly warming up again, batting 9 for 23 (.391), with three dingers over the past week. With his four year $40 million contract running out at the end of 2008, it's decision time in Boston.
There are no obvious internal replacements, as backup catcher Kevin Cash has been even worse at the plate than Varitek, and his skill at catching Tim Wakefield's knuckleball is one of his few assets. The Sox also recently claimed David Ross, who batted .255/.352/.579 in 2006, off of waivers from Cincinnati, and the team holds a 3.5 million dollar 2009 option on his contract. Despite flashes of considerable power over his career, his poor 2007 and 2008 numbers, career back-up status, and advanced age would make him a risky choice to start.
Down on the farm, Triple-A backstops George Kottaras and Dusty Brown have flashed some ability in Pawtucket this year. Kottaras, age 25, has shown decent plate discipline (.341 obp), and good power (22 hr), but has struggled to make consistent contact at the plate (.241 avg), and could be over-matched by major league pitching. Brown, age 26, has had a very strong 2008 season (.286/.377/.470), but has never approached these kinds of numbers during his minor league career, and projects more as a back-up.
The free agent market for catchers this year is equally barren, with Pudge Rodriguez (batting .214/.250/.310 since he joined the Yankees) leading a fairly anemic class. In fact, many assumed at the beginning of the season that Varitek would be among the most desirable free agents at the position this winter. Johnny Estrada (.170/.200/.170 in limited action) and Rod Barajas (.255/.305/.419) are two other passable free agent choices, but I doubt anyone in Boston's front office see either of those two as a top candidate.
Beyond the relative slim pickings internally and externally, there are many other reasons for the Sox to retain Varitek. From a public relations standpoint, Tek is one of the faces of the franchise, captain of the team since 2004, and one of the few remnants from both the 2004 and 2007 championship squads. Moreover, Varitek is by all accounts an excellent game-caller, has called 4 separate no-hitters, and was a strike away from his fifth when Curt Schilling shook of his call and gave up the only hit of that game. There is no exact science to attributing a pitcher's success to his battery-mate's skill, but few doubt that there is some relationship, and Varitek would bring value there even if he continued to decline with the bat. This is an especially important factor because of Boston's young pitching staff, as Varitek has already shepherded Bucholz and Lester through their own no-hitters, and has helped Masterson ease into the majors with excellent numbers.
As a best-case scenario, if Red Sox GM Theo Epstein can get Varitek to agree to a reasonable one year deal ($8-10 million), perhaps with a team option for 2010, I think he'd prefer to keep Varitek in Boston and hope for the best offensively while Tek continues to work with the young stable of Red Sox pitchers. At the same time, either Kottaras or Brown could be pegged to back up Tek, and perhaps even allow him to be rested more often than he has been accustomed to (you have to wonder if Varitek's struggles can be partially attributed to a need for more days off). But if Varitek is seeking a longer deal, then the Sox may opt to pass on re-signing him and hand the reigns over to one of their young AAA backstops while bringing in a cheap veteran (perhaps Ross) as insurance.
Luis Exposito, age 21, began the year at the Red Sox's Low-A affiliate Greenville and batted .283/.328/.508 in 200+ plate appearances. Since being promoted to High-A Lancaster, with its hitter-friendly park, Exposito has pounded the ball at a .311/.342/.534 rate. Even more encouragingly, he has fared better at opponents' fields (.354/.381/.677) than at home, buoying optimism that his stellar second half is as much skill as it is park effect. Luis still needs to develop plate discipline, as he has walked only 20 times in about 400 plate appearances this year, but scouts see 25 HR power and exceptional defensive and game-calling skills in him. Assuming his development is a success, he could be the answer to Boston's catching needs by mid-2010.
Kevin Youkilis has been a revelation this year. At .319/.385/.572 he has gone from a reliable hitter with stellar on-base skills and gold-glove defense, to a down-ballot MVP candidate. All it took was power- on pace for about 30 dingers this year, he has increased his slugging by 120 points over his career best, while at the same time maintaining his plate discipline, and hitting for better average. Boston controls Youkilis through the 2010 season, but he is set to hit pay-dirt through arbitration this winter. Many Red Sox fans who hope that Youk will be extended beyond his arbitration years think of him as one of the "young guys". But by the time he hits free agency he actually will be entering his age-32 season (he was 26 before he was called up for good in 2005). With top prospect Lars Anderson (age 20) mashing in Double-A Portland this season (.309/.412/.545), the front office may prefer to not commit to Youkilis into his mid-thirties, and might just thank him for contributing to (at least) two championship teams during his time in Boston.
Youkilis will be manning first in Fenway at least through 2010, but is likely to be gone by 2011 unless a short term extension is worked out before free agency. Lars Anderson is the heir apparent, and should be ready for the majors by mid-2010, if not sooner.
The aforementioned Mr. Anderson is a beast (6-4, 210 lbs.), but is reputably very athletic for his size, and is an adept fielder. Scouts hope he will be even more aggressive at the plate and turn some walks into extra-base hits. He has put up extraordinary numbers at every level, especially given his age, and has the potential to be an All-Star caliber player.
How do you top an unexpected Rookie of the Year campaign? By batting .318/.363/.479 at an up-the-middle position, pacing yourself to double your home run and stolen base output, starting the All-Star game, and doing all this just as you're turning 25. If Pedroia can keep this up (or, dare we say, even improve) Boston will be set at second base for the next four years or so. There's a reason that none of Boston's high level prospects are being groomed as second basemen. Proving all of his detractors wrong, Pedroia has parlayed his 5'9" frame and little-leaguesque swing into becoming one of Boston's stars and a fan-favorite at Fenway.
As long as Dusty's healthy and able to perform at this level, the Red Sox are set for the foreseeable future. Once he hits his arbitration years after next season the Sox may talk about trying to extend his contract past 2012, his age 28 season.
Yamaico Navarro, Boston's top middle infield prospect, can play second, but since there is a greater short-term need at shortstop, he has been playing there all year. Fresh from representing Taiwan in the Olympics, Navarro's teammate Chih Hsien Chiang is Boston's top pure second base prospect (.303/.337/.459). His home-road splits, however, suggest that much of his advancement this year has been park-aided, and that the twenty-year old is far from being ready to help at the major-league level. Given his lack of truly strong numbers at any level of the organization, he's no sure bet to make it as a pro, but we'll know much more about him once he goes back to playing in a normal home park.
While it is commonly held that the 2004 trade of Nomar Garciaparra helped to propel the Red Sox to their 2004 World Series title, the one sure result of Nomar's departure is that Boston has lacked a consistent presence at shortstop ever since. Julio Lugo has been the latest installment in the shortstop carousel, and he has been the worst of the lot (seriously, who thought Edgar Renteria's deal could ever be topped when it comes to wasted money). Punchless and error prone this year, Lugo's speed has been his only real contribution, and at 9 million bucks a year, it hardly seems like a fair deal.
Because of this uninspiring production, the Red Sox have undergone addition by subtraction since losing Lugo to the disabled list and replacing him with former high-level prospect Jed Lowrie (Lugo has recently suffered a setback in his recovery, and may not return at all in 2008). Many wondered whether Lowrie could handle the position defensively, but so far he's been error free, and his bat has been a real plus for the lineup. Overall Lowrie has batted .299/.364/.474, and in August he has turned it up a notch or two, batting .329/.402/.579, and has helped Boston cushion the loss of Mike Lowell's stick (he hit a go-ahead, 11th inning home run in today's game). His power has come mostly in the form of doubles so far (he has only two major league home runs in 154 ab), but, at age 24, he has time to turn some of those 15 doubles (on pace for 60+ in a full season) into bombs.
Given the many middle infield prospects in the minor league system, and the lack of high-level ones at third base, it is likely that Lowrie may eventually slide over to third base to replace Lowell. He has spent about a third of his time there this season, and has shown excellent defense at the position. He should also have a sufficient bat for the switch, especially in his peak years.
A rookie, Lowrie will be under Boston's control until the 2013 season. There seems to be little threat that Lugo will retake the job at any point in 2009 unless Lowrie begins to struggle badly. Lowrie should be able to hold on to the starting job through 2010, at which point he may be moved over to third base to replace an aging Lowell. Yamaico Navarro is the top internal candidate to replace Lowrie at SS, and could be ready to join the Red Sox by 2011.
Signed as a seventeen year old in the Dominican Republic, Navarro has shown a lot of pop for a teenager in the past two years. He followed up his 2006 Dominican Summer League line of .282/.344/.441 with an equally impressive .289/.357/.409 showing as a 19 year-old at Single-A Lowell last season. This season he's continued to impress, batting .280/.341/.412 at Greenville in the Sally League, before moving to Lancaster where he's put up a park-aided .342/.394/.493. Navarro could be in Double A to start next year, or he might be sent to the Red Sox's new 2009 High A affiliate, Salem of the Carolina League, to see if he can put up such excellent numbers in a place that's not a cross between Coors Field and the moon.
Whether it was "Re-sign Lowell", or "Don't sign A-Rod", Red Sox fans chanted their preferences during the final game of the 2007 World Series. Be careful what you wish for. Lowell hasn't had an awful season when he's been healthy (.270/.335/.446, reminiscent of his 2006 numbers). It's just that he hasn't been healthy that often. He's played in 101 games this season, and it looks like he'll be back for the September stretch, but the combination of regression to the mean, absence from the lineup, and playing hurt can't be what the Boston front office was hoping for when they signed him to a three-year deal last winter.
Who can blame the Red Sox for taking a shot on Lowell though? The free agent market for third base was pretty thin last year (apart from ARod, they were looking at a choice between Michael Lamb and Pedro Feliz), and it only gets worse this off-season, when Joe Crede, Morgan Ensberg, Corey Koskie, and Greg Norton will be the options. Nor is there an internal option on the horizon, as the only viable third base prospects in the Red Sox system (Michael Almanzar, age 17, and Will Middlebrooks, age 19) are several years away.
So the Red Sox will pin their hopes on Lowell, who still has a decent bat and an excellent glove, but who hasn't been able to stay healthy and will probably never approach his 2007 numbers (.324/.378/.501) in his career again. The Sox do have versatility- should Lowell falter or get injured again Youkilis can always slide across the diamond and let Sean Casey take over at first, or Lowrie can move over one position and let Cora cover shortstop. Hopefully such shuffling won't be necessary going forward, but Theo has done a good job ensuring depth, just in case.
While third base may no longer be a position of strength for the Red Sox, Lowell will man it adequately, while healthy, until his contract expires in 2010. From that point forward Lowrie might well take over for him, making room for one of the many Red Sox middle infield prospects at shortstop. Alternatively, an external solution could be sought through free agency.
Michael Almanzar is the top prospect at third base for Boston. After raking in the Rookie League to the tune of .348/.417/.472 (phenomenal for a seventeen year old), he has struggled since his promotion to the Sally League. Scouts see star potential in him, but he is so extremely raw at this point it is impossible to truly gauge his abilities. If all goes extremely well he'll be ready to contribute in the majors by mid-2012.
Will Middlebrooks is considered by many to be the top talent taken by the Red Sox in the 2007 draft. He destroyed high school pitching to the tune of .555/.664/.927 (1.592 OPS!), but hasn't yet hit Single-A pitchers well in his time at Lowell. He could also be ready by 2012. It will be interesting to see these two talents develop alongside one another.
Check out Part Two of this series, which reviews the future of the Red Sox outfield and DH positions.