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 second installment of a series of articles (check out Part One 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, will focus on the outfield and DH positions.
A whole article could be written on Boston's change in left fielders this year (come to think of it, I already did that). As I said in that piece, I liked the Manny-for-Bay trade not only because it keeps the Red Sox playoff hopes afloat this year, but also because it gives them a cheap, talented left fielder next year. Jason Bay has hit .341/.386/.527 since arriving in Boston just under a month ago, blasting four homers and swiping three bags. That's more than adequate to replace the numbers Manny was putting up at Fenway this year before his unceremonious departure, especially considering Bay's edge in the field and on the bases (forget about those gaudy numbers Manny put up his first week in L.A.- he's already coming back down to earth). If Bay can give the Red Sox one more year of this kind of production, the trade will be considered a success- another feather in Theo Epstein's well-adorned cap.
Bay is no spring chicken, though, and chances are he'll be anxious to hit the open market for the first time as soon as possible, given that he'll be celebrating his 30th birthday next month. While the Red Sox might as well see if they can extend him at a reasonable price, it is likely that Bay's stay in Boston will be a short one, and that someone else will be playing in front of the Green Monster in 2010. Enter Boston's dynamic Duo of outfield prospects, Josh Reddick and Ryan Kalish. Both are highly regarded, but Reddick is a year ahead of Kalish both in terms of age and minor league level, and Kalish's excellent range would be wasted in Boston's smallish left field.
Though replacing Manny was no easy task, getting Bay was a best case scenario for a Boston front office working with very little wiggle-room. Bay should be good enough to make Bostonians forget about Manny (that is, unless he dons pinstripes in 2009), and his internal replacement options are promising. Left field should continue to be a strength for the Red Sox, in the short term, and perhaps beyond.
Reddick had an impressive minor league debut at Single-A Greenville, batting .306/.352/.531 with 18 homers and 8 stolen bases in 369 at bats. He's continued his success at the plate and on the bases over three levels this year (22 hr, 14 sb, and a line of .326/.371/.562), and is holding his own in Double-A Portland as a 21 year old.
Jacobymania swept Boston last October. Ellsbury put up a ridiculous line of .353/.394/.509 after being called up in September and then batted .360/.429/.520 in limited post-season action. Expectations for the 2008 season couldn't have been higher. A presumptive Rookie of the Year favorite, Jacoby was not supposed to be batting .264/.327/.361 as the end of August approaches. Fans are usually happy when rookies can manage to tread water at the plate, especially if they can add 41 stolen bases (while being caught only seven times) and excellent defense at a challenging position to the mix. But it's tough to watch your budding star show his mortality as he goes through very ordinary growing pains. Theo may be calmly waiting for Ellsbury to grow into his stardom, but the Fenway Faithful are a bit nervous. Fear not, ye consumers of beans and chowda! Jacoby may not be a star yet, but all indications, including this year's pedestrian stats, still point to him being a formidable presence at the plate.
Of course, Jacoby was never going to support a slugging percentage of .500+ over any period of time. He's just not that kind of a hitter. His stats last fall were driven by an extremely high batting average (~.355 overall) which just doesn't jibe with his track record. Ellsbury hasn't maintained an average of .320 over the course 100 at bats since his college days at Oregon State, and we all know that the American League has stiffer competition than the Pac 10. Looking at Jacoby's minor league numbers (averages of .317, .299, .308, .298) you can reason that Jacoby will probably settle in to an average between .295 and .320 in his prime. Consequently, even if we believe that his September 2007 numbers otherwise reflect his capabilities, despite the inflated batting average, we're looking at more of a .310/.370/.470 player when we account for a more reasonable average.
Here's the interesting part: Ever since Jacoby started showing up on prospect lists he's been compared to Johnny Damon. The temptation to make the comparison is obvious- Jacoby would be one day replacing Damon in the field, he plays a similar game right down to his blazing speed and spaghetti-weak arm, and he has dashing good looks (errr, so I'm told). But it wasn't just fans and sportswriters making "naked eye" comparisons. Stat guys came up with the same output when they crunched the numbers and found comparables for Ellsbury.
So, how did Damon do his first full season?
.271/.313/.368 (Remember, Jacoby is at .264/.327/.361 this season.)
But Damon started a little younger than Jacoby, so let's look at his second season:
.275/.338/.386 (Still pretty close to Jacoby's current numbers.)
Next year Jacoby will be entering his age 25 season, so let's see how Damon did at that age:
.307/.379/.477 (Hmm, that's where we hope Jacoby will end up...)
You getting my point? Damon started much the way Jacoby has, and yet turned into one of the premier lead-off men of the last decade when he hit his prime.
Of course Johnny and Jacoby might not have exactly the same career path. Jacoby may well struggle again next year. Heck, it's possible that he might never fully pan out. But if you buy the Damon-Ellsbury comparison, then you have to like Jacoby's chances to become a pretty good player.
Despite Ellsbury's early struggles, he'll be a fixture in the outfield for years to come. Already he gives the Red Sox great fielding and excellent base-running. Although he'll never be a slugger, he should round out his repertoire with good plate discipline and an ability to hit for average. As this was his first full season in the majors, the Sox control Ellsbury through the 2013 season.
It seems silly to talk about the future after having just outlined Boston's centerfield plans for the next five years. And, of course, there's always a good chance the Red Sox will want to extend Ellsbury if he does pan out. But for the sake of thoroughness, Che-Hsuan Lin is the next best centerfield talent in the Red Sox system. Having just represented Taiwan in the Olympics, right now Lin is all glove and speed, but not much of a bat beyond the ability to take a walk (.249/.342/.359, with 33 stolen bases at Low-A Greenville). At age 19, though, he has plenty of time to develop as a hitter, and he has all of the tools you could hope for in a centerfielder (range, arm strength and accuracy). One teammate described his range by saying he looks like he is "gliding on roller skates" in the field. If he progresses well, he could be ready to help the team by mid 2012, and could even push one of the other outfield bats to the DH role after David Ortiz's departure if he develops a little power.
October 20, 2007. Until that date it looked as if Julio Lugo and J.D. Drew might be forever bound together as colossal busts of the 2007 off-season. Drew batted .270/.373/.423 in 2007, and Theo Epstein didn't shell out 14 million bucks last year for a pretty good on base percentage and 11 home runs. So when Drew staked the Sox a four run lead with a grand salami in a crucial post-season game, you know that Theo was thankful that, no matter what happened going forward, he could point to at least one real positive of the oft-questioned signing.
Fortunately, Drew's 2008 season, despite the perennial injury issues, has been a marked improvement from last year. At .280/.408/.522, Drew is right on par with his career numbers, and he was absolutely on fire (.337/.462/.848 with 12 home runs, 27 runs and 27 RBI) when the Red Sox really needed someone to step up and fill David Ortiz's shoes during Papi's month-long DL stint. It still remains to be seen what Drew will offer during the remainder of the season (he has missed the last six games with a herniated disk in his back, and may be DL bound), but all things considered, 2008 has to be considered a success.
The Red Sox hope for more of the same in coming years, as Drew is signed through 2011, his age-35 season. In all likelihood the Sox will be looking for a new right fielder in 2012, and the two aforementioned internal outfield candidates, Ryan Kalish and Josh Reddick, will be waiting to fill that position.
Drew will always miss some time for injuries, but other than that he'll be a solid, and sometimes spectacular, right field bat. After his contract expires in 2011 the Red Sox should have adequate internal options, as two of their top five prospects are multi-tool outfielders in their early twenties.
Of Kalish and Reddick, the latter is probably best suited to play right field because of his superior arm strength and accuracy. Reddick had an impressive minor league debut at Single-A Greenville, batting .306/.352/.531 with 18 homers and 8 stolen bases in 369 at bats. He's continued his success at the plate and on the bases over three levels this year (22 hr, 14 sb, and a line of .326/.371/.562), and is holding his own in Double-A Portland as a 21 year old.
If you had to name the single greatest acquisition of the Theo Epstein-led front office, it would be hard not to point to David Ortiz. He might not make the Hall of Fame because of the relatively late start to his reign as a superstar (and then again he might), but he has definitely been one of the most feared hitters of the last half decade. Not only did Theo pick him up as a free agent for almost nothing in 2003 and 2004 (5.8 million dollars over two years is sadly considered "nothing" in today's market- roughly the asking price for a mediocre veteran middle reliever) after the Twins outright released him in 2003, but he then had the prescience to sign him to a bargain two year, 12.5 million dollar extension in May of 2004 just before he put on one of the greatest shows of clutch hitting ever. His insane October numbers, and well-timed big hits, alone would have likely driven his salary up by the millions, but Papi also had a ridiculous regular season in 2004, following a huge break out 2003. The performance that the Red Sox got between 2003 and 2006 was worth tens of millions of dollars more than the roughly 18 million dollars they actually paid for it. Think about that again: Theo managed to get four years of David Ortiz in his absolute prime for about $4.5 million a season. Incredible.
These days Ortiz is making a more reasonable, though still not expensive, 12.5 million bucks a year. He is signed through 2010, with a club option (no buyout) for 2011. Ortiz started this year off in a wicked slump (.185/.288/.350 through the end of April), but was his usual dominant self in May (.318/.409/.617). He then promptly hurt his wrist, and was on the DL for all of June. Since his return he's batted .284/.403/.490, and has not quite displayed his usual power. The most obvious culprit is his wrist- it often takes players some time to regain power while recovering from wrist ailments. But those opposed to the Ramirez-Bay trade have tried to blame Ortiz's power outage on a lack of protection with Manny out of the lineup, despite Kevin Youkilis's (.361/.430/.687) and Jason Bay's (.341/.386/.527) terrific numbers in the fourth and fifth lineup spots since Ramirez's departure.
In the short term Ortiz will be fine. His power will return, and his other skills seem to be fully intact. In the longer term, it is often said that guys like Ortiz don't age well. Much is made of his hefty body, and the wear and tear it will cause on his joints, especially the knees. On the other hand, Baseball Prospectus's excellent PECOTA forecasting system predicts him being a useful player well into his late-30's, albeit with significant drop-off after his age 35 season (which just happens to be in 2011). In that sense, the Red Sox are well-positioned to make a call on whether to try to re-sign Ortiz at a critical point in his career. One thing is for sure: After his 2004 (not to mention 2007) contributions, he'll never have to buy his own beer in Beantown watering holes again.
Ortiz is the man through 2010, and his relative cheap option will be picked up in 2011 if he's still batting like the Big Papi we've come to know. Offering an extension to any 35 year-old, let alone one built like Ortiz, is a risky proposition, and if he's like most players he'll want to make his next contract a big one (you know, in case it's his last). Those factors could mean a new DH in Boston by 2012, or even 2011. But no matter what happens, there may never be another figure that looms as large (no pun intended) in the pantheon of Boston sports heroes.
As for traditional internal DH/1B options, at 25 Chris Carter is a little old to still be considered a prospect, but sporting a .299/.357/.522 in Triple-A, and with a history of slugging percentages above .500, he seems to have a decent enough bat to be a DH, and his fielding woes suggest few other options besides a bench role. Alternatively, as mentioned above, if centerfield prospect Che-Hsuan Lin develops enough pop he could take over a corner outfield position when he's major league ready (perhaps by 2012), freeing up one the corner outfielders at that time (Reddick or Kalish?) to take over at DH.
Keep an eye out for Part Three of this series, coming soon, which will review the future of the Red Sox pitching staff. Also check out Part One of this series, devoted to Boston's infield.