Boston Red Sox: 10 Players to Worry About in 2011

Jeff CockeyCorrespondent IJanuary 18, 2011

Boston Red Sox: 10 Players to Worry About in 2011

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    The Boston Red Sox had a very active off-season this year. Spring training opens for pitchers and catchers on February 13th and when position players arrive four days later you will see some new faces with the two-sox patch on their arms.

    Trotting out under the Fort Myers, Florida sun will be the former Tampa Bay Rays outfielder, Carl Crawford and taking Kevin Youkilis’ place on the bag down the right field line will be the former San Diego Padres slugger, Adrian Gonzalez. Being new to the organization, both of these big sticks will need a short adjustment period to ease into the way the Sox play.

    While Gonzo and CC should cause no worry to Red Sox Nation this upcoming season there are several key roster players that for one reason or another might give one pause. So let’s take a trip around the diamond stopping at the 10 roster players the Red Sox need to worry about in 2011.

Dustin Pedroia

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    Cemented at second base is former Rookie of the Year and AL MVP, Dustin Pedroia. In September 2010 Pedey had a screw inserted in his foot when he had season ending surgery. The surgery was a success and Pedroia should be ready to go come Spring Training. So why should Sox fans be worried? Precisely because it is Dustin Pedroia. Pedroia plays at one speed and one speed only, full throttle. He knows no other way and frankly that’s why Pedroia won the MVP and ROY awards.

    The former Arizona State Sun Devil has been told his entire life that he wouldn’t amount to much in baseball. Pedroia, in his MVP award press conference, was quoted as saying “I’ve heard it from a young age that I’m not big enough to play, that I’m not fast enough, that I’m not strong enough, all of that stuff.” Pedroia went on to say, “if I could out-hustle the other guy then it will make up for me being smaller than them.” “I’ve been able to do that this far in my career and hopefully I will be able to continue doing it.”

    The Red Sox brass hopes that he will be able to continue to do that as well. After a season ending injury, especially one that affected every aspect of his game, it is only natural to worry about whether or not Pedroia will be the same second baseman with which Red Sox Nation has been spoiled. It’s the hustle in Pedroia’s game and his very desire to succeed that, on a surgically repaired foot, makes him more susceptible to re-injury. Theo Epstein will be holding his breath every time the ball is hit toward second for the first part of the season.

    If Pedroia does happen to re-injure his foot the question becomes who will back him up? The answer to that question will be determined by how the Red Sox shortstops play in City of Palms Park.

Jed Lowrie

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    Terry Francona has a difficult decision to make when it comes to the shortstop position. Marco Scutaro handled the job very aptly for the majority of the 2010 season. With a .275 average he hammered 11 home runs with 56 RBIs. When Francona was forced to shuffle the line-up due to injuries, Jed Lowrie made his way back to short. Lowrie batted .287 with 9 dingers and 24 RBIs but with only 171 at-bats, a full 461 fewer than Scutaro.

    The reason that Lowrie had fewer at-bats is the very same reason why Scutaro was brought to the Fens in the first place. Lowrie is extremely injury prone. This is the first off-season when Lowrie has been able to concentrate solely on making himself a better baseball player and not worry about a nagging injury. He is a switch hitter who is working his way to becoming the fulltime starter.

    The first two seasons of Lowrie’s Red Sox career he was plagued with a perpetually injured left wrist. Lowrie underwent surgery to repair his wrist against several medical recommendations and it seems to have been the right move because Lowrie, after a battle with mononucleosis during the first half of the 2010 season, came back to play the best baseball of his career.

    Lowrie is proving that he should be the Red Sox starting shortstop. One astounding fact working in his favor is the 9 jacks he hit in 171 at-bats last season versus the 4 homers he swatted in the first 328 at-bats of his career. Plus he hits from both sides of the dish and has better reach at SS than Scutaro. It seems like a no-brainer for Terry Francona to insert Lowrie in the line-up permanently but the worry about Lowrie’s health will remain until he can play an entire season of injury free ball.

    An added bonus, if Lowrie manages to remain healthy and continues to put up impressive numbers, would be that the Red Sox can further groom SS prospect Jose Iglesias in the minors instead of forcing him up before he is absolutely ready.

Kevin Youkilis

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    Moving around the diamond to the hot corner we find former first baseman Kevin Youkilis. Youkilis is a bull and his tenure and playing time backs up that fact. Normally there would be no need to worry about Youk however the 2011 season brings some concerns.

    Youkilis is coming off thumb surgery that officially ended his 2010 campaign in late summer. He had a tear of his adductor muscle that Theo Epstein told needed to be repaired or Youkilis “wouldn’t be able to play at a high level.” Epstein also said that Youk will “be able to have a pretty normal off-season and be 100 percent for Spring Training.”

    If the only thing Red Sox Manager Terry Francona had to deal with was the surgically repaired thumb to his former first baseman then I would argue that there is no need to worry about Kevin Youkilis. As Boston moves into the 2011 season however, there is another issue. Youk will make the permanent move across the diamond to third base in order to make room for ex-Padre and new Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.

    Youkilis has played third base many times in his career so he is not unfamiliar with the left field line at Fenway but it will now be his home for, presumably, the rest of his career in the Fens.

    In comparing Youkilis’ fielding numbers at third base to those of Adrian Beltre, the Red Sox 2010 third baseman, there doesn’t appear to be much if any drop off in ability. Beltre had 19 errors in 2010 while Youk only had 4 errors in ’09 (playing half as many games at third as Beltre did in 2010), and Youkilis had a fielding percentage of .974 compared to Beltre’s .957. Beltre did turn considerably more double plays than Youkilis however which might suggest that Beltre has a little more reach on that corner than Youk but all in all the difference is not astounding.

    So the question becomes will there be a drop off in production at the first base position with Youkilis abandoning the bag to make room for Adrian Gonzalez? Most likely not but the verdict is officially out until Gonzalez settles into his new digs.

    The problem with Youkilis, if any will exist, will become evident when he swings the stick. A torn adductor muscle is rarely seen in the sport of baseball and thus it is difficult to project how it will affect Youkilis when in the batter’s box. Alone, these issues aren’t cause for pause but the combination of the new position and his thumb gives reason to worry.

Jacoby Ellsbury

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    Moving onto the grass, outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury will be settling back into his regular spot in center. He knows this patch of green at Fenway better than anyone thus relieving some worry by eliminating a learning curve. The problem arises when you realize that Ellsbury is once again responsible for covering the majority of the outfield. Normally not an issue for the speedy center fielder but he has never done it with repaired ribs.

    Like Pedroia, Ellsbury is known for going all out, whether it’s running, diving, or throwing. Every single movement in the sport of baseball requires a healthy midsection. After missing basically the entire 2010 season with fractures in several of his ribs Ellsbury was just recently medically cleared to play baseball again.

    Great news for Terry Francona and Red Sox Nation to be sure but the worry remains until Ellsbury can prove he is still able to do everything that earned him his spot on the team; all out speed, diving for balls, stealing bases and running into outfield walls. Will his ribs hold up? Will the injury be on his mind the next time he is rushing in to make a catch and he sees Lowrie or Pedroia running out to make the same play? It could prove to be a mental issue more so than a physical one.

Josh Beckett

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    Now let’s take a look at the rubber. The Red Sox rotation is made up of Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Lester is a proven stud and Buchholz finally came into his own last season but the other three hurlers were a bit of a question mark.

    Josh Beckett, once the Red Sox main ace, went from lights out in Boston’s 2007 World Series bid to mediocre last season. Even more disturbing is that Beckett’s average showing came after he signed a very hefty contract extension (4yrs/$68M). Cause for worry? I would think so.

    Beckett will be 31 years old for the majority of the 2011 season. He already has two World Series rings sitting at home, so can the drop off in performance be attributed to Beckett’s attitude? Absolutely not. Josh Beckett is a competitor and he more than anyone wants to fix whatever is broken.

    Statistically speaking it seems that odd years are Beckett’s best with the Red Sox. When looking at 2006, 2008 and 2010 Beckett had his worst ERA’s (5.01, 4.03, 5.78 versus ’07-3.27 and ’09-3.86), He also had his worst win/loss percentage (.593, .545, .500 versus ’07-.741 and ‘09-.739) and some of his worst WHIPs (1.295, 1.187,  1.535). These statistics in mind 2011 should be a great year for Beckett.

    Unfortunately the Red Sox need to factor in age, injuries (Beckett was injured for part of 2010) and the fact that with the exception of 2009, which was a contract year for him, Beckett has been starting fewer and fewer games each season (2006-33 GS – 2010-21 GS). This means Beckett is putting a strain on Boston’s pitching.

    Age and injuries typically do not mix well especially when mechanics suffer in order to pitch around pain. Beckett has had shoulder and back issues dating back before and including last year. The Red Sox seem convinced that the problems can be solved through conditioning and that the off-season will provide that opportunity.

    I’d argue there would be less need to worry about Beckett’s ailments if Boston had a stronger bullpen to limit his innings. But that’s not always the case.

Hideki Okajima

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    Hideki Okajima is signed through 2011 on a 1-year contract worth $1.75M. That’s a full $1M less than he received last year. He is, however able to make up to $550,000 in incentives and next season the Red Sox need him to earn every penny.

    Okajima is going to be 35 years old this season and was fighting back and arm issues last year. He’s no longer a spring chicken though being a set-up guy his age is not as distressing as some of his statistics. Okie has produced a trend alarming to the Fenway faithful.

    In roughly the same number of games pitched each year since 2007 Okajima’s ERA has gotten worse every single year. It ranges from 2.22 in 2007 to 4.50 in 2010. So have his Innings Pitched (69-2007 v. 46-2010), his earned runs (17-2007 v. 23-2010), his strikeouts (63-2007 v. 33-2010) and his WHIP (.971-2007 v. 1.717-2010). Okajima has been sliding down a slippery slope since the Red Sox last won the World Series.

    The combination of advancing age and declining stats is truly worrisome. Maybe it’s because every year Okajima has had to look at a different 3rd baseman when he goes into his unorthodox pitching style. First, upon release of the ball Okie would be looking at Mike Lowell then he had to stare at Adrian Beltre and now he will have to look at Kevin Youkilis’ bald head. Could this lack of consistency be causing his poor pitching?

    Kidding aside the Red Sox need Hideki Okajima's back and arm ailments to fully heal and for him to perform back at 2007 levels. A healthy Okie will counter act Boston's starters who can’t seem to get as deep into games as they once were able to go.

    When Okajima first came to Boston he was asked how he felt about his virtual anonymity due to the Daisuke Matsuzaka fanfare. He replied, "I'm willing to be a hero in the dark." He was exactly that for Red Sox Nation and they need him to be just that once again.

John Lackey

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    John Lackey is one such starter that needs the bull pens help. In a Red Sox uniform Lackey’s win/loss record is on par with the rest of his MLB seasons however his ERA last year (4.40) was his worst since ’04.  Lackey also allowed more hits in 2010 than he ever has in his nine-year career and he tied 2003 for the most earned runs allowed (30 more than his previous year with the Angels). He walked the most people he has ever walked in a season last year (72. Tied with 2006) and had his worst WHIP ever (1.419). Was the switch to the tougher AL East too much for Lackey?

    Lackey, like other Sox hurlers, is over 30 years old. Clocking in at 32 he just signed a mega-contract paying him $18.7M last year. Boston Red Sox fans are hoping that Lackey actually begins to earn the tremendous raise that John Henry granted him when they yanked him out of Anaheim and brought him to Fenway. Lackey is slated to pitch third in the rotation and needs to be able to go deep into games to get Boston past their AL East foes.

    Starters going deep into games will relieve pressure from the bullpen and allow Francona to go directly to Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon. The second, Boston’s closer, being yet another cause for concern among Red Sox Nation.

Jonathan Papelbon

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    Jonathan Papelbon has always been a polarizing figure in the Fens. I don’t know any Red Sox fans that are overly excited about the way Papelbon has pitched his last two seasons. He still remains an excellent “save” getter as far as fantasy value is concerned but Theo Epstein doesn’t get paid to make fantasy baseball decisions. Epstein is hoping for a bounce back from the 30 year old closer.

    The worrisome trend that Papelbon started in 2009 worsened through 2010. Pap posted his worst ERA as a professional (3.90), gave up more runs and earned runs than ever before (34 & 29) and more of those runs than ever were out of the park (7). In the last two seasons Papelbon has walked more opposing players (24 & 28) when he used to only walk around 15 and he posted his worst WHIP since 2006 (1.269).

    So why is John Henry forking over $9.35M to the downward spiral that is Jonathan Papelbon? Red Sox fans are hoping he knows something they don’t because a more than capable, younger and harder throwing Daniel Bard is waiting in the wings to claim his rightful spot on the mound in the ninth inning.

    I can only surmise two things from Papelbon remaining the closer this year; either Epstein and Francona saw something that showed them Bard wasn’t ready to take over the closing duties or the bull pen was so full of mediocre set-up pitchers that they couldn’t afford to take Bard out of that role and thus were forced to keep Pap (though the recent addition of pitcher Bobby Jenks should help solidify the bullpen). Either way the problems 60ft. 6 inches from home plate do not end with Papelbon.

Daisuke Matsuzaka

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    It is difficult to believe that Daisuke Matsuzaka has been a Red Sox pitcher for 4 years already. It seemed like only yesterday that he was the $100M man from Japan with a billion different un-hittable pitches at his disposal. Dice-K could go super deep into games, throw 120+ pitches on a regular basis and lead the Boston starting rotation into glory.

    Well over the past two years Dice-K has barely hung onto his spot in the rotation with ugly ERAs of 5.76 and 4.69. He has declined in the number of games started since his signing and his innings pitched keep creeping lower and lower each year. It’s not a good sign when Sox fans are happy if he makes it through the 5th inning.

    Dice-K gave up 80 earned runs last year in only 25 starts compared to the 54 earned runs that crossed the plate under his watch in 29 starts in 2008, his best season.

    Matsuzaka joins Beckett and Lackey in the over 30 yrs. old club and like Beckett, Dice-K is now back from injury to begin anew this Spring Training. The question with Matsuzaka however isn't whether or not he is physically healed but if he has surmounted the mental hurdles that affected him in past seasons.

    Matsuzaka is a good pitcher but he is not and will never be the great pitcher that he was in Japan. It is difficult to say whether or not the Red Sox overpaid for Dice-K because Boston did bring home a World Series Championship while Matsuzaka was on the team and those Championships are pretty priceless. John Henry, however, will be forking out the most money Matsuzaka has ever earned this upcoming season ($10M) and for that amount of paper one might worry if Boston will get enough six inning games out of the man to justify the expense.

David Ortiz

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    When talking about justifying expense the 35-year-old, $12.5M/year designated hitter David Ortiz comes to mind. Ortiz wanted the Red Sox to sign him to a long-term contract extension at the end of last year however Theo Epstein had cause for concern when looking at Ortiz’s numbers.

    David Ortiz poses an interesting conundrum when speaking about whether or not the slugger should make The Nation worry. While examining the statistics for Big Papi you find that he always seems to produce big time numbers. Unfortunately, for Boston, over the past two seasons Ortiz is having trouble getting off on the right foot.

    In 2009 Ortiz didn’t hit his first homerun until roughly two months into the season and last year Ortiz was off to a similar start (though it didn’t last as long). This forced Francona to shuffle the batting order both years in an attempt to get Papi back in his rhythm. While this tactic seems to have worked it has the adverse effect of throwing off the other players, an issue that'll be compounded by the additions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez.

    After Ortiz brought Boston back from the brink of elimination in the 2004 World Series his numbers improved through 2006 before a noticeable decline began in 2008.  His slugging percentage and on-base percentage have taken a big dip since there highs in ’06 and ’07 respectively as have his homeruns and RBIs, but that may be attributable to the slow starts he’s been experiencing.

    While Ortiz seems to be walking out of the gate each year he is finishing strongly. He still managed to accumulate around 30 home runs (28 in ’09 and 32 in ’10) and 100 RBIs (99 in ’09 and 102 in ’10) in the last two seasons. These numbers are a significant drop off from the 54 HR he slugged in ’06 and the 148 RBIs he knocked-in during the ’05 season but frankly they are still very good numbers.

    The worry with Ortiz is not will he perform well but will he start well. If he gets this slow start issue resolved prior to opening day then Ortiz may reach 40 home runs and 125 RBIs this year. Being a DH, his age will not play as big a factor in his production. Look at Jim Thome last year with the Minnesota Twins. At 40 years old he managed better stats than his 2009 season and he came through in the clutch helping to propel the Twins to the playoffs.

Summary and Trivia

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    The Red Sox are sitting very pretty in the AL East next year with the signings of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. The biggest concern, ironically, is their pitching. I say ironically because last year when Boston acquired John Lackey the sports world proclaimed their rotation unbeatable. With the 2011 season quickly approaching these boys of summer better hope that Beckett, Lackey, and Dice-K can find their swagger. Boston needs their full rotation performing because they just traded away their best minor league pitching prospect, Casey Kelly, to San Diego for Gonzalez.

    In the field is where Boston has the most cause for concern. Will the surgically repaired line-up be able to stand the stresses of a long season in the toughest conference in Major League Baseball? Only time will tell.

    As for Boston’s bats, I see less cause for worry beyond Big Papi’s pension for slow starts. Gonzo and CC should pick up the slack in that department. The only issue that might arise is how to set the line-up for next year. How long into the season will it take for Tito to figure out the best batting order and will that negatively effect output?

    Who do you think the Red Sox need to worry about in 2011?

    Boston Red Sox trivia:

    In 1938, which Red Sox reliever hit a dinger in his first career Major League plate appearance, only to never hit another for the rest of his career?