Before I get started, a tip of the cap from all of us in Red Sox nation to Theo Epstein, our maverick genius, our watchful protector, our Dark Kni-...never mind. But I stand in awe of what the 37 year old son of Brookline, MA has accomplished.
For the services of Adrian Gonzalez, he still managed to keep Jose Iglesias and our draft picks. Under the cover of darkness, he locked up one of the most complete outfielders in the game and disrupted the Yankee-Lee negotiations with his free hand.
For his next trick, he avoided any long, bloated contracts for relievers and secured the services of two solid bullpen arms, one from a division rival. Bruce Wayne he is not, but it wouldn't surprise me to find a cape and mask in his secret lair.
Lost in the frenzy over the immediate impact the new additions will make, I'm equally amazed at how well Epstein & Co. has set up the Red Sox to remain successful over the next several seasons. As much excitement as the 2011 campaign holds, I am equally looking forward to the team's potential 2, 3, and as much as 5 years down the line. Here are a few reasons why...
Depending on how Terry Francona shapes his core lineup for the season, the first four batters in Boston's scorecard may have an average age of 28 on April 1st. Ellsbury (27), Pedroia (27), Crawford (29), and Gonzalez (28) are only now realizing their primes, and already have a boatload of awards and accomplishments.
Between these fab four, there have been 10 All-Star Appearances, 4 Golden Glove Awards, an MVP, and a ROY award. It's also worth mentioning that in the last eight seasons, Jacoby Ellsbury or Carl Crawford has led the league stolen bases six times.
Kevin Youkilis (32), who will likely hit fifth most days, was a late-bloomer and has honed his batting eye to near-perfection the past few campaigns. His OPS has risen every single year he's been in the majors. That trend can't continue forever, but I think it's reasonable to expect the Greek God of Walks to maintain his freakish slash line for a few more seasons.
When the Red Sox open up the 2011 season in Arlington, their 3 best pitchers will bring an average age of 26. Like the Fantastic Four in the lineup, the young arms are only now realizing their best years.
As the unquestionable Ace of the staff, Jon Lester (27) posted a career high in wins (19) and K's (225) in 2010. Digging a little deeper, we find a pitcher who has made steady improvements every year and seems primed to reign in the Top 5 in Cy Young voting for the next several seasons. Lester has posted progressively lower WHIP's and opponent OPS's every year in the majors. Couple that with 3 consecutive seasons with 32+ starts and 200+ innings, and the Red Sox have in Lester the bedrock they need to build a team for years to come.
Clay Buchholz (26) dazzled us early on with a no-hitter in his 2nd major league start, but for the better part of two years Clay slipped in and out of the public eye. Inconsistent starts punctuated by big innings resulted in frequent trips to the DL and AAA. In 2010, it all come together for him, posting career highs in every relevant statistical category. Like Lester, Buchholz has seen dramatic improvement for the past three seasons, and as he reaches his late-20's, we shouldn't expect anything less.
Daniel Bard (25), heir apparent to the closer's job after 2011, has the swing-and-miss stuff you love to see in late inning situations. His body of work is much smaller than either starter, but his triple-digit fastball and kneebuckling slurve have already proven to be as effective as Jonathan Papelbon in his best seasons.
By Spring Training 2012, it's a virtual given that the likes of JD Drew (35), Marco Scutaro (35), Jonathan Papelbon (30), Mike Cameron (38), Jason Varitek (39), and Tim Wakefield (44) will not be under contract. Realistically, I don't believe David Ortiz (35) will be taking BP in Ft. Myers either.
These seven players represent just over $54 million of guaranteed salary in 2011. Undoubtedly, much of this freed money is already spoken for with the arrivals of Gonzalez and Crawford, in addition to arbitration and the graduated pay raises already scheduled for the next several years. But at least some of it will be invested in additional bullpen arms and right-handed power down the road.
Optimistically, the Sox will also be able to get out from under the $10 million still due Dice-K (30) in 2012. Matsuzaka may be willing to waive the no-trade clause if a West Coast team in need of a starter comes calling.
Beyond the dollars and cents, the sheer vitality of the team will get a huge boost when the twilight players listed above are replaced by the underrated studs lurking in the Red Sox farm system.
Mark your calendars: Ryan Kalish (22) will start for Boston in RF in 2012. Barring a major injury or serious regression in 2011, Kalish represents as much a lock as there is in the Boston system. A modern day Trot Nixon with more speed, Ryan's projects as a solid .275/.350/.450 hitter with all the grit and flair that JD Drew doesn't have. Ellsbury-fast he is not, but Kalish has amazing instincts that give him plus range in the outfield, and the capability of being a 25/25 player.
After years of trying to find stability at the shortstop position, the Red Sox have three players under contract that would be starters for just about any other club. As much as I like Marco Scutaro, 2011 and beyond rest on the shoulders of Jed Lowrie (26) and Jose Iglesias (21). Lowrie showed his stuff during August and September last year. He has a dynamic bat, and is not the defensive chump you might think, something I covered in an article earlier this month. By all accounts, Jose Iglesias' defense is major league ready. He has the makings of a perennial gold glover, and will be such a run-saver in the field that a .280 average and low strikeout totals will be enough to keep him in the lineup every day.
Further down the ladder, there are a few battery mates that may provide some answers should Dice-K be shipped off, Beckett's health deteriorate, or Saltalamacchia fail to pan out. Felix Doubront (23) has already handled a short stint in the majors with surprising poise and high strikeout totals. He would likely make the rotation for a small market team, but remains the 7th starter on Boston's deep roster. After a brutal senior year at LSU, Anthony Ranaudo (21) dazzled the Cap Cod league with 26 scoreless innings last summer. He is probably two years away, but is polished beyond his freshman status, and will likely start in High-A. At catcher, Ryan Lavarnway (23) has posted back-to-back 20 home run campaigns, with high OBP and RBI totals. He brings a high IQ and awesome work ethic to the position, qualities high on the Red Sox checklist for backstops.
Right now, the Sox are set to take four of the top 40 picks in this summer's draft. If journeyman Felipe Lopez gets picked up between now and June, that will give them a 5th pick before the 2nd Round even starts. Given the tremendous depth already present in the organization, having that kind of leverage in a deep draft class boggles the mind.
Aside from the catching situation and general pitching depth, there are few positions that need addressing with any urgency in the next few years. Because the Red Sox have such a loaded roster and a well-stocked farm system, they can afford to take risks on high-ceiling players.
Unlike small market teams, who often draft polished mid-range talent to fill an immediate need quickly and keep signing costs down, Boston has the luxury of mixing their picks on raw talent that is 5 years away and refined players with shorter wait times but medium potential. This blended approach yields a higher success rate over the long haul, which accounts for the Red Sox consistently fielded a strong farm system under the Epstein era despite having consistently low picks in the 1st round.
Beyond 2011, if the likes of Ortiz, Drew, Papelbon, and Scutaro sign with new clubs and Boston restocks from within, the team could be looking at an even more abundant 2012 draft class.
You won't catch me even thinking that New York is out of the postseason picture in 2011. Their lineup matches up closely with what the Red Sox will feature, and their bullpen has at least as much late-inning firepower with the addition of Rafael Soriano.
Wary though I am of the Bombers in 2011, New York is fast approaching a tipping point sometime around the next election cycle when the Bronx faithful will see the last of the Dynasty players fade into retirement. Derek Jeter (36) and Jorge Posada (39) are coming off down years and face moves to new positions. Mariano Rivera (41) is still brilliant, but he is pitching on borrowed time at this point. Meanwhile, Alex Rodriguez (35) and Mark Teixeira (30) have each seen three straight years of OPS decline, and A-Rod's DL time has spiked significantly since his last MVP. CC Sabathia (30) has a lot of innings under the hood, and has eclipsed the 300 lbs. threshold.
Before I cry a river for the Yanks, I keep in mind players like Robinson Cano (28) and Phil Hughes (24) who have most of their playing days ahead of them. But when the Yankee identity has completely turned the page, and there are no vestiges of Torre baseball left, in whose hearts will they strike fear?
Down I-95 in Philadelphia, a similar phenomenon is occurring under Charlie Manuel's watch. The list of key players in their 30's is pretty staggering. Chase Utley, Placido Polanco, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Carlos Ruiz, and Raul Ibanez have all peaked or are in their career's twilight. Roy Oswalt, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Brad Lidge have most of their innings behind them.
As stacked as that roster is, and for all the hardware they possess collectively, this is still the team that couldn't beat San Francisco in the NLCS. Even with the addition Cliff Lee (who also couldn't top the Giants in the postseason), there must be some urgency in the city of brotherly love to win now.
These two cities are really the only baseball powerhouses besides Boston right now, so I can't put it past either team to make huge additions via trade or free agency. But what will become of these core players in two years? How about three? Or five?