February 13th, 2007 14:10 EST
High expectations can be harmful, no doubt, but the low esteem being granted to the Red Sox this offseason is unreasonable. There are plenty of subplots as spring training begins, but if subplots of how a Japanese superstar will fair and how a star player will mix in are bad, I have been deceived for my entire life.
Sure, there are plenty of Dodger fans on message boards teasing Red Sox fans about JD Drew’s apathy for the game, and Tony La Russa’s view of Drew appears nothing but sour in “Three Nights in August” but Drew is a star caliber player. Plus, he cannot possibly do anything that will overwhelm Sox fans and management, since Manny Ramirez is the other corner outfielder. Drew simply needs to stay healthy. If that is accomplished, Theo Epstein will have successfully filled the glaring weakness in the Red Sox lineup, the five hole.
Last season, Mike Lowell, Jason Varitek, Kevin Youkilis and even Wily Mo Pena tried their hands at protecting Manny Ramirez in the lineup. Seemingly all of their numbers plummeted in the spot compared to when they were elsewhere. Pena was the only one who had success, but it was temporary, as he was quickly sidelined with a wrist injury after finding his stroke. Youkilis found a niche as the leadoff man in the absence of Coco Crisp, and left the slumping Varitek to try and fill the position. It seemed Mike Lowell was the man for the job, as he had a rejuvenation of his career last season, but his offensive numbers were immensely better when batting sixth or seventh.
Drew is the solution. A five spot extraordinaire, who last season racked up 100 RBIs for the Dodgers and registered a .393 OBP. The subplot comes because of his alleged unwillingness to play. He has sat out a week because of a hangnail, but hopefully a strong clubhouse can make him a team player. He has put up numbers either way.
Matsuzaka dominated the World Baseball Classic. He supposedly has a pitch known as the “gyroball” which is a novelty pitch in America. It is somewhat like a sinking slider that can have two breaks. The pitch has been hotly debated in baseball circles. Some argue that he will be ineffective after hitters see him once or twice. However, the gyroball is not his only effective pitch, as he possesses a live fastball and good curveball. Ask the players of the World Baseball Classic who he struck out about his effectiveness.
Furthermore, the Japanese import does not need to be an ace. The Sox have Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett and new starter Jonathan Papelbon, converted from his dominant role as closer back to his original position. Schilling is an ace, Beckett has been an ace before and certainly could be again, and if Papelbon is even close to as dominant as he was in the bullpen, he will be an ace. Matsuzaka has been assessed as a Cy Young level pitcher. The only slot in the rotation in question is the five spot. Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield will be the established man there. He is under a lifetime contract with the Red Sox and will steadily and surely do everything asked of him.
The wild card is young Jon Lester. He was seemingly Papelbon’s bridesmaid coming through the system, but his debut as a starter last year went well. However, he was diagnosed with lymphoma, and underwent chemotherapy in the offseason. Now he is reportedly ready to return and would be the better option to complete the rotation. He had several terrific starts. His success depends largely on increasing his pitch efficiency, using less pitches to get outs. This would allow Wakefield to move to the bullpen, something he has done before in his career, and strengthen the Sox long relief options.
The bullpen is the only actual pressing question for the Sox. Epstein’s many charging attempts to acquire an established closer were halted by inquiries for top pitching prospects and outfield prospect Jacob Ellsbury in return. Now Atlanta closer Mike Gonzalez was a target, as was Washington Nationals closer Chad Cordero.
The fluidity of the closer situation also forced the Red Sox to table a deal that would have brought superstar first baseman Todd Helton to Boston. In negotiations, young pitchers Craig Hansen and Manny Delcarmen were sticking points. Boston was rightfully unwilling to trade them, as they will be leading candidates to finish off wins this season. While Hansen is more highly touted, he struggled late last season and could spend a little more time in Triple A ball. Delcarmen is my pick to take over the closer role. His electric fastball is reminiscent of the Cubs’ Carlos Zambrano. Delcarmen’s performances last year were largely positive, but two bad outings in tough situations drove his ERA up. Delcarmen and Hansen will compete with newly acquired former starter Joel Piniero, aging set up man Mike Timlin and Julian Tavarez for the role. See the list below for my predicted bullpen.
Red Sox bullpen possibilities
Mike Timlin- set up
Brendan Donnelly- set up
Craig Hansen-minors/then middle relief or set up
Hideki Okajima- Japanese import will be a friend for Dice-K and good versatile reliever.
Joel Piniero-middle relief/trade bait
Craig Breslow- middle relief
Bryce Cox-little role will grow into a middle relief and maybe set up
Julian Tavarez- mop up/long relief
Devern Hansack- my darkhorse for the Sox in 2007, he will be a breakout player (column coming on him later)
Tim Wakefield-long relief, spot starter
The result of the closer battle, I personally feel the winner will be Delcarmen, will send a series of ripples through the organization. It is possible that losing the battle for the closer role could be a ticket elsewhere. The Sox are looking to find a corner infielder to improve the club’s hitting. Mike Lowell is entering the twilight of his career. Starting first baseman Kevin Youkilis can play both corner positions, and actually third is his natural position, so the front office has flexibility. Helton is likely no longer a possibility. But the Sox will be interested in any corner infielder on the market and unimportant bullpen men could be on their way out. The bullpen will soon be largely made up of young guns. Delcarmen and Hansen have become accustomed to the majors. Breslow has had his cup of coffee, but should be a regular for most of this season. Hideki Okajima has been somewhat overlooked by the media as a Japanese import. He looks to be a nice addition. Bryce Cox has some learning to do, but progress could be made. Devern Hansack is a major focus of mine. I will have a column coming during March on his progress. Success for this unit would be a tremendous boost for the Sox, and could take them up a level in the world of playoff contenders.
The last thing to assess is the everyday lineup, which has undoubtedly been slighted by the media over fabricated concerns about the dedication of Drew and ability of Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia and Julio Lugo. Lugo was also acquired as a free agent this offseason and will be the third different starting shortstop in the post-World Series era of the Red Sox. He is much more of an offensive threat than the defensive Alex Gonzalez. He is a better blend, a good defender and good hitter. He will enter the top of the lineup as either lead off hitter or number two. If Coco Crisp returns to form, Lugo will bat second, another scrappy hitter to set the table for David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez.
This leaves Kevin Youkilis without a defined spot in the lineup. He is most definitely the starting first baseman, but his spot in the order is almost hindered by his versatility. He can go almost anywhere not filled by Ortiz and Ramirez. I personally think it would be a smart strategic move in the American League to slide “Youk” into the nine hole. This way he could offer RBIs at the bottom of the order but also serve as a second lead off man in every situation except the first inning. He is known for being a tremendously patient hitter with a terrific, some say overachieving, on base percentage.
The most unproven player in the lineup will be young Dustin Pedroia. Pedroia tore up Triple A, hitting for great average and pumping out doubles. He could project as an ideal number two hitter, much in the mold of his predecessor, Mark Loretta. However, some “experts” contend his major league efforts last year show he is not ready. But a particular stretch of hard luck, just hitting the ball at someone, brought his key stat, average, down tremendously. If Pedroia can hit .250 in the eight or nine spot and progress, with decent defense, his play will be sufficient. If he can surpass expectations and flirt with .300, he could unlock a series of possibilities to increase the potency of the offense, including the use of Wily Mo Pena instead of Coco Crisp.
Pena will start out as a 4th outfielder, and certainly get playing time simply because his bat is powerful and improving. He has played all three outfield positions, and is not the best defender, but is not a risk great enough to not play. This spring, there is a chance at him experimenting with a switch to first base, which could eventually make him an everyday player upon Lowell’s descent to a bench role. A 3-6 of Ortiz, Ramirez, Drew and Pena would be lightning in a bottle, a lineup rivaling the Yankees.
These are the matters to be sorted out in the spring, but as you can see, the Red Sox are by no means in a dire situation. Their questions have many answers capable of success and a team worthy of a playoff berth.
Pessimism is obviously a quality that often appears in Red Sox Nation, but it is being overused this spring. Here is my projected best lineup for opening day and the starting rotation.
SP- BeckettSP- Lester
This is the spring preview of my Boston Red Sox. Just in case you thought I was finished, there will also be full spring previews of the New York Yankees, Chicago Cubs, Detroit Tigers, LA Dodgers and many more throughout February and March. Every Monday and Thursday, you will read all about the possibilities for a Major League team this season. I will hopefully highlight 10 or 12 of baseball’s most interesting teams. They probably will not be quite this in-depth, of course. This will all culminate in my annual Baseball Preview, coming out on March 31st, complete with predictions.
Baseball is coming. I’m ready, soon you will be too.