Monday, March 24, 2008

2008 Red Sox Preview

I sit here typing my Red Sox preview with just one night between us and the 2008 season. The Sox almost "didn't get on that plane" (yes, I just quoted "Friends") and stood up for their less-wealthy employees because it was the right thing to do. It was a strong showing of solidarity, and in a way it proved a lot about this particular group of players. The 2008 Boston Red Sox are a continuation of a 2007 team that cared much, much more about shared accomplishment and riches than individual achievement. The cohesiveness of their unit, the shared experience at the top of their profession, and the makeup of their well-rounded group makes them an overwhelming favorite to be the first back-to-back World Champs since the New York Yankees three-peat for 1998-2000.

I'll be up at 6 a.m. tomorrow to watch Joe Blanton and Dice-K square off in the first match of the 2008 MLB season, and I hope anyone who considers themselves Red Sox fans will do the same. The Sox roster will be fluid between now and when they return to the mainland next week, but I'll do my best to handicap who I expect to see when they pare down to 25 for April 1.

CATCHERS (2): Jason Varitek, Kevin Cash.
One of the only real surprises of the Red Sox stay in Fort Myers was the release of Doug Mirabelli. This was a sudden move and very little reason was given by the Red Sox as to why this happened. I'm wondering if maybe he mouthed off to somebody at an inopportune moment and that led to his dismissal from the club. Either way, Dougie is out and Kevin Cash will be Jason Varitek's backup as well as the personal catcher of Tim Wakefield. Cash did an exceptional job in Mirabelli's absence at one point in 2007 and this spring he didn't have any trouble with the knuckleball. While Cash and Mirabelli are similarly inept hitters, at least Cash isn't a total liability on the basepaths and could probably do a better job if Varitek is faced with a prolonged injury. I like the move from a production standpoint, but there's no doubt Mirabelli is a great guy and a terrific teammate. A lot of people will miss Dougie, myself included.

Varitek, at this moment, does not have a contract past this year. Scott Boras has said he won't initiate extension talks on Varitek's behalf, so it's up to the Red Sox to decide if they want him around for the future. Given the scarcity of catchers in their system, and in the entirety of the game itself, there's no reason why the Sox should not try and keep Varitek in Boston for the rest of his career. A three-year extension should do and allow the Sox to bide their time in their search for his replacement. As for 2008, I think Tek's offensive decline should continue but there's no reason to believe his defense will be anything other than top-notch and his handling of the pitching staff will be anything other than the best in baseball.

INFIELDERS (7): Sean Casey, Alex Cora, Mike Lowell, Julio Lugo, David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis.
The only new addition here is Casey, added for a small price to provide a backup role. Casey has stated he wants to win a ring, and nowhere better could he get that opportunity than in Boston. I like his defense, he still hits for a good average, and will produce if Youkilis or Lowell (with Youk shifting to third) goes down with an injury. Youkilis has experienced significant declines during the second half of the last two seasons. With Casey in tow, I'd like to see both Lowell and Youkilis get enough rest to ensure they'll be effective well into October.

Up the middle, Pedroia should build on his Rookie of the Year campaign and while many are calling for a decline I think he can work more walks and get up to 15 HR. He ought to spend most of the year in the leadoff spot. As for Lugo, there's no doubt his offense and defense improved considerably starting in August last year. An untold story from last season was how Lugo took ill in spring training and he wasn't himself for months. Lugo's .643 OPS from 2007 was 85 points below his career OPS, so there's no reason he can't get himself back up to that .720-.740 level and have a hugely productive year seeing fastballs at the bottom of the order. I was really, really impressed this spring with what I saw out of Jed Lowrie. He is definitely ready to play in the majors now and as much as I love Alex Cora, expect Lowrie to come up from Pawtucket and start in place of either Pedroia or Lugo.

I tossed Ortiz in this group because he's technically a first baseman, but we all know Papi won't have to pick up a glove until interleague play. A lot has been made of his struggles this spring, but that's pointless to get concerned about. Ortiz had surgery on his knee this offseason and maintained his shape adequately. Does that mean he'll return to his supreme 2006 power numbers? Regardless, Papi remains the most popular Red Sox player in history and despite Varitek's captaincy, the real leader of this team is undoubtedly David Ortiz.

OUTFIELDERS (4): Coco Crisp, J.D. Drew. Jacoby Ellsbury, Manny Ramirez.
There's a possibility Bobby Kielty could make the club as a 5th outfielder, but that would disrupt Terry Francona's typical preference of opening seasons with 12 pitchers. Kielty could go to Pawtucket once the Sox come back to the U.S., or he could become a free agent and sign elsewhere, because it's not likely Theo Epstein will find a suitable home for Crisp before then.

The situation with Crisp has become increasingly murky as the regular season approaches, and there's been no indication about how this will shake out. Buster Olney wrote on Sunday that he's heard the Red Sox interest in trading Crisp may be waning. Epstein may be frustrated by the lack of interested parties at this point. All this makes me wonder if the Red Sox were actively shopping Crisp much this winter even while his name was constantly mentioned in the Johan Santana talks. There were other teams in need of a CF but after a while the market dried up and the Sox were stuck with two starters at the position. Just when it was possible the Sox could find someplace to send Crisp, he gets hurt in Fort Myers and barely plays all month. This is really tough to gauge because it seems like the A's have a definite interest but Billy Beane won't give up what the Sox are asking for. Bottom line: I have no idea how this will turn out. Hopefully Crisp will be content with whatever role the club assigns for him.

Like Lugo, I'm ready for J.D. Drew to break out this year. There was a great article by Rob Bradford in the Herald over the winter about Drew (if I had the link I'd post it, but I can't find it now). Bradford talked about how Drew had difficulty in the batter's box because of ruts created by Ortiz during his ABs, and this year Drew has figured out how to avoid stepping in those ruts. He also mentioned that Drew used a smaller bat belonging to Kielty when he hit his grand slam in ALCS Game 6 off Fausto Carmona. I think it would be huge for the Red Sox in many ways if Drew could put together a solid season. Hitting 6th behind Ortiz, Ramirez and Lowell will give Drew plenty of opportunities to come up with big hits. He doesn't have to try and hit home runs; he needs to try to drive outside pitches onto the Monster and work pitch counts. Basically, he has to do the things that got him a $70 million contract in the first place. I'm confident he can do it.

This brings us to Manny. Peter Gammons commented that Ramirez became a "maniacal workout warrior" in Arizona this winter, and many pictures from the offseason show just that. He is in perhaps the best shape of his career at nearly 36. One can assume Manny came to the realization that in order extend his career he needed to take better offseason care of his body. Maybe this knowledge has led to his boasting about how the Red Sox will definitely pick up his two $20 million options and, in his words, "then I'll get four more after that." That might sound far-fetched, but what if Manny's newfound shape affords him his first chance to play in over 150 games since 2005 and he puts up numbers like he did in '04 and '05? Doesn't that seem at least somewhat possible? If Manny's fully healthy, I don't see why he can't have that kind of year. No matter what happens to his body, Manny's natural talent for swinging a bat can never leave him. I think maybe 2008 won't be his last year in Boston after all.

STARTING PITCHERS (5): Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz.
We all know about Beckett's back trouble, and word came down today Beckett will officially start 2008 on the DL. I'm not all that worried since he's pitched very well since the injury and I've got no problem with limiting his innings at any point in the season to keep him fresh for when it will really count. Sitting Beckett when he had a tired arm last season cost him the Cy Young, but it's the a big reason why the Red Sox will be getting World Series rings next month. Last October Beckett cemented himself as the official Ace of Aces in Major League Baseball (the only criteria for that distinction being: If you had to win one game today, which current pitcher would you choose? With guys like Clemens, Schilling, Pedro, Unit, Smoltz and Maddux over the hill, and the big-game ineptitude or inexperience of Santana, Sabathia, Bedard, Webb, Verlander and Peavy, the only logical choice is Beckett. No questions asked).

A lot of people were disappointed with Matsuzaka's rookie effort in 2007, but I think any rookie should be happy with the year he put forth. There's a lot of positives to build on as Dice-K continues to adjust to life in America and the travel during the season. I hope he has worked with Varitek to a point where Dice can be confident in his offspeed offerings and not nibble so much with his fastball. It's not good for anybody for Matsuzaka to go out there and rack up 125 pitches every time out. There were so many times last year that I asked myself: "What happened to the guy who mixed 10 pitches and baffled the Cuban national team in the WBC?" That guy needs to show up in 2008.

Coming off a 17-win season, Wakefield comes into a season for the first time with serious concerns about the durability of his shoulder. Thus far Wake has shown nothing in spring to provide doubts about his health, so expect the typical solid-Wake year. Don't take it for granted either, we don't know how many more of these we'll have. Lester finally is fully healthy and I'm expecting a big year out of him. I'm thinking 15 W's with an ERA around 4. The national experts might think I'm crazy, but Lester's stuff is totally undeniable and he's definitely got the guile to be a star at this level. I've mentioned in this space my reservations about Buchholz and how he can absolutely throw no more than 180 innings this year, but I'm sure Farrell and Francona will ensure he's not overworked.

Even with Schilling on the shelf until at least July, I believe the Red Sox are set pretty well in the rotation and could once again have one of the best in the entire game. I look forward to watching them deal in 2008.

RELIEVERS (7): Manny Delcarmen, Javier Lopez, Hideki Okajima, Jonathan Papelbon, Julian Tavarez, Mike Timlin, Kyle Snyder.
Another year, another solid group of Red Sox relievers. The four main guys (Papelbon, Delcarmen, Okajima and Timlin) logged heavy innings last postseason and I'm confident they're rested and ready to contribute bigtime in 2008. I'm most excited to see the development of Delcarmen, who I think can be expected to see some time in the 8th inning this year. It was clear by the end of last season that Okajima had been beaten like a rented stepchild (you like that? I'm just trying it out), so having both guys capable in that role could be huge down the line for the Red Sox.

Papelbon established himself as the alpha dog of baseball's 9th-inning warriors in 2007 with his second consecutive dominant year. I remember how adamant I was that Papelbon remain as a starting pitcher even heading into last spring. Realistically, and from the Red Sox perspective, I think we can safely say this was the best route for Papelbon. There's no guarantee his slider would have ever developed into a useful Major League pitch (he throws it sparingly if ever now), meaning he'd be left with just the fastball and split as a starter. There's a name for starters who only throw two effective pitches in the Majors: unemployed. The Sox have also done an exceptional job preserving their closer, as he threw a scant 58 1/3 innings in 2007, which was among the lowest for any closer for the whole season. Like Beckett, Papelbon was able to turn it up in the postseason as a result, and he tossed 10 2/3 innings in seven October contests. I'm ready to watch Papelbon continue to blossom as one of the most reliable 9th-inning arms the game has ever seen.

Don't be surprised to see Justin Masterson come up from Pawtucket to supplement the bullpen at some point in 2008. He's a master of the sinkerball, and even though he's been groomed as a starter the Red Sox believe he's going to be a power setup man at the Major League level. Masterson has a Papelbon-like mentality and could find himself as the closer of some other big league club someday.

With that, you have a pretty good idea of what this team will be like. But you already had this idea, because you could look at this 2008 team has Part B of 2007. It's been a long winter of waiting, but I'm finally ready to watch these guys defend their title. The Japan trip will hurt them in short term, mostly because they have a truly hellish start to their season even without the games in the Land of the Rising Sun. They'll head to LA for some exhibition games against the Dodgers, followed by two real games at Oakland, three games at Toronto, the home opening series against Detroit, three games against the Yankees, then two at Cleveland and two at the Bronx. But even if they don't get off to the best start, all of us Red Sox fans shouldn't worry. This team is built to get through the regular season at around 95 victories and then take off, once again, in October.

It would be hard to ask for more of the Red Sox than I've been granted by them so far in my life. Two World Titles in four years and a dynastic-level group for years to come are things many baseball fans can only dream of. I ask all Red Sox fans to take a deep breath during the season and appreciate the fortunate hand we've been dealt in our baseball lives. Watch Josh Beckett unleash a 95 mph missile and appreciate the beauty of getting to see the Ace of Aces deal once or twice a week. Watch David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez hit back-to-back jacks and appreciate that you're seeing the greatest offensive duo this side of Gehrig and Ruth in their primes. Watch Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Jon Papelbon play the game of baseball with fiery, passionate intensity and appreciate their desire to be the best. Watch Jacoby Ellsbury hit a ball into the triangle and fly effortlessly around the bases on his way to a triple and appreciate the talent it takes to get this far. Watch Mike Lowell, Mike Timlin, Tim Wakefield and J.D. Drew conduct themselves with the highest manner of professionalism possible and appreciate how they've become incredible role models for the children of New England. Watch Terry Francona manage this club and appreciate where it all comes from.

I've never been more confident in a team in my life. So long as the plagues of injury and ineffectiveness don't afflict them, there's no reason why the 2008 Red Sox won't repeat as World Champs. And this time, without the personal pressures of winning and losing every game, hopefully we'll all appreciate what these guys do a little more than the other two times.

Get that alarm set and coffee pot ready to go. The 2008 season is finally upon us.

No comments: