Sunday, April 5, 2009

2009 Boston Red Sox Preview

Tomorrow is Opening Day, so tonight is the last chance I have to get out my 2009 Red Sox preview before we begin play. It appears tomorrow's tilt against the Rays at Fenway will likely be delayed with a 90 percent chance of rain for the afternoon in the Boston area. So we might have to wait until Tuesday for the season to really begin. In the meantime, I'll offer my thoughts for the season to come.

The 2008 Red Sox overcame so many obstacles to win 95 games during the season, and given the perils of clubhouse strife and injuries to so many key players, it's truly amazing that they actually came within one game of getting back to the World Series. The players were kept in check and on focus by Terry Francona, who with each passing year solidifies his status as perhaps the greatest manager in Red Sox history and one of the best managers/coaches in the history of the city along with Red Auerbach and Bill Belichick. I feel confident the Red Sox would have won the World Series had they gotten past the Rays in Game 7, and with a fully healthy team all along I'm positive they would have won it all. But that's not how it went down, and the team had a full winter to address how they'd get back to the Fall Classic in 2009.

Theo and Co. missed out on Mark Teixeira, who went to the Yankees instead. But they didn't panic by overpaying for the likes of Bobby Abreu or Adam Dunn. They went out and signed several low-cost, high-reward veterans that primarily added to depth for their roster. Through some other shrewd moves, it appears the Red Sox have assembled their finest bullpen during the John Henry regime. The depth of their starting pitching isn't too far behind. While some have questions about their offense, if things break their way I can't imagine it will be much of a problem. And if the Sox pitching is as good as advertised, their offense won't need to be astronomical.

With that, let's dive right into a position-by-position breakdown of the 2009 Red Sox:

CATCHERS (2): Jason Varitek, George Kottaras.
It was cold winter of discontent for Varitek, his agent Scott Boras, and the Red Sox. Boras advised his client to turn down the Red Sox offer of salary arbitration, a decision that ultimately cost Varitek around $5 million this year. By displaying incredible arrogance in suggesting prospective employers use Jorge Posada's inane $52 million contract as a benchmark in negotiations, Varitek had no suitors besides the Red Sox, and Boston certainly wasn't going to bid against itself for a 36-year-0ld catcher with a .672 OPS in 2008. It's only because of Varitek's distinguished service in Boston the Red Sox were willing to guarantee $5 million with a $3 million player option for 2010 in this contract.

I wish we'd been able to pull off a reasonable trade for either of Texas' young duo of Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Taylor Teagarden or Arizona's Miguel Montero. It's still very possible that could happen even before this season ends, but I don't want to see the Red Sox give up Clay Buchholz or Michael Bowden for a catcher the other team doesn't need. So Varitek was really our only option for 2009. I don't expect him, at 37, to improve on that .672 OPS because that's just not what happens to catchers at this age. He still knows how to handle a World Championship-caliber pitching staff, and his defense is good enough to get by. We'll just have to live with at least one more year of Tek weakly flailing at 95 mph heaters with men on base.

The backup situation became clear when the club somewhat surprisingly released Josh Bard, who'd come on a non-guaranteed contract and was expected to be Tim Wakefield's personal catcher. When Kottaras appeared to exhibit just as strong of a prowess at fielding the floaters, it was a simple question of economics; we don't care what we get offensively out of our backup catcher, so if they can both catch the knuckleball the same, do we go with the guy making $1.7 million or the guy making $400,000? A no-brainer, really. Kottaras still needs work with the bat, but since he's out of options and was once a highly-touted prospect, the Red Sox were smart to give him the job. Maybe we find out Kottaras is the Sox catcher of the future? It's possible.

INFIELDERS (7): Chris Carter, Nick Green, Mike Lowell, Jed Lowrie, David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis. DL: Julio Lugo.
Alex Cora departed for the Mets, and with Lowrie's emergence last year there wasn't much need to bring him back. The starting shortstop situation remains fluid, as it was the only job on the entire roster that wasn't entirely determined prior to spring training. Lugo needed to have his knee scoped following a promising start to his spring, so Lowrie will get most of the starts while Lugo works his way back. Should Lowrie get off to a hot start, it might be difficult for Lugo to crack the lineup. Journeyman Nick Green makes the Opening Day roster after spending all of last season in the minors.

Lowell is trying to come back following offseason hip surgery, and even though he's good to go for tomorrow he doesn't seem to be all the way back. It might just take a few weeks for him to really get comfortable in actual games. On the other side of the diamond, Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia present the best all-around right side of the infield in baseball (I'd take them over Ryan Howard and Chase Utley because of Howard's low average and mediocre defense). Youkilis and Pedroia are both signed to team-friendly extensions that buy out some of their free agent years. They represent everything great about this era of Red Sox baseball: professional ballplayers who leave everything out there on the field and fans can never question their desire. These guys only want to do one thing when they're out there, and that's win. Perhaps 2008 will stand as their respective career years. But every Red Sox fan knows this team will be better for having them and I'm so happy Theo locked up two of my favorite players ever for years to come.

I once again lumped Ortiz into this group because this is just where he fits. He certainly saw his fair share of action at first base for the Dominican Republic WBC team. Papi claims his wrist issues are a thing of the past. I didn't watch many games during spring training, but in one game I saw Ortiz turn around a hard inside fastball and deposit it behind the right field wall at City of Palms Park. That's definitely a good sign for the wrist. Will he ever get back to his '06 form, when he set the club record for homers at 54? It's not likely. This will be his first full season without Manny Ramirez, and we'll know what kind of player the Red Sox have going forward based on his performance this year.

OUTFIELDER (4): Rocco Baldelli, Jason Bay, J.D. Drew, Jacoby Ellsbury. DL: Mark Kotsay.
Words can't describe how much I loved the Baldelli signing. I'd advocated the move as soon as Baldelli proved himself to still be a productive player during the postseason. He's learned to deal with his channelopathy and I'm confident he'll be healthy enough to contribute quite a bit to the 2009 Red Sox.

I'm predicting a huge year for Bay, who'll find the Green Monster to be the best friend he's ever had. The quiet, unassuming star will hit 6th and without the pressure of being "the guy," the road is wide open for Bay to go .300-30-100-90-10 and set himself up for a big payday somewhere after the season. We saw what Drew can do when healthy when he carried the team for a whole month in Ortiz's absence, and I'll continue to support him and hope he does well. I feel like there's this undercurrent in Red Sox Nation that somehow sadistically hopes that J.D. Drew fails, and that's not fair. Nobody works harder, plays harder or hustles more than Drew on this team, and I hope he plays a full season and finally gets the credit he deserves.

That brings us to Ellsbury. I think we all expected a little more based on his 2007 postseason performance, however unfairly based that expectation was. It's awesome to have such an exciting homegrown player make it in the Bigs. You'd have to go back to Ellis Burks to find a similar talent, and even he wasn't much of a threat to steal 50 like Jacoby. He no longer has Coco Crisp breathing down his neck, and center field belongs to him. At 25, Ellsbury still has room to grow and with time he can still become one of the game's best leadoff hitters.

STARTING PITCHERS (5): Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield, Brad Penny. DL: John Smoltz.
Beckett's struggles last year are well-documented. He reverted back to his '06 tendency to rely heavily on his fastball and dealt with nagging injuries all season. A 4.03 ERA isn't what you expect from your ace, so look for Beckett to bounce back in a big way. This will be the most important year of his career, as he goes into the last guaranteed year of his contract and will likely be engaged in extension talks over the next year. How much the Red Sox are willing to commit to Beckett is mostly dependent on just how he bounces back.

2008 was Jon Lester's breakout season. He became the stopper, the guy they looked to during a losing streak to turn things around. It all began when Lester threw a no-hitter in May, and he just took off from there. All of his pitches were working all year, and he truly emerged as the ace into the postseason. I'm still not sure he's reached his potential at 25. Like Youkilis and Pedroia, Lester signed a very team-friendly extension that was the biggest ever for a pitcher with his small amount of service time. I'm worried about how he bounces back from throwing 236 innings last year, but in the short term that shouldn't be an issue. I look forward to Lester establishing himself as one of the best lefties in baseball in the next few seasons.

Next up is Dice-K, who's 2008 season provided as much of a statistical enigma as humanly imaginable. When someone has an 18-3 season with a 2.90 ERA, that'd seemingly be enough to warrant a Cy Young Award. But when he did it in only 167.2 innings with 94 walks, it changes the perception. Matsuzaka's looked great between his Japanse WBC dominance and his limited action in Red Sox spring training. It seems like he's ready to turn the corner and finally find himself in the American professional ranks. If these three guys do what they're supposed to do, I'll be shocked if the Red Sox don't win the World Series.

Tim Wakefield is back for his 15th season in a Boston uniform. I would hope the Sox brass will be willing to pull the plug on Wake if he struggles and Clay Buchholz continues to impress in Pawtucket as he did all spring in Florida. With things being so close in the AL East, they can't afford to wittingly lose games if they know they have someone better in the minors. Brad Penny will make his first start in April 12, and I'm ready for him to have a better season than A.J. Burnett so we can stick it to those Yankees fans. Come June, Smoltz will be ready and a potential postseason rotation of Beckett-Lester-Matsuzaka-Smoltz would almost guarantee rings for all involved. With Buchholz and Michael Bowden at Triple-A, I've never been less worried about a Boston rotation.

BULLPEN (7): Manny Delcarmen, Javier Lopez, Justin Masterson, Hideki Okajima, Jonathan Papelbon, Ramon Ramirez, Takashi Saito.
There's no doubt this is the best bullpen that's been assembled in the history of the franchise. Jonathan Papelbon anchors a crew of professionals that have proven themselves at just about every level. Papelbon is coming off a decent season by his standards, and the price tag for him will continue to rise with each passing year. No Red Sox fans really want to hear this, but starting next offseason the team will have to look at the real possibility of trading their superstar closer as his price tag rises. I have no doubt the Red Sox do not want to pay a closer $15 million a season, which is likely what Papelbon will demand once he reaches his final year of arbitration and may look for an extension in that AAV neighborhood. It's just not good business to keep that guy and then let him go for nothing after six years. I'm not sure if you've heard of this kid Daniel Bard who throws 100 effortlessly. He'd make a good closer, for a lot cheaper. In the meantime, I look forward to another All-Star caliber season from Papelbon while he's still here.

We're innundated with great set-up men, which is such a good problem to have. Saito, who may end up being the ultimate bargain of the offseason, looks really solid and gives Boston a great, lights-out option. His countryman, Okajima, is ready for another great season. Masterson will be a full-time reliever for the first time, and I'm pumped to see what Rusty can do in a full year in the 'pen. Ramirez comes from KC, and he seems ready to step right into the role Mike Timlin played here for so many years. Delcarmen could find himself traded because the Sox have so many other solid guys. Lopez is the weak link, but Francona only needs him for one lefty at a time. This bullpen lacks a long man, but hopefully they won't need it.

It's late, so I'll wrap this up quickly. This is my 18th season following the Red Sox, and I've never been happier to be able to watch a team of professionals everyday as I am with this one. It's been a long, hard winter for the sport, with so many teams weary to improve themselves amidst the difficult economy. In the 1930s, baseball provided a way out, a healthy diversion from the tribulations of the most dreary times for our country. I hope baseball tries to market itself the same way over the next few months. Sure, baseball won't cure all that ails us (I'm not George Will, after all) but it's something to remind us about our past, and the good times we've all had with the game. I hope the Red Sox provide that for all of New England in 2009.

I'll be in attendance on Wednesday, which also happens to be my 23rd birthday.

Let's. Go. Sox.

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