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In a rare twist, Red Sox concerns in 2014 exist at the plate

Posted by Adam Kaufman  February 17, 2014 10:28 PM

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Even with the surprise maybe-retirement of Ryan Dempster on Sunday morning, the Red Sox still have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to starting pitching depth between a proven five-man rotation and a slew of talented prospects.

When injuries and inconsistencies strike in 2014, arms will be available to adeptly bridge the gap.

Ironically, given Boston’s major league-leading 853 runs scored in 2013, the team’s top concern in the coming season lies at the plate.

I know, I know, the Sox even managed to finished tied for eighth in the game with 734 runs in 2012 while winning only 69 games. In fact, since 2002, the club has led baseball in runs scored on five occasions and finished in the top four spots all but twice (they were 10th in 2006). In the last dozen years overall, the Red Sox rank first in runs among the 30 ball clubs and they’re one of just two teams to cross the plate more than 10,000 times (10,363). To little surprise, the Yankees check in second by a mere 24 runs. History proves they can score.

So, why the concern for the often offensively potent reigning world champs?

In short, it boils down to inexperience and unpredictability, along with a lack of depth and injury histories.

While most people like to hone in on the left side of the infield that’s set to feature a rookie and a third-year guy who’s spent considerable time over the last two seasons in Triple-A, that isn’t necessarily the biggest point of interest. Especially since it feels like a waiting game until a certain veteran shortstop reports to Fort Myers.

The chief worry exists in the outfield.

From left to right, the starters expect to be Daniel Nava, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Shane Victorino. Behind them are Jonny Gomes, Mike Carp and, if all goes well, Grady Sizemore.

Sure, on paper, the only missing link from last year is Jacoby Ellsbury. The center fielder’s reliability in the health department had about an every-other-year assurance, but don’t dismiss his capability when available. Last year, the leadoff hitter batted .298 with a .781 OPS, he scored 92 runs, drove in 53, and stole 52 bases in just 56 attempts. His loss is the Yankees’ gain – at a steep price.

As it pertains to Ellsbury’s direct replacement, both Bradley Jr. and Sizemore are enormous question marks. One’s a rookie who struggled mightily at the plate (.189/.280/.337 in 107 plate appearances) in very limited action in 2013, and the other hasn’t played due to a litany of injuries since 2011, or to his potential since 2009. Now, barring a trade, one will be playing full-time.

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Nava will turn 31 next week after a tremendous season in which he batted .303 with 41 extra-base hits and 66 RBI in his first full year as a starter in the bigs. In his prior two campaigns in 2010 and 2012, he hit just .243 in roughly the same number of total plate appearances. His .385 OBP and .831 OPS in 2013 were dramatically better than the respective .352 and .730 marks he combined for in those previous seasons. We can’t know for certain whether the former Santa Clara laundry boy will pick up where he left off or regress to where he was. For what it’s worth, his career OBP was .379 over parts of three seasons in Triple-A. Getting on base, whether for average or not, is typically his bread and butter.

Then there’s Victorino. The 33-year-old didn’t just have a back-to-Earth year in his first as an American Leaguer; he had his finest season since 2011 and one of his best ever in 10 major league campaigns. The veteran played Gold Glove defense in right while hitting a career-best .294 with a .351 OBP (his fourth-highest mark). He also reached 15 homers for the third time in his career and 60 RBI for the fourth. All this while dealing with what seemed like every lingering injury imaginable. Victorino’s production should be there again if he’s healthy, but can he avoid the injury bug that limited him to 122 games in 2013?

Moreover, Nava and Victorino are the two leading candidates to sit atop the batting order. In their careers, neither has shined in that role, which may introduce a platoon role if someone doesn’t emerge as a favorite. Nava has enjoyed 35 games leading off, batting .252 with a .343 OBP. Victorino is a .249 hitter with a .317 OBP in 216 career contests in that position. Ellsbury had a .355 OBP from the top spot last year. There are obvious questions when it comes to the table-setter.

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Off the bench, Gomes offered a realistic career sample last year when he hit just .247 with a .771 OPS (compared to .244 and .788 marks in his 11 seasons). However, the 33-year-old was also a .286 hitter with a 1.405 OPS in a pinch-role and he thrived with runners in scoring position, batting .346 with a .991 OPS and 39 of his 52 RBI.

How about Carp? After being designated for assignment by the Mariners, he flourished in Boston. He posted career-best totals across the board with a .296/.362/.523 slash line and added an RBI every five at-bats. Like Gomes, Carp was superb with RISP with a .333 average, .958 OPS, and 35 of his 43 RBI.

It’s awfully hard to depend on bench players/occasional starters to offer that type of production.

Beyond the outfield, there are those left-side worries in the infield. Xander Bogaerts is already the preseason Rookie of the Year in the eyes of the Fenway Faithful and he should be an upgrade over Stephen Drew at the plate, but there’s no denying the possibility he’ll hit the rookie wall at some point. Will Middlebrooks expects to swing with blunt force, but his ability to get on base has very much been a tale of two seasons in his career (.288/.325/.509 in 2012 versus .227/.271/.425 in 2013). Behind them, the only current depth is the little-known Jonathan Herrera, who was reasonably efficient previously while playing in hitter-friendly Colorado.

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On the bright side, Dustin Pedroia is a model of consistency and his power numbers will likely improve in a healthy season (last year’s nine home runs were his fewest since clubbing eight as a rookie in 2007), Mike Napoli will be his usual slugging self with about a million strikeouts along the way, and it’s hard to doubt David Ortiz after another stellar season, though he is 38. He’ll likely fend off Father Time as long as he’s chasing a contract extension.

Behind the plate, A.J. Pierzynski and David Ross will serve in a platoon with Pierzynski seeing the bulk of the time. As you’ve probably heard, he’s not one for taking pitches. The vet walked a career-low 11 times with the Rangers last year and he’s only taken a free base once every 25 plate appearances in his 16 seasons. Plus, Pierzynski represents a drop-off of about 80 OPS points as compared to the departed Jarrod Saltalamacchia based on their 2013 successes. And, when talking about a pair of 37-year-old catchers, health has to cause some anxiety.

Historically speaking, the Red Sox will figure it out. It seems, since the turn of the century anyhow, they always do. But, you’d be hard-pressed to find a season in recent years when they’ve had such a unique combination of unproven youth with veterans well past 30. Other than Pedroia and Napoli, do we really feel we know what to anticipate from a single guy in the lineup?

Spring training workouts are underway. Contrary to everything written above, it’s a time for optimism and excitement. Still, we’re allowed to at least wonder what could stand in the way of the Red Sox’ chances at repeating, aren’t we?

Maybe I’m just temperamental from all the shoveling.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About this blog

Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.

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