Let’s check the year-end ledgers - plus side and minus side - for the Sox and both leagues
There are five legitimate candidates for Red Sox MVP, but in the final analysis, the player who set the tone, battled every step of the way, and showed the most selfless behavior was Kevin Youkilis.
Jason Bay, Victor Martinez, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Dustin Pedroia are all worthy of consideration as well.
How unselfish was it for Youkilis to give up a full-time position at which he won a Gold Glove and move to third whenever Mike Lowell needed time off?
While Youkilis has always said that playing third is easier on the body than playing first, a few baseball people have told me the wear and tear of going from position to position across the diamond is tough.
Youkilis played in 77 games at first base, 59 at third, and played both positions at a high level. One wonders whether the Sox will make Youkilis their permanent third baseman next season. Lowell, who will be in the final year of his contract, could spend time as a righthanded DH, especially if his hip doesn’t improve.
Youkilis’s production wasn’t equal to that of Bay, who has driven in 115 runs and hit 36 home runs, but Youkilis has 27 homers, 92 RBIs, a .412 on-base percentage, and was superb with runners in scoring position.
“He’s probably the toughest out in the major leagues,’’ said one American League talent evaluator. “He wears out the pitcher. I know in talking to pitchers around the league, many of them will tell you that Youkilis is the hitter they like to face the least. He just never gives in.’’
Best player: Jacoby Ellsbury.
To think, we’ve yet to see the finished product. Ellsbury ranks fourth in the AL with 58 multihit games, behind Ichiro Suzuki, Robinson Cano, and Derek Jeter. It is the highest total for a Sox player since Dom DiMaggio’s 58 in 1950. Ellsbury also stole 69 bases (a team record), and over that same period, only Kenny Lofton (1996), Miguel Dilone (1980), and Willie Wilson (1980) had seasons of 60 steals and 60 multihit games in the AL. One of the big improvements in Ellsbury’s game was hitting to the opposite field. This season, he hit .451 (46 for 102) when hitting the ball to left, while in 2008, he hit .323 (32 for 99). Ellsbury became an elite center fielder and one of the biggest game-changers in baseball.
Best pitcher: Jon Lester.
The numbers between him and Josh Beckett are scarily close. Beckett went 16-6 with a 3.78 ERA and 194 strikeouts in 207 1/3 innings with a WHIP of 1.172, while Lester was 15-8 with a 3.41 ERA and 225 strikeouts in 203 1/3 innings with a WHIP of 1.23. But Beckett went through more dips than Lester, who was more consistent over the course of the season.
Best moment: Ellsbury steals home off Yankees lefthander Andy Pettitte.
Most disappointing: Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Think about the fact that the Sox lost an 18-game winner for most of the season. Do we fault him for an injured right shoulder? Of course not. But the process of taking care of that shoulder was in question throughout the season. Matsuzaka did not follow the team’s offseason shoulder-strengthening program, then overextended himself in the World Baseball Classic. His arm strength gradually diminished early in the season to the point where the Sox had to shut him down. Matsuzaka has a chance to redeem himself in the playoffs.
Most difficult season: David Ortiz.
It was a tough and painful year for Ortiz, who was outed as a player who tested positive in 2003. He insists he never took steroids, but to this day he has never said what he tested positive for. Couple that with a horrible start: He was hitting .185 with one homer and 18 RBIs at the end of May. But Ortiz had 76 RBIs after June 5, which was second in the AL to Bobby Abreu (77). He entered the weekend with 97 RBIs, three shy of his sixth 100-RBI season, all with Boston. Twenty-seven of his 28 home runs came after June 5, best in the AL.
Biggest impact: Victor Martinez.
Martinez came to Boston Aug. 1 and solidified an offense that was scuffling. He boosted the catching position and provided middle-of-the-order thump as a switch hitter, which is what the Sox thought Mark Teixeira would provide when they pursued him last offseason. Martinez had a 25-game hitting streak snapped in a pinch-hitting appearance last week in New York. He reached base in 46 of his 52 games with Boston, hitting safely in 43 of them. He reached the 100-RBI mark for the third time in his career, and joined Mickey Tettleton (1993) and Joe Torre (1964) as the only players to have 100 RBIs while playing at least 50 games at both catcher and first base.
Tenth player: Nick Green.
The utilityman started 74 games at shortstop and proved to be a savior while the Sox were trying to find a solution at that position. He responded well to the challenge.
Head of the class: New York Yankees.
Their new stadium cost $1.3 billion, and the outlay for Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett was almost a half-billion, but the risk was worth the reward. The Yankees survived Alex Rodriguez’s hip surgery and revelation of steroid use while with the Rangers. Teixeira changed the offense and defense. And the old guard of Derek Jeter, Hideki Matsui, and Jorge Posada all had terrific seasons as the Yankees surpassed 100 victories after an 89-73 season in which they missed the playoffs.
The Yankees had 15 walkoff wins - courtesy of nine players - and 28 wins in their final at-bat. Their second-half record (51-21) will be the best since the A’s went 58-17 in 2001. Opposing relievers were 17-40 with a 5.86 ERA against the Yankees, who won 31 out of their last 39 games at their new facility. They had the majors’ best home mark at 57-24, including a franchise-record 36 comeback wins.
Two players, Jeter and Robinson Cano, had 200 hits, and five players hit at least 25 homers (Johnny Damon went into the weekend with 24).
In the principal’s office: Baltimore Orioles.
The Royals gave them a run for their money in this category, but a late-season 13-game losing streak put the Orioles over the top. While there is promise with their young pitching, the Orioles have had 12 consecutive losing seasons. A lasting impression was the sight of team president Andy McPhail, in his box at Camden Yards, so disgusted that he got up and walked away during a September game against the Red Sox.
Underachievers: Tampa Bay Rays.
The Rays were still within striking distance of the Red Sox for the wild card as of Aug. 28, when they were 69-58. But that day they traded Scott Kazmir to the Angels and then went on a losing streak that buried them. Along the way, they lost power hitter Carlos Pena as their season unraveled, one year after playing in the World Series. Yet they managed to secure only the second winning season in franchise history.
“Obviously, the season has been a disappointment,’’ said manager Joe Maddon. “We all feel that way. Talk to every one of our guys; none of us could watch TV right now. I can’t watch ‘SportsCenter.’ I can’t watch the MLB Network. I can’t read the papers.
“I’m really soured by the fact that we did not get back because I truly believe that we could have. The bad April really hurt us and the 11-game losing streak . . . we ran into a bad thicket of scheduling at the wrong time. We weren’t playing well.’’
Overachievers: Texas Rangers.
Manager Ron Washington stressed defense and pitching, and the Rangers stayed in the wild-card race until the final week. They transformed from a hitting team into a pitching team under president Nolan Ryan. A fertile farm system should continue to produce top talent for a few years.
Best player: Joe Mauer, C, Minnesota Twins.
A puzzling back injury in spring training raised some doubts about his season (he didn’t play until May 1), but he went on to win a third batting title with an average that will end up close to .370, with newly added power (28 homers) and production (95 RBIs). He also could win his second Gold Glove. Teixeira, Jeter, and Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera all could garner MVP votes, as well.
Best pitcher: Zack Greinke, Kansas City.
He went into his final start yesterday with a 2.06 ERA and 237 strikeouts over 223 1/3 innings. He also caught the attention of people in New York and Kansas City last week when asked about pitching in the playoffs someday. “I don’t want to pitch for New York in the playoffs,’’ he said. “I want to pitch for Kansas City in the playoffs.’’ It’s tough not to give Seattle’s Felix Hernandez some love, but that’s how extraordinary Greinke has been. Justin Verlander and Roy Halladay should receive votes, too.
Best manager: Mike Scioscia, Angels.
He kept his team together after the tragic death of pitcher Nick Adenhart in an April auto accident. He had 11 players go on the disabled list and used 14 starting pitchers. After reaching .500 on June 11 (29-29), the Angels went 66-35.
Rookie of the year: Andrew Bailey, closer, A’s.
Lots of choices here, but Bailey was the most outstanding at his position. He went 26 for 30 in saves with a 6-3 record and a 1.88 ERA. In 81 innings, he struck out 89.
Head of the class: St. Louis Cardinals.
Since the acquisition of Matt Holliday from Oakland July 24, the Cardinals were the best team in the National League with a 38-23 record, leaving the Cubs in the dust. They went 36-13 in games started by Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, and Joel Piñeiro since July 1. Carpenter led the NL in ERA (2.24) while Wainwright was third (2.63). Cardinal starters worked a major league-high 987 2/3 innings and have a major league-high 68 wins.
In the principal’s office: Washington Nationals.
Back-to-back 100-loss seasons isn’t the way to win over your fan base. The signing of No. 1 pick Stephen Strasburg was the highlight of another miserable season, and while the Nationals have some good, young pitching, there is no guarantee it will cause a major turnaround soon. They drew 1,817,256, their lowest attendance in their five-year history and a 22 percent drop from 2008.
Underachievers: Chicago Cubs.
An ownership change didn’t help, as management’s hands sometimes were tied on potential moves. But the personnel just didn’t fit. Milton Bradley was a disaster on and off the field. The Cubs never adequately replaced Kerry Wood as a closer until Carlos Marmol emerged late in the season. They missed Mark DeRosa, who was traded to Cleveland. Carlos Zambrano (9-7, 3.77) had a difficult season, as did Ryan Dempster (11-8, 3.51) on and off the field, with serious family issues.
Overachievers: Colorado Rockies.
The Rockies keep creating extraordinary stories. On May 29, they were 18-28, in last place in the NL West, 13 1/2 games behind the Dodgers, when Clint Hurdle was fired and Jim Tracy took over. The Rockies went a National League-best 73-40 after that, clinching a playoff sport, and were still competing for the NL West title this weekend.
A big part of it is lefty Jorge De La Rosa, who went 16-3 since June 5. Closer Huston Street was 34 of 36 in save opportunities. Add to that a dangerous lineup with veteran first baseman Todd Helton, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (32 homers), and the speedy Dexter Fowler and Carlos Gonzalez at the top of the order.
Best player: Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals.
Pujols became the first player in history to begin his career with nine seasons of at least 30 home runs. He also reached 100 RBIs for the ninth time and scored 100 runs for the eighth. Pujols hit five grand slams this season, tying Ernie Banks’s NL record for a season. You could rattle off stats forever and they wouldn’t tell the complete story.
Best pitcher: Chris Carpenter, Cardinals.
Manager Tony La Russa told this correspondent back in spring training, “It’s no secret that in the years we haven’t made the playoffs, Chris has been injured.’’ His league-best 2.24 ERA and sheer dominance every time he takes the mound should put him over the top.
Best manager: Jim Tracy, Rockies.
Hard to argue with the Rockies’ turnaround. Tracy basically did in 2009 what Clint Hurdle did in 2007. “Jim has always been a good manager and one who relates well with players,’’ said a baseball official who has familiarity with Tracy’s work. “He hasn’t always had the best situations in LA and Pittsburgh, but he was the right guy for the job in Colorado.’’
Rookie of the year: Chris Coghlan, OF, Florida.
His 107 hits since the All-Star break are more than Derek Jeter (98) and Joe Mauer (95) have, and the most since Juan Pierre had 113 in 2004. Coghlan was fifth in the league in hitting at .317.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com.