Line 'em up, roll 'em out, let the preparations begin anew. The equipment truck leaves today. Spring training begins in one week. The Red Sox are due to open the regular season in precisely 51 days against the reigning world champion New York Yankees.
So what do we have here? At the very least, the Red Sox are a contender again. As long as the Sox are run by the group headed by owner John Henry, that is not likely to change. During the eight-year span of Henry’s ownership, the Red Sox have averaged slightly more than 94 wins per season and made the playoffs six times. Team payrolls have never been higher than during the first part of this millennium, the strongest possible evidence of an organizational commitment to winning.
So why the concern about this year’s club? That answer rests in the leadoff spot of our annual line up of questions entering camp:
1. Have the Red Sox improved since the end of last season?
Pitching and defense, pitching and defense, pitching and defense. Tired of hearing it yet? Over the last two postseasons, the Red Sox have batted .224. They have looked more like the Oakland A’s of the late 1990s than the New York Yankees of the 1920s – capable of exploiting bad teams but exposed by good pitching. The world titles of 2004 and 2007 have changed our expectations here. Nobody ever said life was fair.
Now the real question: as constituted, can this team win a championship? Once the Sox get past the No. 4 spot in the batting order, the offense fills out with questions. What will David Ortiz give them? J.D. Drew? Mike Cameron, Adrian Beltre and Marco Scutaro? The Red Sox spent a lot of time talking about bridges and 2012 during the offseason, which is fine with regard to the farm system. But isn’t the point of having both money and a player development system that you can use one to support the other?
That brings us to…
2. Do the Red Sox have a fear of commitment?
On the one hand, they gave John Lackey a five-year, $82.5 million contract despite elbow issues in the early part of each of the last two seasons. On the other, they dug in their heels on Jason Bay, for whom they had a greater need. The Red Sox obviously have the right to sign whomever they want – and for how much – but they’ve been sending out mixed signals for a while now.
Consider: they blew away the field on Daisuke Matsuzaka by anywhere from $10-$15 million (purely on his rights), then stopped short by the same amount when it came time to close a deal on Mark Teixeira. Drew got a five-year offer – albeit with protection language – but Bay did not get more than two years guaranteed. The Sox seem to quibble over details on select deals, which seems paradoxical for an organization that generally operates with the bigger picture in mind.
Meanwhile, the lineup has suffered. What gives?
3. Is this the best rotation in baseball?
If everyone stays healthy – and that is true for every team - there is simply no question. The Red Sox have not had a group like this since they entered the 2004 campaign with a group that included Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Derek Lowe, and a young Tim Wakefield. That year, Sox starters won more games (73) than those of any team but the St. Louis Cardinals (74). Of course, those two clubs met in the World Series.
As much as some of us may lament the offense, the Lackey signing was obviously huge -- for the short term and the long. He was the best pitcher available this winter and gives the Sox great firepower in the rotation. He opens up the possibility of using Clay Buchholz as trade bait. He gives the Sox insurance (a la Schilling in 2004), depending on what they elect to do with Beckett. Let’s not pull any punches here: no matter how curious the length of the contract, we all like the Lackey move.
One thing to keep an eye on: given unbalanced scheduling, will Lackey be as good in the AL East as he was in the cotton-candy AL West? Against the Yankees, he is 5-7 with a 4.66 ERA in his career.
4. What will become of Josh Beckett?
Excellent question. Like Martinez in 2004, Beckett is entering the final year of his contract. Like Martinez, he has some history of shoulder problems. The market for front-line pitching has been clearly established this winter – something in the range of five years and $80 million – and it will be interesting to see if the Red Sox are willing to commit to a second pitcher on those terms.
As colleague Nick Cafardo pointed out recently, the difference between Beckett and Lackey is that the former has had shoulder issues, the latter elbow problems. From a team’s perspective, shoulder injuries are far more worrisome. No matter what the Red Sox say publicly, the skids certainly look greased for Beckett’s departure, which could make for an interesting scenario. Beckett is unlikely to make an issue of his status, but keep an eye on it, particularly with regard top his health and performance.
Remember: his earning power could be affected greatly if he has any significant health issues.
5. Beyond Beckett, are there any contract issues to monitor?
Absolutely. His name is Victor Martinez.
Like Beckett, Martinez is entering the final year of his contract. Given the long-term concerns about the offense – the Sox are in something of a developmental gap – Martinez seems to have particular value to the club, for an assortment of reasons. He is a switch-hitter. He can help them, in some capacity, at three positions (catcher, first base, designated hitter). Given the expiring contracts of Jason Varitek, Mike Lowell and David Ortiz – as well as Kevin Youkilis’ ability to move across the infield – Martinez seems like an obvious, perfect fit to remain in Boston.
Here’s the problem: Bay seemed like an obvious fit to remain and he is now gone. With the exception of Varitek and Lowell – the first made it a priority to remain in Boston, the second has been all but pushed out the door for three straight offseasons – the Red Sox generally have signed the players they wanted to well before this stage. Martinez’ value could very well depend on whether the Sox view him as a catcher or something else, which could make the negotiation complicated.
Regardless, spring training is a critical time. If the Sox and Martinez have not made significant progress on a deal before the start of the season, one must assume that he will be headed for free agency – and we know how that turned out with Bay.
6. What are the chances for a significant midseason trade?
That all depends on your perspective.
Give general manager Theo Epstein credit for this much: generally speaking, he has excelled at identifying needs and filling them during the year. During his tenure, in-season acquisitions have included, among others, Byung-Hyun Kim, Scott Williamson, Orlando Cabrera, Dave Roberts, Tony Graffanino, Bobby Kielty, Bay, Victor Martinez, Alex Gonzalez and Billy Wagner. All of those players have addressed needs or issues, big or small.
This year, the question concerns what the Red Sox have left to trade. If the Sox are to acquire someone like Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, it’s hard to imagine a deal of the like taking place without Buchholz being involved. Beyond that, the team’s ability to make deals may depend on the continued development of players in the lower levels, though many are the same players the Sox hope will help them in Boston come 2012.
The bottom line: at the moment, the Sox don’t look like they have a lot of flexibility to deal. The minor-league system is a little thin and the payroll is high. The last time the Sox were in a position comparable to this was in 2006, when Epstein essentially did nothing at the deadline while the Yankees added Bobby Abreu. The Sox missed the playoffs, but won the World Series the next year.
Hmmm. Maybe this really is a bridge year?
7. Who are the biggest question marks in the Red Sox' lineup?
Generally speaking, anyone not named Pedroia, Martinez or Youkilis.
Dustin Pedroia, Victor Martinez, and Kevin Youkilis are known commodities. In the No. 2, 3 and 4 spots of the batting order, the Sox have highly skilled .300 hitters who are tough outs. All three produce runs in one form or another. It’s the other six spots that should make you a little nervous.
Jacoby Ellsbury had a rock solid year last season, so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt for now. The Sox have bigger areas to worry about, starting with designated hitter. Ortiz may be the single greatest variable on the team given the trick-or-treat nature of last season. Independent of the final numbers, consider this: in 14 games over the last two postseasons, the man who was once Senor Octobre has five RBI while batting .164 with nearly twice as many strikeouts (17) as hits (nine). He hasn’t been anything close to the same guy.
Ortiz’s problems last year put additional emphasis on Drew, who is a perfectly acceptable (albeit very expensive) No. 6 or No. 7 hitter. But given Drew’s potential for lapses in productivity, Beltre and Cameron will need to offer some consistency, which is something neither ever really has done. Scutaro should improve the offense at shortstop, but, again, he has no real history of consistency.
Assuming he is with the club, a potential X factor here is Lowell, who could give the Sox yet another option if someone fails. In fact, the more you think about it, the more you cannot help but wonder if the Sox are taking the same approach with their lineup this season that they took with their pitching staff last season, when they brought in quantity (John Smoltz, Brad Penny) to address their shortage in quality.
8. Does the bullpen prompt any concern at all?
It’s the bullpen. There’s always concern.
Last season, the Red Sox finished second in the American League in bullpen ERA. Their relievers also had the second-best winning percentage in the league. Takashi Saito and Billy Wagner have since moved on, losses that might not seem so great but that could grow in significance depending on the development of Ramon Ramirez and Daniel Bard.
Obviously, Bard is a huge key here. As awesome as he was at times last year, he had difficulty against left-handed batters (.866 OPS) while struggling some late in the year (a 6.50 ERA beginning Aug. 4) and in close games. Beyond Jonathan Papelbon, Hideki Okajima is still the most reliable man the Sox have – and by a significant margin. The depth of the rotation should take some of the workload off the bullpen, but keep an eye on the seventh inning, in particular. To negotiate the final third of the game, the Sox will need consistency from someone other than Papelbon and Okajima.
9. All joking aside, is the defense really that good?
In a word, yes.
Assuming Scutaro is as solid as everyone suggests he is – and we’ll still need to see for ourselves – the Sox have Gold Glovers at first, second, and third base as well as in center field. Drew is as solid as they come. Many of us still need to see if Cameron is anything close to what he once was, but in a worst-case scenario, Ellsbury can always move back to center. Don’t be surprised if this club plays defense as well as the record-setting 2006 Sox.
Here is the, er, catch: the defense behind the plate could be a huge weakness. Last year, Varitek and Victor Martinez both had trouble throwing and the pitchers did a poor job of holding runners. The Sox were positively wretched against opposing running games, allowing both the most steals in baseball (151) while throwing out the lowest percentage of base stealers (13.0). What that means, in short, is that opponents quite literally ran at will, which was a much bigger problem than anyone wanted to acknowledge.
The bottom line: the Sox should excel at keeping opposing runners (and their own?) off the bases this season. But when opponents get on, expect them to run.
Then again, if there are fewer base runners at Fenway, could this all translate into faster games?
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