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Once around the order (part 3)

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  March 21, 2011 03:33 PM

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Collectively, the 2011 Red Sox are the odds-on favorites to get to the World Series, and considering their remarkable talent individually serves as a pleasant confirmation of why they should be an outstanding team.

So in the casual spirit of spring training -- and because it's a really fun way to approach writing about such a deep roster -- TATB is taking a sometimes whimsical but mostly serious look at 40 Red Sox players and prospects relevant to this year's ball club, written up in no particular order.

Part one can be found here, with the third 10 checking in below.

Now, can Opening Day Jon Lester's first Opening Day start please hurry up and get here?. . .

crawford2finn.jpgCarl Crawford: There's so much we're looking forward to in the longtime Ray's first season with the Red Sox: The spectacular range in the outfield, particularly his ability to turn what appear to be surefire bloop hits off the bat into routine outs . . . His catcher-tormenting speed on the basepaths. Having Crawford as a teammate must make Jason Varitek feel 10 years younger . . . The possibility of an inside-the-park homer every time he launches one toward the triangle or rips a grounder down the right field line in the vicinity of a visiting outfielder who is unwittingly about to be embarrassed by the ballpark's nuances . . . And there's the intriguing possibility that he will continue to increase his power, keeping in mind that he had just two fewer extra-base hits than Adrian Gonzalez last year. You know what might be the most fascinating thing of all? Seeing how much of a run producer he becomes batting third in this lineup. His career-high in RBIs is 90, set last year. He's had between 77 and 81 in three other seasons. Should Crawford stay in the third spot all season, with Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia batting in front of him (they combined for 209 runs scored in 2009 when they were both healthy), he should easily surpass 100 RBIs.
Such a milestone --- even with RBIs being a rudimentary counting stat -- would serve in terms of conventional wisdom as his confirmation as a genuine superstar.

Jacoby Ellsbury: Ignoring players' preferences and egos for a moment, I still think the most practical Sox lineup has Crawford leading off, followed by Pedroia, Gonzalez, Youkilis, and Papi, with Ellsbury batting ninth. But Ellsbury likes leading off, Crawford does not, and let's face it: Chattering about lineups is a helpful way to get through the winter drudgery, but no matter how Terry Francona organizes his starting nine (within reason), this team is going to score in the range of 850-900 runs. Besides, leading him off and restoring his status as the center fielder (Crawford will help cover some of his deficiencies as a defender) could benefit the Sox in another way, for putting him in those familiar and favored spots almost could be interpreted as a gesture that his controversial 2010 season is already forgotten by his bosses. Not that Ellsbury has anything to apologize for -- that duty falls on those of us who repeatedly questioned his toughness without an honest clue at our disposal.

iglesiasjosefinn.jpgJose Iglesias: He kind of looks like Nomar there, doesn't he, slinging one from the hole while the Sea Dogs' Plywood Monster lurks in the background. By all accounts, his defense falls somewhere between dazzling and holy-cow-did-he-really-just-do-that?, sort of like Pokey '04 or Gonzo '06. His glove will get him to the majors soon, perhaps even this summer. It's all a matter of how he hits. You have to believe he'll be better than Rey Ordonez, to whom he's often compared, because there's no way the Red Sox give a regular job to a guy with a sub-.300 OBP unless he's on the grounds crew or something. (Ordonez was at .289 for his career, and no, his .310 slugging percentage didn't make up for it.) I actually don't believe there is all that much hyperbole in a Omar Vizquel comparison, especially if you notice that the longtime defensive wizard and possible future Hall of Famer didn't have an OPS over .600 until his fourth season and failed to surpass .700 until his eighth year.

Felix Doubront: Before the Adrian Gonzalez trade, which sent three players rated higher than him to the Padres, Baseball America tabbed the smooth lefthander as the eighth-best prospect in the Red Sox organization. ESPN's Keith Law ranked him seventh, fourth among pitchers. Those are both great sources, but I like him much better than they do, and I suspect you do, too. During his 12-appearance, three-start stint with the big club last season at age 22, he showed the poise of an established veteran, not to mention a much sharper curveball than was advertised, which helped account for his impressive 23 strikeouts in 25 innings. Provided this minor elbow situation is not a harbinger of problems ahead, I'm confident in saying that five years from now, when you pick up that dusty copy of the 2011 Prospect Handbook, you'll wonder how and why he wasn't rated higher.

Bobby Jenks: I'm sticking by what I said in the chat Friday: He's out of shape and had a 4.44 ERA last year, nearly a half-run higher than Papelbon. I realize he was unlucky on batted balls and had a high K-rate, but I'm not convinced he's the answer, either. He puts the fear of Gagne in me. Now, I'm not saying that signing him was a lousy decision. I love the idea of another late-inning option who can get a key strikeout: Manny Delcarmen never really became that guy. Jenks could become a spectacular success or a spectacular flameout, and neither would surprise me. What I'm saying is that those who will pine shrilly for Jenks to become the closer should Papelbon blow one in the season's early days had better be aware of what they're doing.

Junichi Tazawa: He's something of an afterthought at the moment, though not for the same reason as Michael Bowden, whose future is trapped in that Baseball Purgatory between Triple A and the majors. (I think Mike Rochford might still be there.) Tazawa is almost exactly a full year removed from the Tommy John surgery that cost him entire second season stateside, and full recovery typically takes 18 months, meaning his third season in the Red Sox organization will be dedicated to building up his arm strength more than anything else. I wasn't sure what his potential or ceiling was after the '09 season -- he featured a wide repertoire of pitches, but was neither overpowering nor looked overpowering, if that counts for anything. But he did have his flashes, and he won't turn 25 until June.

Matt Albers: Have to admit, I didn't quite understand why the Sox signed him to a major league deal for $875,000 back in December. He's had one above-average performance in five full or partial seasons. His career ERA is 5.11, he gives up more than 1.5 baserunners per inning and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is 1.4 to 1 over his career, and he pitched in relief for the Orioles the past three years, which is a strong hint that he hasn't been particularly successful. So after a little bit more research, here are the two possible clues to his appeal to the Sox as far as I can tell: He was third in the AL with 75.2 innings out of the bullpen, and he didn't give up a homer in 36 appearances after June 8. Hey, it's something.

buchholzclayfinn316.jpgClay Buchholz: Now here's a fascinating case. In his age 25 season, Buchholz broke through as a legitimate top-of-the-rotation starter, a destination predicted for him since at least Sept. 1, 2007. He won 17 games, finished second in the AL with a 2.33 ERA, threw harder than ever and with much-improved command of that mesmerizing fastball-slider-changeup repertoire. Yet advanced metrics suggest that he had a considerable chunk of luck on his side last year. His fielding-independent pitching number, 3.61, was more than a run higher than his ERA, his batting average on balls in play, .261, suggested good fortune (or at least good positioning of his fielders), and his strikeout total (120 in 173.2 innings) was low. While I appreciate the predictive clues FIP and BABIP are giving us, I tend to think Buchholz, with his outstanding stuff and the poise and knowledge to help him utilize it, will have a very similar season to 2010, albeit with a slightly higher ERA, probably in the 3.00-3.20 range. I like the succinct way Baseball Prospectus put it in its annual: "Pitchers can have fantastic stuff without racking up strikeouts, and Buchholz is Exhibit A."

Mark Wagner: Meet the next Dusty Brown. That's not an insult. He's one of, what, probably a couple dozen catchers in Triple A who could carve out a nice career as a big league backup if only they were fortunate enough to fall into an opportunity. Wagner, a good defender who commands his pitchers' respect, was considered a decent prospect a couple of years ago, but he's struggled in two trials in Triple A (.210 average, .597 OPS), has battled injuries, and will turn 27 this summer. The odds are against him at this point, but at one time they were also against Mike Redmond and Francisco Cervelli and Matt Treanor and . . .

Hideki Okajima: I suppose it's not the worst-case scenario to have him back as the primary lefty in the 'pen. He was pretty effective in September/October (1.38 ERA, 1.00 WHIP in 13 innings over 15 appearances) But what had been a slight annual regression in his effectiveness since his terrific and unexpected 2007 season became an all-out cliff dive last season. Even with the relatively encouraging finish -- how much of that success came against September callups and Baltimore Orioles? -- he ended up with career worsts in H/9 (11.5), BB/9 (3.9), WHIP (a hideous 1.71), and ERA (4.50). You're feeling about his worthiness of a place on his roster probably directly correlates with a belief that his final month last season was not a mirage. Me, I'd rather see Dennys Reyes win the job.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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