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Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Torrents of Spring

Another baseball season is about to begin. I never thought in my lifetime that I would get to talk about the efforts of the Boston Red Sox to defend their World Series title. But heregoes...

Sadly, for those of us who are the sentimental type, the team looks quite different. Players who represented the core of the team for years - Nomar Garciaparra, Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe - are now wearing other uniforms. Players like Orlando Cabrera, Doug Mientkiewicz, and Dave Roberts, brought in for the stretch run, whose names will live forever in the lore of Red Sox Nation despite the brevity of their service to the team, have similarly moved on.

The most changes were made in the starting rotation. Miraculously, last season the Red Sox started the same five guys (Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, Tim Wakefield, Derek Lowe, and Bronson Arroyo) all season, with only three other pitchers starting even a single game. Two of those five are now wearing other uniforms (Pedro's a Met, and Lowe a Dodger) and already injuries have begun to surface. The projected starting rotation reatined Schilling but had three new members - David Wells, Matt Clement and Wade Miller - with one of Wakefield or Arroyo going to the bullpen. However, Schilling isn't going to be ready for the season opener and it's tough to imagine him matching his 2004 campaign (21-6, 3.26) at any rate. Wade Miller is going to miss at least a large chunk of the season. He may or may not be in decline, but it may be tough to match Pedro Martinez' 217 innings of above-average (16-9, 3.90 ERA) pitching. Overall, there are valid concerns that an old pitching staff has only gotten older over the off-season, and with age usually comes increased susceptibility to injury.

However, there are some reasons not to be overly pessimistic. Matt Clement (9-13, 3.68 ERA in 2004) was, low win total notwithstanding, almost as good as Pedro last season (albeit not in a league with the DH) in most respects. Whatever Wells (12-8, 3.73) and Miller (7-7, 3.35) or their replacements do or don't do with their rotation spots, they can hardly be worse than Derek Lowe, postseason heroics notwithstanding, was for most of the season; he notched a 5.42 ERA (with copious amounts of unearned runs to boot) and a 1.61 WHIP in 2004 despite his 14 wins. Wakefield (12-10, 4.87) is aging but knuckleballers have tended to age well. Arroyo struggled early in 2004 but finished well (10-9, 4.03) and was arguably their best starter during the last couple months of the season.

The relief corps got the job done, especially down the stretch, and they are by and large intact going into 2005. Keith Foulke's off-speed stuff is as devastating as ever, and if B.H. Kim and especially Scott Williamson can contribute more, this
relief corps could be even better and perhaps balance some slacking by the starters.

I think this team will struggle to duplicate it's #3 rank in team ERA last season, even with some measure of improved defense over the people who played much of last year. I expect their pitching numbers to drop back a bit towards league average in runs allowed, but the offense what remains of the staff should be good enough for a postseason berth, especially considering the AL teams that took backward steps.

And that brings us to what is regarded as the best part of the team - the offense. They led the league in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage (282/360/472) as well as runs scored. They figure to be about as strong with the bats as last year even given the declines resulting from aging, performances above established levels, or both.

C: I don't expect another year like the 296/390/482 the Sox got out of Jason Varitek, or Doug Mirabelli's 261/368/525 campaign, way out of line with the rest of his career. I do however expect another year of better-than-average production from the catcher's spot in the lineup. 'Tek's big 4-year contract is controversial in many circles, but it did help keep pitchers happy (Clement claims that the team assured him Varitek would be re-signed, which was part of his decision to come to Boston)and keeps fans (who had to watch all their other big-name free agents leave) happy.

1B: Kevin Millar (297/383/474) struggled early but turned on the jets late season; his hot streak was key to the team's late-summer surge. His defense wasn't (and isn't great) but didn't kill the team. David Ortiz put up better Range Factor numbers but was regarded by most as dreadful at first and so played DH most of the time. Doug Mientkiewicz (215/286/318) came aboard at the trade deadline and was used mainly as a spot starter, defensive replacement, and occassional pinch-hitter, and didn't do anything in a Sox uniform to merit being used more than that, and has moved on to join Pedro in Queens. David McCarty (258/327/404) started 25 games at this position last year. Millar is one of the club's better right-handed bats and remains relatively inexpensive, if a bit obnoxious with his constant camera-hogging. I'd expect vagguely similar numbers from 1B in 2005, maybe a slight downgrade due to age and marginally fewer contributions from Ortiz.

2B: Due to an injury to Nomar Garciaparra, Mark Bellhorn, who was signed as a backup, got to play second most of the year; the original plan was to play Pokey Reese alongside Nomar. While Bellhorn's defense was merely adequate, his deceptively productive hitting made him a valuable asset. His detractors focused on his batting average (a late season hot streak pushed it to .264) and his AL-leading 177 strikeouts that masked how productive he was as a hitter (17 home runs and a 817 OPS, very good for a readily available middle-infielder.) There's no reason to think he couldn't meet or exceed this performance across the board in 2005.

SS: The Red Sox effectively had three regulars at short last year. First was Pokey Reese, whose glove was an asset but whose bat (221/271/303) was a substantial liability. Then Nomar returned, and hit reasonably well with a bit less power than usual (321/367/500) but was clearly sub-par in the field for his 38 games. After "The Big Trade," Orlando Cabrera came aboard and provided what was for the Sox a happy medium in the field (slightly above average numbers defensively) and at the plate
(294/320/465, better than most had expected for him.) The less said about backup Cesar Crespo the better. Free agent Edgar Renteria managed, in an off year, 287/321/404 in an inferior hitters' park - he should be able to at least match the overall production the Sox obtained from this spot in the lineup last season, even better if his 2002 and 2003 campaigns are a better reflection of his true talent level. His contract was seen by some as too generous, but he's still on the right side of 30 and may pay off big, at least in 2005.

3B: Bill Mueller (283/365/446) got most of the playing time here, and he was adequate - no one expected him to win another batting crown. He had some injury trouble, so the club turned to rookie prospect Kevin Youkilis, who held his own (260/367/413) when pressed into service. (Bellhorn also logged some time at third.) Mueller's 2004 is well in line with career norms, so I expect about the same level of production in 2005.

LF: Left field is the province of superstar Manny Ramirez, who led the AL in OPS at 308/397/613. Millar occassionally started here to give Manny either a day off from the game or at least from fielding. Manny will turn 33, so there is some expectation of decline here, but either way he should remain one of the most potent bats in the game.

CF: Center was manned capably by Johnny Damon, who had a great offensive season (304/380/477) in the leadoff spot to go with 20 dingers, 19 steals, and the league's most memorable hair. Defensively, his arm is short for center but he still has enough wheels to cover a lot of real estate, important given some of his outfield mates. Damon was healthy all season - what few innings needed to be handed to someone else were handed to Gabe Kapler and Dave Roberts, who are now in Japan and San Diego respectively. The backup role will go to Jay Payton (more on him later). I don't expect another season like this from Damon; he'll be 32, the lower steals total may be sign of slowing down and his power numbers were the best of his career. I'm penciling in a modest reduction in production from CF in 2005, but he'll still be one of the better hitters at that position in the league.

RF: Right field was unsettled in 2004 thanks mostly to Trot Nixon's various and sundry injury problems. When Trot played he hit very well (315/377/510) but continued to struggle against left-handed pitching. Last year the lion's share of playing time in right went to Gabe Kapler (272/311/390), who was merely adequate in the field and at the plate. Kevin Millar also logged a good deal of time in right, which was, to put it midly, not exactly a salve for the collective nerves of Red Sox Nation. This season, Trot will likely be splitting time with right-handed Jay Payton, who put up 260/326/367 in a hitting-unfriendly environment in San Diego last year. (Payton will find his way into the lineup at other times spelling for Ramirez, Damon, or Millar.)
Overall, I expect more production from right field in 2005, thanks mostly to Nixon's return.

DH: Most of the time, MVP candidate David Ortiz (301/380/603) was the team's DH. This may not even represent the high end of possibilities for Ortiz, who is clearly a consummate hitter - he even hit lefties better in 2004. He'll be in the same role in 2005 - he'll play at first in NL parks or if there's an injury to Millar or something. I suppose I should ready myself for disappointment, but I'm going to pencil in a similar level of production in 2005.

On paper this team doesn't figure to be quite as good as the 2004 team that won 98 games. But this team is certainly good enough to win another World Series should they get the chance. At minimum they should make it back to the postseason.


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