2010 Season Forecast: Boston Red Sox

Last Five Seasons:
2009: 95 – 67 (2nd AL East)
2008: 95 – 67
2007: 96 – 66
2006: 86 – 76
2005: 95 – 67

Runs Scored: 872 (3rd AL)
Runs Allowed: 736 (3rd AL)

Season Recap:

Most people figured that the Red Sox would finish first or second in the AL East and, as they have done four times in the last five years, the finished with at least 95 wins.

The Sox actually stumbled out of the gate, losing their first three series to Tampa, Los Angeles, and then Oakland.  An eleven game winning streak got things going, however, putting the Red Sox out front in the first month of the season.  Jason Bay‘s April made up for the struggles of David Ortiz, but already there were problems.

As the calendar turned to May, the Sox were dealing with a hole at shortstop, the lack of offensive production behind the plate, and still David Ortiz hitting like a middle aged AAA infielder.  Brad Penny wasn’t pitching well as a fourth starter, and the team leader in wins was a 40 something knuckeballer.  Daisuke Matsuzaka was rehabbing a sore back – and dealing with his lack of fitness.

In June, things started to look up.  Ortiz started hitting.  Jon Lester hit his stride, and the Sox went 20 – 8 to regain control of the AL East.  Unfortunately, the Yankees were becoming more complete as the season went on while the Red Sox were just coping.  Mike Lowell‘s hip became problematic.  Jed Lowrie was out and Julio Lugo couldn’t stay in the lineup.  Nick Green, who had taken over for both, began hitting the way Nick Green usually hit – which is .240 with no power or patience.  J.D. Drew missed a month of games, and Jason Bay took a month off with poor production in July.

When August began, the Yankees were in control and the Red Sox were an afterthought.  The Sox didn’t have enough bats to make up for a pitching staff that had 4.86 ERA for the last two months of the year.  In fact, if you consider May, July, August, and September, the Red Sox were just eight games over .500 (59 – 51) and had no business being considered among the elite teams in baseball.  A decent April and a very good June gave them the gaudy record they had.

Pitching:

At the top of the rotation, the Red Sox were solid.  Jon Lester went 15 – 8 and saved his team 33 runs over 203.1 innings.  Josh Beckett delivered a healthy season, 17 wins, and saved his team 20 runs in 212.1 innings.  Tim Wakefield wasn’t bad, but with his bad back, he couldn’t pitch much after the all-star break, making just 21 starts.  After that, however, nobody else was really that impressive.

Brad Penny had a 6.08 ERA in his 24 starts.  John Smoltz returned from surgery to make eight ugly start (8.33 ERA).  Daisuke Matsuzaka went 4 – 6 with a 5.76 ERA.  The Sox gave four starts to Junichi Tazawa that they wish hadn’t happened.  Boston finally gave 16 starts to Clay Buchholz, and he went 7 – 4 with a 4.21 ERA – but you have to wonder what took so long.  Same goes with Justin Masterson, who was left in the bullpen but should have had more than six starts.

In the bullpen, the Red Sox remained solid with Jonathan Papelbon‘s  38 saves and 1.85 ERA.  Hideki Okajima, Takashi Saito, and Ramon Ramirez were capable and competent middle and short relievers.  Even Billy Wagner and Daniel Bard contributed when asked to pitch.

Looking to 2010, if the Sox want to keep up with the Yankees, they need to have more starting pitching.  John Lackey was signed away from the Angels to give the Sox a big three to go along with Beckett and Lester.  Matsuzaka has to find his way back to 2007 – 2008 form.  If so, that’s four solid starters.  Look for Matsuzaka to fight with Buchholz and Wakefield for the last two spots in the rotation.  Justin Masterson, as you might remember, is with Cleveland after the Sox traded for catcher Victor Martinez.

The bullpen includes Jonathan Papelbon, Hideki Okajima, and Ramon Ramirez, and is supported by Manny Delcarmen, Daniel Bard, and possibly prospect Michael Bowden.  I think the Sox will miss having Saito, but if Lackey can stay healthy for 30 starts (he’s been nicked up the last couple of years), they might not need the bullpen as often.

That being said, this unit is more potential than actual at the back end – and that tempers my opinion just a little bit.  There is every good reason for this group to be 30 runs better than last season, but in all likelihood, I see it more like 15 runs better.

Catching:

Victor Martinez joined the Sox in the late summer and helped sustain the offense (.336 BA, 507 Slugging).  I think he’ll do just fine in a full season – which will be about 15 runs better than having more Jason Varitek playing full time.  At the same time, Martinez isn’t in Varitek’s league as a catcher (though neither is any good against the run anymore), so it might cost the team about five runs defensively.

Infield:

Kevin Youkilis is a mobile and dependable first and third baseman who, with the addition of Adrian Beltre, will find most of his playing time at first base.  He hits for some power, gets on base a lot – one of the best first basemen in baseball.  Mike Lowell, if he remains, could be a competent backup at both corners.

Dustin Pedroia wasn’t as good in 2009 as he had been in 2008 – but he dropped off both offensively and defensively.  I think he’ll bounce back some defensively, but we’ve probably seen his best offensive season already.

After a year trying Julio Lugo, Jed Lowrie, Nick Green, and Alex Gonzalez at short – failures abounding here – the Sox went out and signed free agent Marco Scutaro from Toronto.  As mentioned in my comments about the shortstops, Scutaro is NOT a top flight defender, but he’ll be a step up.  He’s also coming off a career year and is closer to 35 than 25.

At third, the Sox went defensive – signing Mariner Adrian Beltre to replace Mike Lowell (only Lowell couldn’t leave).  Beltre remains as good a fielder at the position as you will find, and if he can return to good health will have offensive numbers not too different than what Lowell produced.  Lowell was supposedly traded to Texas for catcher Max Ramirez, but hand injuries prevented that trade from happening.  So, for now the Sox have a really good (and expensive) insurance policy.

Bill Hall arrives from Milwaukee to join Jed Lowrie and Lowell in providing bench support.

As a group, this is going to be a bit better than last year – maybe 20 runs better defensively and 15 runs better offensively.

Outfield:

Jason Bay, an all-star left fielder, is gone – and his replacement is Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Mike Cameron.  Cameron is still a solid defensive player so he’ll get the nod in center and move speedster (but not nearly as good defensively) Jacoby Ellsbury to left.  Bay was surprisingly good in left, so Ellsbury will hopefully just maintain the good numbers.  Cameron will be an improvement over Ellsbury in center – assuming that he doesn’t suddenly age in Boston.  In right, J.D. Drew returns – just as likely he’ll be missing time and we’ll get to see more of former Marlin Jeremy HermidaBill Hall could play some out here as well.

I don’t see this as an offensive improvement – it’s probably a loss of 40 runs from 2009.  Defensively, however, it should be fifteen runs better.

DH/Bench:

David Ortiz struggled and you all read about it.  What is lost is how well he played in the last four months, nearly making it to 100 RBI.  I don’t think he’s going back to his old days – he doesn’t have the bat speed and needs to lose about 30 pounds.  But, he can be productive and guys like Hermida and Martinez will do fine as his occasional replacement.

The rest of the bench is pretty good – Hermida can play two positions in the outfield, Hall can play four or five positions.  Jed Lowrie covers the other two, and Varitek is a tolerable back up catcher.  I just don’t think that the offense off the bench will be that good.

Prospects:

Most of the AAA hitters are getting long in the tooth, and the one player who stood out was outfielder Chris Carter, a former Diamondback farmhand who is 27 and should have made it by now.  He must have defensive issues – because he can surely hit.  Of course, he’s with the Mets now.  Let’s hope he catches a break there.  The best pitchers, Daniel Bard, Michael Bowden, Hunter Jones, and Clay Buchholz are already with the big club.  (Hunter Jones is with the Marlins.)

The Portland River Dogs (AA) featured a couple of pitchers that might make an impact in a couple of years – but likely somewhere else.  Junichi Tazawa smoked AA, pitched well enough at AAA and got a shot with the big club.  He’s not ready, but he’s close.  Good control, decent strikeout numbers…  Felix Doubrant, a 22-year-old, has great stuff but needs to work on his control.  I see him in AAA at the start of 2010.  And reliever Dustin Richardson has NASTY stuff, 80Ks in 63 innings, but walked 40 – and that’s going to be a problem.  He COULD be a future closer, but not yet.

First baseman Aaron Bates alternates between hitting .340 and .240 – the good guy would be great, but the former third round pick (2006) hasn’t been consistent at the top levels.  Outfielder Josh Reddick is 23, has great power, but needs another season before he makes the concert tour with the big boys.

At A+ Salem (where I was surprised to see former Royals infielder Carlos Febles is the batting instructor), the most interesting prospect is from Taiwan, Che-Hsuan Lin.  Lin can run, is 21, and shows some patience and the potential to find a little power.  If he has a big year in AA, look for someone to give him a MLB look.  Anthony Rizzo is even younger and hits a bit like Mark Grace – and plays first base, too.  Ryan Kalish was so good at Salem, he moved to Portland and still showed power.  He’s 22 and will start 2010 at AAA.

Two pitchers that caught my eye were Casey Kelly and Eammon Portice.  Portice has control, an out pitch, and the Ft. Lauderdale native who was a late round 2007 draft pick has been a pleasant surprise at every level.  Kelly is a rare find – the spot starter/shortstop.  He won’t hit enough to play in the big leagues, but has a live arm and might make it based on his great control and power strikeout numbers.  In 95 innings, he’s walked just 16 batters, allowed 65 hits, and fanned 74.

Forecast:

With the offense staying good but likely not great, the improvements defensively and in the rotation should be enough to push the Red Sox back to the top.  The system says 97 wins, but personally, I’d play the under.  If my hunches about both the Yankees and Red Sox are right, Boston and New York would finish in a dead heat – but the system picks the Sox.

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Tigers – Twins Tussle Worth Every Penny

Wow!

With the season on the line, both the Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers put up gargantuan efforts yesterday during a day-night doubleheader.  In the afternoon game, the Twins and Tigers went into extra innings tied at one when Orlando Cabrera came through with a clutch hit, knocking in the go-ahead run and later scoring a much needed insurance run to help the Twins win the opener.  This cut the Tigers’ lead in the AL Central to just a single game – immense pressure for a Tigers starter in game two.

However, Justin Verlander was up to the pressure – eight solid innings, though he tired late, to hold off another Twins rally and win 5 – 4.  Tonight is game three of the series, and if the Tigers can win today or tomorrow, it’s just about sewn up.  [SI]

Congrats to the fading Boston Red Sox, who clinched the AL Wild Card spot when Texas lost last night.  Meanwhile, the Sox also lost…  Five in a row and counting.  For Texas, the season was solid but the Rangers ran out of gas and players.  Josh Hamilton, for example, is now lost for the season (pinched nerve) and hopes to be ready for next spring.  [ESPN]

Colorado’s win and Atlanta’s loss (and, for that matter, a Phillies win) means that the Braves are nearly eliminated from both the NL East and NL Wild Card races – though nothing is set in stone just yet.

The Twins have signed Dominican shortstop Miguel Angel Sano, offering him a $3.15 million bonus, pending his getting a visa to come to the United States.  At issue is his age, Sano claims to be 16, but others suggest he is a bit older.  (Miguel Tejada syndrome?)  [ESPN]

Hurry Back! Boston first baseman Aaron Bates heads to the DL

Many Thanks! I’d like to thank Joe Magennis of Baseballisms.com for inviting me to participate in a podcast discussion of my book, a biography of Hall of Famer Rube Waddell.  It turns out that Joe and I have a common baseball fandom past, including being fans of Fred Lynn when Lynn was a young centerfielder in Boston.  Joe, by the way, is a great interviewer.  I had a great time and will be visiting that site frequently – especially when the site posts old baseball cards looking for your baseball memories.  Baseballisms.com does a great job looking at the many small connections a fan builds between him or herself and the sport – which is why all of us love the game as much as we do.

Afterthoughts! Chuck Knoblauch was arrested and faces charges of domestic assualt for allegedly choking and hitting his wife during an argument.  The FanNation version of the story was particularly harsh, suggesting that Knoblauch’s career was “plagued by several mental issues” – all I remember was he went through a phase where he couldn’t throw to first base from his position at second…  [SI/FanNation]

Sox Release Lugo; Lowell Returns to Boston

Mike Lowell was ready to play, Clay Buchholz was needed to start – and Julio Lugo, making $9 million a year, wasn’t playing as well as Nick Green.  So, the Boston Red Sox dispatched Aaron Bates to AAA to make room for Buchholz, and – making room for Lowell – designated Lugo for assignment.  [ESPN]

Boston had been trying to trade Lugo, but Lugo hadn’t been able to stay healthy over the last two years and leg injuries appeared to have sapped his defensive range.  Nobody was willing to take on Lugo’s salary, and now someone can have him for the league minimum.

What are you getting for your Julio Lugo dollar?

Well – comments about Lugo’s diminished range are legit; he’s lost more than a step.

In 2005 with Tampa Bay, Lugo would have been my pick to win the Gold Glove.  (They gave it to Derek Jeter because he’s, well, Derek Jeter.)  The average shortstop made about 4.43 plays per nine innings – without adjustments, Lugo was at 4.82, and when you account for the flyball nature of his staff, grades out at 5.07.   (Jeter, before adjustments, was 4.58, but with a groundball staff, the adjusted rate was 4.41 or an edge below average.)  That means for every 800 balls in play, Lugo made 18 plays that the average shortsop (Jeter in 2005) didn’t – saving his team some 43 runs over the course of the season.   (By the way, Nick Green was on the Rays with Lugo in 2005, and there’s no question that Lugo was a better player and Nick Green wasn’t helping the Rays any.)

Heading to 2006, not only was Lugo still ahead of most shortstops (he was still six plays better than the average SS), he was hitting over .300 and getting on base at a .373 clip.  So, LA hoisted him from Tampa for a couple of prospects (who, by the way, never really panned out).  Lugo didn’ t hit as well in LA and they bounced him all over the infield – playing well at three positions – for the last two months of the year.

In December, 2006, Lugo signed a four-year, $36 million dollar deal with the Red Sox.  In his only full season with Boston, 2007, Lugo was a significant improvement over Edgar Renteria, but was now slowed by quad injuries.  His range was almost exactly league average, and going 0 – 33 early in the season contributed to batting .237 and being a well below league average hitter.  Hitting .280 with some walks, speed, and a little power and displaying great range is worth $9 million.  Hitting under .240 with little power and being ordinary at short isn’t going to cut it.  While his bat came back a little in 2008, now his range was below average (-6), and he’s still not a league average hitter.  This year, a knee injury didn’t help when Jed Lowrie got injured – and Nick Green played his way onto the team.  Lugo played his way to a demotion.

As we see Lugo in 2009, we see someone who is, at best, a utility option.    When healthy, he’s not an embarrassing backup – but he’s no longer the type of player who is going to lead you to championships.  With all the Mets injuries, he’s better than Argenis Reyes and maybe better than Angel Berroa – and Lugo has played second, third, and the outfield (Omar Minaya, are you listening?).  If not the Mets, somebody is going to give him a AAA contract, maybe bring him to the bigs.  But, if you get a Julio Lugo baseball card in the 2011 Topps Baseball Card set, it will be a surprise.  He’ll be 34 when the season is over, and I don’t see him playing after he turns 35.