Jackie Robinson’s First Week as a Dodger – and other news…

Today, April 15th, is Jackie Robinson day to Major League Baseball, the anniversary of Jackie’s first game and a celebration of his role in integrating baseball such that peoples of all color and backgrounds could play in the majors.  I took a few minutes to look at the coverage of his first game in The Sporting News below.  First – a look at what is going on in the game for you fantasy baseball team owners…

Giants closer Brian Wilson may miss the rest of the season after an MRI showed structural damage to his right elbow, meaning a second Tommy John surgery could be in the works.  He had a similar procedure done while at LSU.  [SI]

The Red Sox juggled their roster one more time this weekend, bring up utility infielder Nate Spears and outfielder Jason Repko, returning Che-Hsuan Lin back to Pawtucket, and designating catcher Luis Exposito and pitcher Michael Bowden for assignment.

Hurry Back!

The Padres placed outfielder Kyle Blanks on the 15-Day DL with a strained left shoulder.

Tampa placed catcher Jose Loboton on the 15-Day DL with a sore throwing shoulder, and he was replaced on the roster by Chris Jimenez.  Meanwhile, outfielder Sam Fuld was moved from the 15-Day to the 60-Day DL.

Welcome Back!

Pirates starter Charlie Morton returns to action after having hip surgery.

Toronto pitcher Sergio Santos returns after being on a personal leave – he’s a father!

Ryan Vogelsong returns to the Giants rotation after a short 15-Day DL stint.

The Angels activated pitcher Jerome Williams from the DL, optioning pitcher Brad Mills back to AAA Salt Lake City.

Transactions:

San Diego optioned Reidier Gonzalez to AAA Tuscon.

Kansas City recalled pitcher Louis Coleman and sent outfielder Jarrod Dyson back to AAA Omaha.

Colorado optioned Jordan Pacheco back to AAA Colorado Springs, and recalled lefty Drew Pomeranz to add another pitcher to the mix.

Tampa optioned Dane De La Rosa to AAA Durham and recalled Alex Cobb.

Happy Birthday!

(1877) Ed Abbaticchio, old Pirates infielder
(1886) Leonard “King” Cole
(1910) Eddie Mayo
(1931) Ed Bailey
(1940) Woodie Fryman – one of my favorite pitchers from the 1970s
(1940) Willie Davis, a wonderful centerfielder for the Dodgers
(1945) Ted Sizemore
(1969) Jeromy Burnitz
(1978) Milton Bradley
(1982) Michael Aubrey
(1985) Aaron Laffey

Jackie Robinson’s First Week as a Dodger

“All doubt of Jackie Robinson’s status was removed at 3:15 p.m., April 10, when Branch Rickey announced the Brooklyn Dodgers today purchased the contract of Jackie Roosevelt Robinson from the Montreal Royals.”

In general, the front page article suggests that Robinson didn’t play as well at first base during spring training, so the team’s decision was more based on his play in 1946 when he hit .346 with 40 stolen bases as Montreal’s second baseman.  The article noted that Jackie could play any infield position, but second and short were taken, so first base was his best option; that or being a frequent pinch runner.

All of this came in the wake of Commissioner Albert Chandler’s suspension of Dodgers manager Leo Durocher for association with known gamblers.  Durocher had to sit out the 1947 season, so the decision as to how to use Jackie Robinson was left to interim manager Burt Shotton.  Durocher, to his credit, was in favor of bringing Robinson to the Dodgers.

By the way, the Dodgers had to spend spring training in Havana, Cuba because segregation laws in Florida and other states pushed Brooklyn out of the country.  The Dodgers paid $25 per player per day, an expensive amount of money to spend on spring training, and got in three spring training games against the Yankees in Venezuela.

Regarding Rickey, he believed that Montreal needed to have spring training with the Dodgers so that Robinson would have to play against his future teammates as much as possible, earning the respect of those players, and hopefully getting less resentment from other Brooklyn players when he joined the team.  “No man had greater faith in his abilities as a ball player.  We believe that it was Branch’s honest opinion that the Brooklyn players would come rushing to him and shout: ‘Let’s have that fellow.  He can win the pennant for us.'”

Gaven, Michael. “Jackie Robinson Gets Change With Flatbush Troupe.” The Sporting News, April 16, 1947, Page 1.

The next week, The Sporting News gave a full page to his debut game.

Robinson said he prayed the night before, but really is worried about finding a nice apartment for his wife, Rachel, and toddler son, Jackie, Jr., who was but five months old.

Arthur Daley in his Sports of the Times column said that the debut was “uneventful, even though he had the quite unenviable distinction of snuffing out a rally by hitting into a remarkable double play.”  A veteran Dodger was quoted in that article as saying, “Having Jacking on the team is still a little strange, just like anything else that’s new.  We just don’t know how to act with him.  But he’ll be accepted in time.  You can be sure of that.  Other sports have had negroes.  Why not baseball?  I’m for him if he can win games.  That’s the only test I ask.”

Robinson himself said, “I was comfortable on that field in my first game.  The Brooklyn players have been swell and they were encouraging all the way.  The Brooklyn crowd was certainly on my side but I don’t know how it will be in other parks.  The size of the crowd didn’t faze me and it never will.”

Jackie realized, however, he’d have to start hitting.  “I hit .349 in Montreal last year and I was pretty fast, but I already realized a difference,” said Robinson.  “The big league pitchers are smarter.  I realize that, although I haven’t seen but a few of them.  Take that fellow Sain of the Boston Braves.  He works on you.  He has good control.  I’m aware that I have to hit to make it this year – this is my greatest chance.  Will I hit?  I hope I’ll hit.  I believe I’ll hit, I’m sure I’ll hit.”

Morehouse, Ward. “Debut ‘Just Another Game’ to Jackie.” The Sporting News, April 23, 1947, Page 3.

Ellsbury Out With Separated Shoulder, and Happy Birthday, Ben Tincup!

The Boston Red Sox placed centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury on the 15-day DL due to a separated shoulder suffered when he was removed in the front end of a double play against the Rays.  Ellsbury could miss at least six weeks, so if this is YOUR fantasy baseball team, you’ll want to know that Cody Ross will get the bulk of the starts, even though AAA outfielder Che-Hsuan Lin (more Lin-sanity???) was called up from Pawtucket.  Lin doesn’t have the minor league resume that screams out START ME! – but you never know.  He makes contact, he can run, and he covers ground in the outfield.  Bobby Valentine, in his “boy am I smart” way explained that Lin might not be here longer than the weekend. [MLB]

The Detroit Tigers activated infielder Brandon Inge, who will likely get a start at second base this weekend.  To make room, Detroit sent infielder Danny Worth to AAA Toledo.  Meanwhile, the Tigers gave an unconditional release to outfielder Clete Thomas, who was promptly picked up by Minnesota.  The signing of Thomas means that outfielder Ben Revere was optioned to AAA.  [MLB, ESPN]

It’s okay, I’ll still follow Revere on Twitter.  He seems like a nice kid.

Hurry Back!

Seattle placed reliever George Sherrill on the 15-Day DL with an elbow strain.  In his place, the Mariners have recalled lefty pitcher Charlie Furbush.

Welcome Back!

Washington outfielder Rick Ankiel came off the DL, which means that Brett Carroll was designated for assignment.

The Transaction Wire…

The Phillies signed free agent infielder Mike Fontenot.

The Angels called up David Carpenter from AAA Salt Lake City.  The Angels are looking for depth in the bullpen and Carpenter might be able to help immediately.  He has remarkable control, a great strikeout rate, and minor league hitters have batted just .207 against him.

Happy Birthday!!!

Those celebrating with cake, cards, and remembrances include:

(1893) Ben Tincup (See below)
(1927) Don Mueller (See below)
(1931) Kal Segrist (See below)
(1941) Pete Rose, the greatest singles hitter and baseball gambler ever.
(1947) Joe Lahoud – wow, he’s 65?
(1966) David Justice, Braves outfielder now portrayed in the movie Moneyball…
(1966) Greg Maddux, the best pitcher I ever saw…  I loved Clemens and Carlton, don’t get me wrong, but Maddux was an ARTIST.
(1969) Brad Ausmus, longtime catcher
(1970) Steve Avery – which means at least three Braves were celebrating birthdays on the same day each spring in the early 1990s.  At least for a couple of years, anyway…
(1976) Kyle Farnsworth

I’ve been writing this blog on and off for a long time, I guess…  This is an odd day in that I have actually written small biographies for two players on this list.  Go figure.

If you want to learn more about Giants outfielder Don Mueller, click here…

If you want to learn more about Yankee Infielder and Texas Tech baseball coach Kal Segrist, click here

Ben Tincup

A baseball lifer, Austin Ben Tincup spent fifty years playing and teaching baseball to thousands of kids all over the country – but not before he became the first Native American from Oklahoma to make it to the big leagues.

In doing the research, I found four different birthdays listed for Ben.  A couple of places, including FindaGrave.com and the Baseball-Reference.com Bullpen biography of Tincup, show his birthday as December 14, 1890.  Baseball-Reference.com has a main player page and a minor league player page for Tincup, too.  Those show April 14, 1893.  His obituary and his grave stone in Rose Hill Cemetery in Tulsa, OK says his birth year is 1894.  (You’d think that the findagrave.com mini-bio would want their data to match the picture, right?)  SABR and Retrosheet.org, as well as the database I use for compiling this data, say 1893.  Let’s go with that one…

Tincup was born on April 14th, we’re pretty sure, to James and Lucinda (Vance) Tincup.  A TSN article listed Ben’s birthplace as Sherman, TX, but other sources say Adair, OK.  (I’m tempted to go with Adair, mostly because the TSN writer probably read that Tincup came from Sherman when he joined the Phillies, but that was his minor league city and not his birthplace.)  Not long out of school, Tincup was signed to pitch for Muskogee in the Oklahoma State League, the first professional team to operate in Muskogee.  By the end of the 1912 season, though, he had been shifted to Sherman in the Texas-Oklahoma League.  He stayed in Sherman for 1913, figured things out, and won his last fourteen starts.

The winning streak got him noticed, and the Philadelphia Phillies brought him out for spring training to see how he’d fare.  Before long, the young Cherokee Indian was making relief appearances in May and June.  In July, he was given his first major league start against the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Tincup pitched a masterful game, winning 1 – 0, and holding the Pirates to just five hits – three of them by Honus Wagner.

Tincup became a bit of a celebrity and the newspapers called him The Millionaire Indian, one of many landowners who got rich when oil was found on a number of large farms in Oklahoma.  Ben countered, however, that the writers missed their mark.  “The stories were only half right,” said Tincup.  “I’m 100 percent Cherokee Indian and I own 500 acres of Oklahoma land.  But I’m the Indian who owns land where they didn’t find oil.”

Among the first Native Americans not nicknamed “Chief”, Tincup won two other games by shutouts: a 1 – 0 blanking of St. Louis and a 2 – 0 win over the Pirates.  However, he mixed in a few rougher outings, including a 13 – 5 loss to Brooklyn and 12 – 3 loss to Boston.  When the year was out, he finished 8 – 10 as the third starter on the roster.

However, the fourth starter was lefty Eppa Rixey, a fine thrower out of the University of Virginia.  Rixey roomed with Tincup for a year while the rookies found their way through the league.  In 1915, Rixey made the step forward, joining Grover Cleveland Alexander and Erskine Meyer and New York Giant import Al Demaree.  The new rotation helped propel the Phillies to their first pennant in 1915.  Tincup was reduced to a marginal reliever, making just ten appearances, and hardly contributing to the 1915 National League championship.  In fact, Tincup was voted just a half-share of the team’s post-season take.

The Phillies chose to dispatch Tincup to the minors for a little more seasoning.  In 1916, Tincup went 16 – 11 for Providence in the International League.  Moved to Little Rock in 1917, Tincup threw a perfect game against Birmingham in the Southern Association.  He kept a ball and the press clippings for years – the ball finally being donated to the Will Rogers Museum in Claremore, OK.

St. Louis claimed Tincup for the 1918 season, but the National Association ruled that Tincup still belonged to the Phillies, who called him up for a few outings.  Tincup decided to retire and went off to join other Americans in the US Army who were fighting in Europe during the first World War.

When he came back in 1919, he was declared a free agent.  Bill Neal, who had scouted and signed Tincup for Philadelphia, was now associated with the Louisville Colonels in the American Association.  Neal signed Tincup for more money than he might have made with the Phillies – and Tincup became a minor league lifer.  For the next twelve seasons, Tincup was a regular starter and later a reliever for the Colonels.  He won 20 twice; the first time he went 20 – 14 in 1922, and two years later he won 24 games.  And he could hit, too.  One year, he played left field when he wasn’t pitching and wound up hitting .331 with 16 doubles, 16 triples, and eight homers.  He missed the batting crown by four points.  However, the next season manager Joe McCarthy and Tincup decided pitching was the right thing to do – and Tincup only played the outfield in emergencies.

The 1921 team won the American Association and challenged Baltimore in the Little World Series, a battle between the top minor league teams.  Louisville won, in part, behind the pitching of Tincup.  Tincup outdueled Lefty Grove to put Louisville in charge of the series.

In 1922, Harry Davis, the old Athletics first baseman, was sent to scout the team.  He was looking at two players, Brewers outfielder Al Simmons and Colonels outfielder Earle Combs.  Davis asked Tincup to really bear down on Simmons to see what he could do.

“I brushed Al back with a high, inside pitch.  I had plenty on it, believe me,” said Tincup.  “I wanted to scare Simmons, but he didn’t scare at all.  Instead, he just just dug in and dared me to come back with the same pitch.  I did.  He didn’t move an inch.  The next ball was a dandy curve.  Simmons whacked it over the first baseman’s head for a triple.  I figured he just had beginner’s luck.  The next time he came up he lined a double to left…  Some time later I read that Simmons had been sold to the Athletics for $100,000.  I wasn’t surprised.  When I saw Davis later, I told him that I had helped ‘sell’ Simmons to the A’s the day I pitched to him.  Davis had a smart comeback.  ‘You’re right, Ben.  But I made a mistake.  The day we bought Simmons, we also should have bought Combs.'”

Combs signed with the Yankees – and years later, well after he was done playing, Tincup would join the Yankees, too.

In the winters, Tincup would play ball in Cuba.  The 1925 Marianaos Gray Monks may have been the best team of his generation, featuring players such as Freddy Fitzsimmons, Jess Petty, Otto Krueger, Mike Griffen, Charlie Dressen, Eddie Brown, Mark Koenig, Walter Christensen, Tiny Chaplin, Bill Burwell, and Jim Cooney.  Some of those names we still recognize today – others, we’d probably have to look up.

Toward the end of his Louisville career, Joe McCarthy was with the Cubs – he needed a temporary reliever.  He called for Ben Tincup, who got a couple more appearances in the majors.  Then, he was returned to Louisville.  As he got older, Tincup left the rotation and became a quality reliever.  According to a TSN article:

“Manager Allan Sothoron this spring decided that the veteran redskin could best serve his team in the role of relief chucker, and in this capacity Ben has proved invincible.”  He would finish the season 14 – 3 in relief, and another article claimed that he “…saved approximately 13 games, for which other pitchers received credit.”  Jerome Holtzman hadn’t yet coined the term “Saves.”

1930 was Tincup’s last hurrah.  He had a rough year (7 – 16) in 1929 and was given a pay cut.  After 1930, he wanted a raise and Louisville ownership didn’t agree.  Before long, Tincup was cut and scooped up by Minneapolis.  The next year, Tincup was pitching in Sacramento in the Pacific Coast League, but he was pretty much done as a pitcher.

Instead, he was signed as am umpire by the American Association – a job that barely lasted two months.  Per a blurb in TSN:

“Ben Tincup, veteran Indian pitcher formerly with Louisville, has been released as an umpire in the American Association by President Thomas J. Hickey.  Tincup made his debut as an arbiter this season, but there were so many complaints over his decisions on balls and strikes that his release resulted.”

He went back to his farm in Oklahoma for the next three years.

However, guys who knew Tincup needed scouts and coaches – and Tincup was hired by the Cincinnati Reds to manage their farm team in Paducah, a member of the Kitty League.  In his first season, Tincup led Paducah to a first-half crown and a trip to the playoffs.  However, Tincup argued that two pitchers that helped Union City to a second half crown should have been ineligible.  When that protest failed, he began to lose favor with his Paducah owner, B.B. Hook.  Tincup next complained that he had to play night games in Union City, when his team only played day games at home.  That, too, failed.

So, Tincup told his team to play but he was going to stay home to protest the league’s decisions.  After Paducah lost to Larry Irvin (one of two players Tincup felt should not have been eligible to pitch) and Union City in that first game, seven other players decided to side with Tincup.  The series was forfeited to Union City and National Association President W. B. Bramham chose to put Tincup and the seven players on the ineligible list.  That ban lasted about four months, and Tincup was signed to manage a different Reds farm team, this one in Peoria, Illinois.

While there, Tincup traded for a pitcher who had been successful for him in Paducah, Gene “Junior” Thompson.  Thompson was the ace of the Peoria staff and the Reds soon promoted him to the big league team where Junior (he hated that nickname) helped the Reds win the 1940 National League Pennant.  Thompson’s ascent and Tincup’s role in his development earned Tincup the reputation as someone who could mold young pitchers.

Tincup was a proponent of throwing strikes, saying that the biggest problem young pitchers have is not being willing to hit the catcher’s glove.  “They’re so scared somebody is going to get a base hit they throw all around the target but seldom at it,” said Tincup.  “What they don’t realize is that even when you put across a perfect strike with nothing on it, the batter won’t hit it safely more than three times out of ten.  That’s proved in batting practice.”

By 1938, he was taken by Larry McPhail from Cincinnati to Brooklyn to become a roving pitching instructor and coach.  In 1939, young kids would have seen an advertisement for a California baseball camp where young ballplayers could learn from coaches like Leo Durocher, Charlie Dressen, Bill Killefer, and Ben Tincup.  On the other hand, some things from his minor league days didn’t go away as quickly.  Tincup earned a fine in his last days managing Paducah in 1939.  When he tried to step on the field as a coach in 1940, the league told him he had a $10 fine due and Kennesaw Mountain Landis wouldn’t let him on the field unless he paid that fine.  A wire was sent, and Tincup was allowed to coach.

After two more seasons as a coach, Tincup took a short hiatus to join the war effort for World War II – this time helping build boats on the docks of the Ohio River at Jeffersonville.  During that time, he ran into an old friend – Ray Kennedy.  Kennedy was Tincup’s catcher when Tincup tossed that perfect game in 1917 for Little Rock.  Now, Kennedy was the General Manager for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Kennedy knew a few people – and by 1946, when the war was over, Tincup was a scout for the Boston Braves.

Tincup’s scouting and coaching career meant he went all over the place for a bunch of different teams.  He left Boston to join the Pirates.  Roy Hamey had brought him into the Pirates organization, and when he left for the Yankees, he took Tincup with him there, and then to the Phillies.  “We had him traveling around the farm clubs and working with the pitchers,” said Hamey.  “He helped fellows like Bob Friend and Vernon Law so much that when I moved over to the Yankees, I talked George Weiss into bringing him to New York.  He did such a good job with the Yanks that I had a tough time getting him for the Phils.  But I told Weiss I needed him worse than the Yankees did, so George turned him over to me.”

During his time with the Phillies, a prized prospect was a young Yaqui Indian out of Arizona named Phil Ortega.  Hamey assigned Tincup to handle the negotiations, figuring that one Native American might be better able to relate to another Native American than the other scouts.  The Dodgers, however, countered with a bigger bonus check.  Buzzie Bavasi wired Hamey when he won.  “How dumb can you get,” Bavasi asked. “Don’t you know Ortega’s and Tincup’s tribes have been at war for 300 years?”

The Yankees got Tincup back when Ralph Houk, who had used Tincup as a pitching coach in the middle 1950s, asked for him to coach his 1961 squad.  Joe Falls wrote about it in the Detroit Free Press:  “The Yankees have signed Ben Tincup, a 73-year-old Cherokee, as their minor league pitching coach…  And this is the team that fired Casey Stengel because he was, at 70, too old.”

If Tincup was 73 in 1961, that would put his birth date at 1888…  Another option…  I don’t think so.

Anyway… Eventually baseball’s tribal elder called it a career and returned to the Tulsa area.  He was inducted into various Halls of Fame in Oklahoma, including those celebrating Native Americans in sports.  In 1980, he was staying at the very hotel in Claremore, the Will Rogers Hotel, where his perfect game baseball would have been on display.  Sometime in the night on July 5, 1980 Tincup was called to pitch on the great ball field in the sky.

Sources:

The Sporting News
“Finishing Second No Small Honor in A.A.” The Sporting News, Oct. 7, 1920, Page 5.
“Colonels Carry On and Never Say Die.” The Sporting News, July 14, 1921, Page 3.
“Didn’t Start A One But Has Won Seven.” The Sporting News, June 19, 1930, Page 4.
Williams, A. W. “Louisville Releases Tincup.” The Sporting News, July 30, 1931, Page 3.
“Ben Tincup New A.A. Umpire.” The Sporting News, January 19, 1933, Page 2.
“Tincup to Pilot Paducah” The Sporting News, March 26, 1936, Page 7.
“Bramham Punishes Paducah ‘Strikers’.” The Sporting News, September 24, 1936. Page 7.
“Long Arm of the Law.” The Sporting News, May 23, 1940, Page 3.
“Tincup Donates No-Hit Ball.” The Sporting News, April 10, 1941, Page 11.
“8-Game Streak Has Almendares Out in Front.” The Sporting News, November 17, 1948, Page 20.
The Sporting News, March 8, 1950, Page 14.
“Old-Time Ben Tincup Back; Gives Advice to Phils’ Kids.” The Sporting News, March 7, 1956, Page 33.
Notes, The Sporting News, January 1, 1961, Page 12.
Obituaries, The Sporting News, August 9, 1980, Page 50.
“Phils Forgot Tribal Wars When They Bid for Ortega.” The Sporting News, June 27, 1964, Page 26.

Obituary:
Claremore (OK) Progress (July 8, 1980)

Baseball Digest:
Bryson, Bill.  “The Indian Glove Call.” Baseball Digest, Feb 1964, Pages 67 – 73.
Levy, Sam.  “Simmons First Steps to Hall.” Baseball Digest, April, 1953, Pages 25 to 27.

Websites:

FindaGrave.com
Baseball-Reference.com
Retrosheet.org

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.