2013 Season Forecast – Boston Red Sox

Already out the gate with the best record in baseball for the month of April, let’s see if the start can hold water for an entire season.

Last Five Years:
2012:  69 – 93 (5th, AL East)
2011:  90 – 72 (3rd, Crashed AL East)
2010:  89 – 73 (3rd, AL East)
2009:  95 – 67 (2nd, AL East)
2008:  95 – 67 (2nd, AL East)

In general, the trend is working in the wrong direction, but if Bob McGrath were singing “Which One of These Things is Not Like the Other…”, we’d single out the Bobby Valentine era as the odd ball.  The Sox have averaged about 88 wins a season.  Without checking any of the rest of it, to guess that the Sox could bounce back to 75 – 80 wins wouldn’t have been an improbable prediction.

Runs Scored:  734 (5th in the AL)
Runs Allowed:  806 (13th in the AL – ouch)

Runs in Fenway Park: 842, tops in the AL
Runs on the road: 698, 9th in the AL

So, for 2012, Fenway – always a good hitter’s park, was even more so last season.

Season Recap:

Mixed previews….  Some people thought the Sox would remain competitive, having spent a lot of money to bring in veteran talent.  Many thought the hiring of Bobby Valentine might be an odd way to mix things up following the firing of Terry Francona.  I’ll say…

The team got off to a bland start, but a nice streak of six wins got the team back to .500 as the month of April ended.  Losing nine of ten, the Sox fell out of the race as Bobby Valentine was losing his clubhouse as fast as you can say “Kevin Youkilis wasn’t mentally ready to play.”  To the Sox credit, they battled back to 21 – 21 and a second hot streak got the Sox to 42 – 37 right as July began.

At that point, the Sox fell out of contention. They sputtered through August, first slowly, and then – starting on about 8/19 – they fell off the map.  The Sox would give up ten or more runs in a game every week or more – seven times in the last 38 games.  As August ended, the Sox traded away a bunch of people who were seen as under-producing (Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford) and turned it over to the next wave of Sox players.  The Astros played better in September.  The Sox won just 27 of their last 83 games; and went 10 – 31 in the last 41 games.

Transactions:

Some minor moves before the season – resigning Cody Ross and David Ortiz, and trading Marco Scutaro to Colorado for Clayton Mortensen.  I can’t prove it, but maybe the season went south when they signed pitcher Billy Buckner on 2/29.

Actually, the were proving an interest in Chicago.  The traded Michael Bowden to the Cubs for Marlon Byrd.  Ouch – he was released in June.  The signed Mark Prior to a minor league deal.  The picked up former ChiSox outfielder Scott Podsednik when outfielders were hard to find in May.  Kevin Youkilis was moved to the White Sox in June for Brent Lillibridge and Zach Stewart.  I don’t see that working out…  They even sold Justin Germano (to the Cubs) and released Bobby Jenks (former Sox closer) – and in a related moved, signed Andy LaRoche, whose dad was a pitcher for the Cubs…  Look – the Cubs stink, and while the White Sox were pretty good, cast offs aren’t going to help…

Here’s a move I don’t understand.  They traded away Podsednik to Arizona, then signed him when Arizona released Podsednik.

I mentioned the big sell off – the Sox traded Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Nick Punto, and CASH to the Dodgers for James Loney, Ivan DeJesus, Allen Webster, and two guys who arrived in October – Rubby De La Rosa and Jerry Sands.

Starting Pitching:

Jon Lester had an off season, falling from ace to league average pitcher.  Clay Buchholz fell from surprise ace to league average.  Josh Beckett fell from famous pitcher who sometimes looks dominating to a shade below league average (and with a 5 – 11 record, looks worse than he really was).  Daisuke Matsuzaka went 1 – 7 with an ERA north of 8.00, Daniel Bard proved he was a reliever in 10 starts, Aaron Cook was given 18 starts to prove he was done (5.65 ERA).  Felix Doubront looked tolerable in 29 starts – I think he can build on that.

Going forward, the Red Sox could make immediate gains if Lester and Buchholz just got back half of what they lost in 2012 – that’s 30 saved runs.  Getting a fourth starter that could be CLOSE to league average to replace Dice-K and Cook could save 30 runs.  Replacing Josh Beckett with Ryan Dempster looks to be a wash – Dempster was awesome in Chicago, but rocked in Texas.  Boston just feels more like his kind of place – I think he can be at least league average in 30 starts, which is still better than 21 Josh Beckett starts and 10 bad Daniel Bard starts…  If Doubront doesn’t fall back and if John Lackey ever gets healthy, who knows.  I like the rotation to be 50 – 60 runs better than last year.

Bullpen:

Losing Andrew Bailey, who was brutal, and having to use Alfredo Aceves as a closer was bad.  I know Aceves got 25 saves, but the two combined to cost the Sox six unnecessary runs.  The rest of the pen was a nice patch work of guys like Junichi Tazawa, Andrew Miller, Rich Hill, Clayton Mortensen, Vincente Padilla, and Matt Albers.  Sure, they had a few sore thumbs (I’m looking at you, Mark Melancon and Zach Stewart), but every bullpen has one or two.

This year, the Sox signed Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan, have Andrew Bailey back, and added Koji Uehara to Tunizawa, Miller, and Mortensen.  This could be a bullpen that is ten runs better than last year.

Catching:

I’m thinking that the Sox missed their captain, the retired Jason Varitek.  Boston gave the job to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, with Kelly Shoppach (now gone) and Ryan Lavarnway as backups.  People could run on both Salty and Lavarnway (108 stolen, 21 caught), and as a unit, the team was below average in winning percentage, team ERA, and tended to be error prone.  The only category in which Boston catchers were above average was mobility (assists not tied to caught stealing), and that’s not saying a whole lot.

Shoppach was their best defensive catcher, had the best batting rates (5 runs per 27 outs, the only above average offensive player) – so he’s gone.  I know – Saltalamacchia hit 25 homers, but he batted .222 with a sub .300 OBP.  He hit like Jason Varitek did at the end, but with no defensive positives.  Salty is back, but the Sox did bring in David Ross from Atlanta, who is a fine catcher and should get at least 500 innings of work.

Infield:

Adrian Gonzalez was underperforming, maybe, but he was still hitting .300 with 37 doubles and 86 RBI with a month to go.  And, he was saving them 35 runs with his glove in five months – gold glove play.  James Loney can’t hope to replace that – so the Sox let him leave and signed Mike Napoli to play there.  Napoli is an underrated catcher – I’d let him do that from time to time and try to find a better hitter (Daniel Nava?) to play first.  Dustin Pedroia was productive but his range is falling quickly.  Never GREAT before, he cost the team more than 15 runs because he makes nearly nine fewer plays per 870 balls in play than the average second sacker.  Mike Aviles was a below average hitter – first time in a full season he did that – but ordinary at short.   The Sox will try Stephen Drew there in 2013 – and I think he’s going to be a weak fielder and I fear he may not be that great a hitter anymore.  He has the tools to be, but it’s been a while.  If he hits his 150 game norms, he’s not going to be appreciably better than Mike Aviles overall.  A few more runs on the board for both teams…  The one place Boston may improve is at third, where Will Middlebrooks will get full time duty.  Youkilis struggled last season, so if Middlebrooks can match his half season stats across a full season, that will help.  He is NOT in Youkilis’s league as a fielder, but Youk was fading there last year.

As a whole, this group will likely be 50 runs worse defensively, but break even offensively.

Outfield:

A team that had so many injuries, nine guys played in left, eleven guys played in center, and eleven more played in right.  With Crawford gone, the Sox may try Jackie Bradley (he already got sent back) in left, or Daniel Nava.  They need a full (and productive) season from centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury – who is, at best, a league average fielder but CAN be a crazy good hitter.  Cody Ross is gone; Shane Victorino, who is as productive a hitter and a slightly better fielder will play right.  If Nava can step forward and get on base, or at least be a solid platoon with Jonny Gomes, and Ellsbury can get healthy, there is a chance for 40 – 50 extra runs on the board with little change in defensive value.

DH/Bench:

David Ortiz should be around for 25 more games than the 90 games he played last year, but at his age, he might decline some.  Nava can play all over, Victorino can spell Ellsbury if needed, and Pedro Ciriaco will be the utility infielder.  Not a bad bunch.

On the Farm!

At Pawtucket, the only prospect from 2012 may have been catcher Ryan Lavernway, who hit .295 and played with the big club.  He’s at least a good backup.  The best pitcher was probably Justin Germano, but he is 29 and now a Cub.  He’s no prospect.

2010 first round pick Bryce Brentz hit .296 at Portland (AA), showing power, and might make the big club this year.  Jackie Bradley didn’t look overmatched in his 61 games there – he was a 2011 first rounder.  Stolmy Pimentel didn’t look as strong as he had previously.  The reliever with promise may be Aaron Kurcz, who fanned 72 in 50 innings, but is wild.  2008 first round pick Joshua Fields is getting there – better control and 59 Ks in his 44 innings.  Unfortunately, he’s an Astro right now…

Look out for 3B Michael Almanzar, who hit .300 with power at A+ Salem.  He and SS Xander Bogaerts, who is just 20, will follow in the shoes of Jackie Bradley one day.  1B Travis Shaw had Adrian Gonzalez numbers there – but I don’t think that’s what he will be when he gets to the majors…  Keith Couch is looking close to being a prospect after going 11 – 9 with good control in 145.2 innings.  The better prospect might be Matt Barnes, the 2011 top pick, who strikes people out and is building a solid minor league resume very quickly.

Forecast:

Well, when I add up the offensive gains and the defensive gains (pitching) and losses (infield gloves), I see the Sox making strides toward .500.  I see them scoring about 65 more runs, and maybe saving five to ten runs over last year.  That puts them around 800 runs scored and allowed – or 81 wins.  I’m not convinced the hot start is going to stay for the year, but it will be a better season for Sox fans than 2012.

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Manny Ramirez Ends Career Rather Than Face Suspension

Short morning – so we’ll try to do this quickly…

Manny Ramirez is Done…

Rather than face a 100 game suspension for what the NY Times reported as having been found using performance enhancing drugs (again), Manny Ramirez told MLB that he would retire.  In fact, the press release from MLB was how Manny’s team, the Tampa Rays, found out about it.

Good riddance to a self-centered cheat.

For other opinions on the subject, click here:

Joe Posnanski

Sports Illustrated News

Joe Lemire

Jayson Stark

Jon Paul Morosi

Michael Rosenburg

Other News…

The Marlins expect that Hanley Ramirez will be back in the starting lineup on Tuesday after getting bruised while being on the receiving end of a hard slide by Astros infielder Bill Hall.  If everyone agreed that Hall was just doing his job and nobody had any hard feelings, then why did Edward Mujica plunk Billy late in Sunday’s game – leading to two ejections?

I told this to my friend and former boss, Jose Gomez.  Mujica isn’t long for the majors.  He’s eminently hittable and only looked good last year because he played in San Diego.  Now that he’s somewhere where baseballs don’t always get caught, his flat fastball will be meat and his career will fade quickly.

Matt Holiday made it back to the lineup on Sunday, just nine days after an emergency appendectomy.  Modern medicine is amazing, really.

Nobody Can Retire Permanently…

Pedro Martinez is telling everyone he talks to that he’s not done and would welcome a return to the majors.  Boston tops his list of potential return cities.

Weekend Transactions…

Octavio Dotel returned to the Blue Jays, sending Casey Janssen back to Las Vegas.

Jeff Stevens returns to the Cubs from Iowa, replacing Andrew Cashner, who is on the 15-day disabled list – but not likely to return for a while…

Boston activated lefty rookie Felix Doubrant from the DL, and sent former Orioles reliever Matt Albers to the 15-day DL with a sore right lat.  Doubrant throws reasonably hard, has a nice change up, and throws a mean slider.  I think he’s going to stay a while…

The Yankees signed Carlos Silva to a minor league contract, while the Cubs – who dispatched Silva – signed Ramon Ortiz to a minor league contract.

The Twins placed Kevin Slowey on the DL with a sore right biceps muscle.  Alex Burnett was recalled from the Red Wings to take his place.  Burnett is 23, got in 41 games with the Twins last year, and hasn’t yet shown that he’s ready to go after reaching AA.

The Orioles sent Brad Bergesen back to the minors, calling up Chris Jakubaskas.

The Pirates sent Ross Ohlendorf to the DL with a shoulder strain.

The Angels sent Erick Aybar to the DL with a strained oblique, and activated pitcher Scott Downs from the DL.

The Mets recalled Jason Isringhausen (!) after a bullpen implosion this weekend.  Wow…

Happy Birthday!

Those celebrating with cake, cards, and remembrances include:

Sam Chapman (1916)
Sid Monge (1951)
Wally Whitehurst (1964)
Bret Saberhagen (1964)
Jason Varitek (1972)
Trot Nixon (1974)
Mark Teixeira (1980)
Alexander De Aza (1984)

2011 Season Forecast: Boston Red Sox

Last Five Seasons:

2010:  89 – 73 (3rd AL East)
2009:  95 – 67
2008:  95 – 67
2007:  96 – 66 (WS Champs)
2006:  86 – 76

Runs Scored: 818 (2nd, AL to NYY)
Runs Allowed: 744 (11th in the AL, but considering where they play, it was 6th if you adjust for the park)

2010 Recap:

After a lack-luster start in April, the Red Sox started rolling in May and June, at which point everyone started getting dinged up, including Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Cameron, Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, and J.D. Drew (which, frankly, was expected).  Bill Hall turned into an everyday player, Darnell McDonald was forced into the lineup, and Mike Lowell’s body finally gave out having to play as often as it did.  Even Tim Wakefield went down with a back injury.  The Red Sox played near .500 the rest of the way, but with both New York and Tampa playing lights out in July and August, the Red Sox weren’t really in the race despite almost making it to 90 wins.

The Red Sox made few mid-season moves of any consequence, other than putting people on the DL.

Starters:

On paper, as good a rotation as can be found.  Jon Lester is an ACE; a lefty in Fenway with a 3.25 ERA and 19 wins who strikes out more than a batter an inning and keeps the ball in the park.  Clay Buchholz earned 28 starts and was even better in terms of runs saved (34 to 26.5), but Lester really had the better stuff and pitched 35 more innings.  John Lackey took a while to get started, but still won 14 decisions and pitched 215 innings.  Daisuke Matsuzaka only made 25 starts, but had a winning record.  Josh Beckett, on the other hand, made 21 awful starts and finished with a 5.78 ERA.  He needs to move off the fastball and find another out pitch.  Tim Wakefield made 19 starts, got swatted around more than usual, and won just four games.  He’s not retired yet, but the league may retire him anyway.

The same five return for 2011, and Wakefield may not have a spot on the roster.  I don’t think Buchholz will match his 2010 rate, but Beckett could be better if healthy.  I don’t expect improvement from the three or five spots (Lackey or Matsuzaka) and worry what would happen if a key starter went down to injury.

Bullpen:

Like Josh Beckett, Jonathon Papelbon was more hittable than in previous years, finishing with a 3.90 ERA.  He walked more batters than usual and just had days where it didn’t work for him.  I think he’ll be fine, but 8th inning stud Daniel Bard could get some save opportunities if needed.  Hideki Okajima fell off a little in 2010, as did Manny Delcarmen.  Guys like Scott Atchison, Ramon Ramirez, Dustin Richardson, and Scott Schoeneweis didn’t really move the needle.  On the other hand, Lester, Lackey, and (down the stretch) Buchholz didn’t need more than two innings of help most nights.

Still, the Red Sox brought in a bunch of guys to help out for 2011, including Bobby Jenks (not really a closer), Matt Albers, Dan Wheeler, and Alfredo Aceves to shore up the pen, which should make it slightly stronger than in 2010.

Catching:

Last year, Victor Martinez proved he could still hit and Jason Varitek proved he could still catch.  On the other hand, Varitek can’t hit much, and Martinez should be a DH.  So, for 2011, Martinez will get to DH in Detroit, and the Red Sox imported Jarrod Saltalamacchia to be the primary starter.  Salty was acquired for prospects in July, 2010 but didn’t play much.  And, he comes to Boston as a question mark.  He has a great work ethic, but hasn’t ever really been a dominant hitter.  And, last year he was sent to AAA because he couldn’t make the throw from behind the plate back to the pitcher.  Let’s hope he’s got this behind him now…

Offensively, this will be a slide – maybe 25 runs – but defensively (unless Saltalamacchia falls off on his game) it could be a minor improvement.

Infield:

The infield was anchored by third baseman Adrian Beltre, who had his best season in Boston, hitting .321 with power, and fielding his position as well as just about anybody.  Shortstop Marco Scutaro didn’t miss many games, but he didn’t make many plays in the field, made quite a few errors, and his batting fell off to league average levels.  The other half missed half the season – Dustin Pedroia only played in 75 games and Kevin Youkilis missed 60.

Youkilis produces a run a game and can still field.  He will be moving off of first base to take over third as Beltre signed a free agent deal with Texas.  And, Adrian Gonzalez was aquired from San Diego (albeit after shoulder surgery) to play first base.  A healthy Gonzalez is a world class hitter and fielder, and if Pedroia plays 140 games, this unit will generate perhaps 15 more runs than they did in 2010.  If Scutaro struggles at the plate this year, it might be time to dig into the minors for glove wizard Jose Iglesias. Jed Lowrie backs everyone up in 2011.

Outfield:

The outfield of Ellsbury, Cameron, and Drew hardly ever played together, so it was a patchwork crew of guys like Jeremy Hermida, Bill Hall, Ryan Kalish, Darnell McDonald, Daniel Nava, and Josh Reddick.

This should change as the Red Sox signed Rays left fielder Carl Crawford for 2011.  Ellsbury will be back, hopefully staying in the lineup and batting in front of the boppers, playing center.  He’s the wild card of this group, not being an especially good defensive centerfielder, and having lost much of the season to build on his offensive tool set.  Drew returns to play as many games as possible in right, with Cameron and McDonald around to pick up games and innings as needed.  If Ellsbury can return to form, and having added Crawford, the offense could improve by 50 runs, easily.

DH:

David Ortiz is still around, having generated 98 runs of offense with a 32 – 102 – .270 campaign.  He’ll still play, but he might get a day off from time to time against a tough lefty with Cameron on the bench.  I don’t see Ortiz repeating 2010, but at least the Sox have options.

Down on the Farm:

AAA Pawtucket’s featured outfielders already got a shot, those being Ryan Kalish and Josh Reddeck – both are mid-level power decent bat types and don’t have jobs in Boston just yet.  Among the pitchers, Michael Bowden keeps getting calls to the Red Sox, but hasn’t been able to stick and probably is looking forward to free agency.

Pitcher Felix Doubront made eight solid starts for AA Portland, earning a trip to Pawtucket.  After another eight good starts, he was in Boston for a few outings and didn’t look overmatched.  I don’t see him making the roster in April, so expect the lefty to start in AAA for 2011.  Anthony Rizzo is a potential power source, having hit 20 homers in Portland after being moved up from A+ Salem.  Just 21, he may start at Pawtucket, but his route to the majors is also blocked.

Salem featured pitcher Stolmy Pimentel, who has decent command but needs a little seasoning.  Infielder Oscar Tejeda hit .307 in Salem, with decent power and some speed.  Ryan Lavarnway showed power and command of the strike zone and should start the year at AA Portland.

Forecasting 2011:

The Red Sox are the consensus pick to win the AL East and possibly the World Series.  It’s hard to argue with the logic.  By my methods, I see the offense improving by perhaps as many as 40 runs, and the pitching holding steady.  The defense will be stronger in the outfield, and the only hole will likely be short and catcher.  With 860 runs scored, and about 740 runs allowed, that puts the Sox around 93 wins.  It’s fewer than many others have predicted, but still enough to edge the Rays for the division crown.

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.