So Long, Tony LaRussa

Riding out in style with his third World Series win, the manager who watched the second most games from the dugout is calling it a career.  LaRussa will head to Cooperstown in a few years, likely joining Joe Torre and Bobby Cox.

I actually remember LaRussa as the young gun who turned the White Sox around in the early 1980s and got Chicago to the top of the AL West in 1983.  When the Sox grew tired of waiting for him to repeat his success (despite horrible support from upper management), the A’s were only too happy to snap him up, where he next guided Oakland to three World Series.  He managed in five different decades, winning divisions in four of them, and had a winning record in the postseason, too.  [Multiple Sources]

Sabathia to Stay a Yankee

CC Sabathia signed a one year extension which, when coupled with a buy-out clause, added $30 million to his existing contract with the New York Yankees.  This keeps the rotation anchor in pinstripes through at least the 2016 season with an option for 2017.  Sabathia added that he will refocus on maintaining a healthier body size, which he had done during the previous off-season by eliminating (among other things) Capt. Crunch cereals.  [MLB]

Indians, Braves Swipe Pitchers – Derek Lowe Heads to Cleveland

In the first trade of the Hot Stove season, the Cleveland Indians acquired starting pitcher Derek Lowe from the Atlanta Braves in exchange for minor league reliever Chris Jones.  The Braves will pay $10 million of Lowe’s 2012 salary, the last year of his four-year contract.

In his favor, Lowe has been a workhorse for the better part of a decade.  Working against him is the fact that he’s been in decline for the last couple of seasons and collapsed as the Braves fell apart in September.

In addition to unloading salary, Atlanta looks to get younger in the rotation.  With Lowe gone, the Braves make room to promote any of four potential rookie starters – including top prospect Julio Teheran, who got a cup of coffee after a 15 – 3 2.55 season at AAA Gwinnett.

For the Indians, they will pay $5 million of Lowe’s salary and add him to the rotation behind Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jiminez, and Fausto Carmona – hoping that Lowe has one more bounce back season and can add leadership to a generally young pitching staff.

Chris Jones was drafted by the Indians in 2007 but fell off the map for a couple of years.  He returned to pitch well for Kinston (A+) last year – winning seven of eight decisions with a decent strikeout rate.  His control is a bit out there, but he just turned 23 and is a converted lefty starter.

Twins Claim Maloney, Gray off Waivers

The Minnesota Twins bolstered the bullpen by claiming two pitchers off the waiver wire.  In Jeff Gray, the former Seattle middle reliever provides depth, and in Matt Maloney, the former Reds starter provides a little potential.  Gray has been up and down between AAA and the majors for about five years and hasn’t displayed much of a strikeout pitch, while Maloney has great control and fares pretty well against AAA bats.  Of the two, Maloney probably has the greatest chance to stick as he is a lefty who can either start or relieve.

Happy Birthday!

Those celebrating with cards, cake, or remembrances include:

Bid McPhee (1859)
Vic Power (1927)
Miguel Dilone (1954)
Gary Redus (1956)
Fernando Valenzuela (1960)
Coco Crisp (1979)

2011 Season Forecast: Cleveland Indians

Last Five Years:

2010:  69 – 93  (Fourth in AL Central)
2009:  65 – 97
2008:  81 – 81
2007:  96 – 66
2006:  78 – 84

Remember 2007, anyone?  the Indians were a game away from getting to the World Series.

Runs Scored: 646 (12th in the AL)
Runs Allowed: 752 (12th in the AL)

With this combination of runs scored and allowed, the Indians would have been expected to win 69 games – which is what they did.

Season Recap:

Most experts had the Indians and Royals battling for the bottom of the AL Central, and the Indians did just that – edging the Royals by two games to claim fourth in the division.

The Indians got off to a moderately slow start, but fell way off the pace in May, going 9 – 18.  Other than that month and a rather poor August (10 – 18, but played better than that), the Indians roared down the stretch with a 15 – 12 September, catching the Royals to get out of the cellar.  Part of this was adding a few nuggets – like rookie catcher Carlos Santana and infielders Jason Donald and Jayson Nix – who were happy to get playing time and helped lead the charge.

Starters:

Fausto Carmona returned to form, tossing sinkers and sinking fastballs, and giving the Indians 210.1 innings of solid baseball.  Justin Masterson’s first season as a regular in the rotation wasn’t a complete loss.  Sure, he allowed a lot of runs, but he had decent strikeout numbers and hung in there for the whole year.  He needs to work on his control, but there’s something to build on here.  Mitch Talbot won 10 games, but I’m not sure how.  He doesn’t strike a lot of guys out and he tends to walk even more guys than Masterson.  Jake Westbrook returned to make 21 fair starts before being shipped off to St. Louis for the stretch run.  David Huff, Josh Tomlin, and Jeanmar Gomez served as fifth starters – only Huff looked way out of place and of the three, Tomlin looks to be ready to take a turn 30 times and be successful.

Looking forward, a rotation of Carmona, Masterson, Talbot, Tomlin, and another kid named Carlos Carrasco has some potential for growth.  I see Talbot falling off a little, but if Carmona can hold form, the other three guys could certainly shave 30 – 40 runs off the runs allowed side of the ledger.

Relievers:

Chris Perez did a great job as the closer and returns for another season.  Tony Sipp, Rafael Perez, Joe Smith, Jensen Lewis, and Frank Herrmann will tote some innings as well.  Justin Germano did an okay job last year and gets a non-roster invitation to training camp.  He has a shot at being the 11th man on the staff.  Of these, I am less inclined to believe that Perez and Smith will be as successful, so Lewis, Herrmann, and SOMEBODY will have to step up.  I think the bullpen may be off by 10 runs over the course of the season.

Catching:

Carlos Santana had a great first 40 games.  He’s a convert – came to the Dodgers in 2005 as a third baseman and played all over the infield and outfield – an Elmo Plaskett sort of career.  I 2007, he was switched to catcher and has shown himself to be a quick learner with a strong arm.  As a hitter, he has a .401 OBP in the minors with 25 homer potential.  His backup, Lou Marson, has solid defensive skills but struggled at the plate last year – even after being sent to AAA.  I don’t think this will happen again.

Infield:

Last year’s infield started out as Russell Branyan, Mark Grudzielanek or Luis Valbuena, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Jhonny Peralta.  By August, Grudzielanek was released and now is retired.  Branyan was returned to Seattle, and I have no reason why they would have done that – but what the hey.  Matt LaPorta came in to play first.  Jayson Nix outplayed Andy Marte to win the third base job, and Jason Donald earned a shot at second base.  Only Cabrera played most of the season – but even he, by the end of the season, was seeing less playing time because his bat had tanked from where it was in 2009.

Looking forward, Donald or Nix looks to be the third baseman, LaPorta will get one more shot at first base, and Asdrubal Cabrera will get a shot to return to form at short.  More importantly, the Indians have imported Reds infielder Orlando Cabrera to play second base.  Jayson Nix and Valbuena return as depth.  I like adding Orlando Cabrera, though he’s getting long in the tooth and hasn’t really played a whole lot of second base in his career.  Donald can hit as well as Peralta these days, and LaPorta has room for growth.  Defensively, it’s not awesome – but it’s not bad either (well, LaPorta didn’t impress me).  If nothing else, it’s an infield that gives a manager a lot of daily options if necessary.

Outfield:

In right field, Shin Soo Choo is awesome – 20/20 with a high batting average and on base percentage.  He’s one of the best in the game.  The problem is the other two positions.  In center, the Indians are hoping that Grady Sizemore can return from microfracture surgery on his left knee.  At peak, and Sizemore is just 29, Sizemore is a potent bat in the middle of the lineup.  He hasn’t had centerfield range in years, though, so I’d rather see him play left field.  That leaves Michael Brantley or Trevor Crowe in left (or center) and neither impressed at the plate, being low average, low power guys with speed.  Crowe might be the better defensive option in center, but neither has 1000 innings in the field yet, so it’s still open for debate.  Austin Kearns returns to be a fourth or fifth outfielder and DH option.

DH:

Travis Hafner, no longer the threat he once was, still helps put runs on the board.  Carlos Santana, Shelly Duncan, or Austin Kearns will be the other half of a platoon arrangement.

Down on the Farm:

The guys at AAA who looked like they could play a little, Brantley, Crowe, Donald, LaPorta (who caught in AAA), all got shots with the parent club.  Of those who did not, Jose Constanza hit .319 with less power and a lower OBP than Brantley, so that won’t work.  Cord Phelps moved up from AA, is just 24, and hit .317 with a little power.  Phelps is a 3rd round pick out of Stanford in 2008 who has been moved up quickly and played better at each level.  That being said, the entire Columbus AAA team hit .285, so I wouldn’t put stock in those averages holding up at the big league level.  None of the guys who hit .300 in AAA hit anywhere near .250 in the bigs in 2010.  A couple of pitchers were rushed to the bigs, including Gomez and Huff, while Carlos Carrasco pitched better than all of them (10 – 6, 133Ks in 150.1 innings, good control, 3.65 ERA in a hitter’s park).  So of the young arms in camp, I like his the best.

AA Akron features a couple of pitchers who might make you look for them in a year or two.  Alex White is just 22, had a 2.28 ERA in 17 starts, and had good control, decent K numbers, and kept the ball in the park.  The UNC grad was the #1 pick of the Indians in 2009 and appears to have a fast track to the majors.  Chen Lee pitched relief, fanned 82 and walked just 22 in 72.2 innings of work.

The second round pick of the 2009 draft, Jason Kipnis, hit well at A+ Kinston, batting .300 with a .387 OBP and power, earning a trip to Akron, where he continued to hit well (.311/.385/.502).  I like him because he’s from Northbrook, IL – a graduate of Glenbrook North, where a bunch of my cousins went to school.  He’s still figuring out second base, but he will be in the majors before you know it.  The 2008 #1 pick, Lonnie Chisenhall, has migrated to third base and shows power – but right now projects out as an Andy Marte clone – and that’s not MLB ready yet.

2011 Forecast:

Let’s call it guarded optimism.  The young pitchers should be able to build on 2010, but I think the defense will suffer if Sizemore is allowed to play center and with Orlando Cabrera learning a new position (and LaPorta likely getting 1000 innings at first).  It’s not a total wash, but it’s at least mitigating some of the potential improvement.  If Sizemore plays left and Crowe plays center, the team will remove 30 runs from the runs allowed side.  If Sizemore is still in center, I don’t see any change.

The offense will certainly be better at catcher, and if Sizemore can hit, that’s another huge plus – possibly 80 extra runs on the board between the two positions.  Cabrera or Donald or Nix will be better than a full season of Luis Valbuena, too.  When I feel optimistic, the system says that the team should score 725 runs and allow about 740 – but managerial decisions and Sizemore’s health aren’t guarantees, so I’ll hedge my bet and guess it will be more like 700 and 750 instead.  That puts the Indians at 75 wins – a nice step in the right direction.  On the other hand, the potential is there to get to 80 games if a lot of things work in their favor.  Besides, Cleveland could use some good news from a sporting standpoint.  As such, I’ll be rooting for the pleasant surprise…

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.

Trade Analysis: Boston Acquires Victor Martinez from Cleveland for Justin Masterson and Prospects

From what I understand, the trade was difficult for Victor Martinez, who has spent his entire adult life as an Indian – from the day of his signing as a 17-year-old kid in Venezuela to the day before he was scheduled to have a Victor Martinez bobblehead night.  However, Boston wanted a bit more offense and some lineup flexibility – and the switch hitting Martinez offers that.

Boston Gets:  Options, though I happen to agree with FoxSports Jon Paul Morosi – the biggest challenge will be how to mix and match Martinez among modern Boston legends Kevin Youkilis, Mike Lowell, Jason Varitek, and David Ortiz – as well as the newly acquired defensive replacement Casey Kotchman.  Martinez is under contract for another year and Varitek is no longer a productive hitter at the bottom of the lineup.  Of course, Varitek is still more than sound behind the plate and his pitchers love him.  Anyway – expect Varitek, Ortiz, and Lowell to lose at bats.  However, if Victor can handle leaving his home and hits the way he is supposed to, winning will take care of sharing lineup spots.

Cleveland Gets:  Pitching.  Justin Masterson is already a successful reliever and spot starter – and Cleveland can use some live arms.  With Lee leaving, Masterson may wind up in the rotation for a few weeks to see if he can handle the grind.  If not, he’s still a valuable reliever – an option in the eighth inning and possibly a future closer.  Nick Hagadone was a first round pick in 2007, and while he’s been the starting pitcher when used, he’s rarely making four innings in his starts.  What is impressive is that his career ERA in the minors is under 2.00 and he has a 3:1 K/W ratio – with 75 Ks in 56.1 innings.  Obviously, Hagadone is two to three years away, but you have to like first impressions.  Bryan Price was a first round pick a year ago and has moved up to AA already – a sign that he has great stuff.  Another pitcher with good control and a great K/9 rate, he hasn’t been as successul in the minors despite racing through A and A+ levels very quickly.  Price is also a couple of years away, but he’s great.

Winner?  Hard to say.  Cleveland got two recent first round picks who are moving in the right direction and someone who can play now.  Whether Masterson and the rest can have long enough (and successful enough) careers moving forward is still an open question, but I think that the sum total of the three is greater than Victor Martinez.  Boston gets a little bit of long-term value in Martinez.  He’s only 30, but at the end of the season will have about 900 games under his belt.  I think he’s got four years left as a productive player – and if he does that, the Sox should be pretty happy.  Still, I like what Cleveland done – even if it means accepting that the last two years were disappointing failures and admitting that it’s time to start over.

2009 Season Forecast: Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox
2008: 95-67 (2nd AL East, 2 games back)

By my take, the Boston Red Sox were the best team in the American League, but were beaten by the darlings of destiny in Tampa Bay within their own division and in the playoffs.  Anaheim played over their head in the weakest division in baseball.  The White Sox and Twins were good, but the Red Sox were truly a great team that just missed winning back to back World Series.

Scoring 845 runs, only Texas had a stronger offense.  Allowing just 694 runs, the Red Sox were third defensively.  The combination was the best ratio of runs scored to runs allowed in the league.  Boston just had a couple of hiccoughs – the Manny Ramirez saga, Mike Lowell’s hip injury, and an off-season from David Ortiz – which kept them from operating on all cylinders.

Looking Back on 2008

Looking month-to-month, the Red Sox won between 16 and 18 games every month but July, when they went 11 – 13 and fell behind Tampa Bay.  Oddly, looking at their monthly offensive numbers, July was the only month where Boston couldn’t hit homers (just 18 and usually in the high 20s or 30s) , and the only month where they weren’t successful stealing bases (8 of 16, where every other month was better than 15 of 22).

The pitching was sort of a bell curve – league average in April, getting better through the summer, and then drifting back over 4.00 for August and September.

Despite areas of consistency, the team was surprisingly streaky for about sixty games.  Off to a slow start, the Red Sox won ten of eleven to take charge of the division at the end of April.  Then, they lost five in a row to Anaheim and Tampa Bay, who swept the Sox.  After trading a couple of games, the Sox went on another tear for a week.  It was win seven, lose four, win six of seven, lose five of six – very streaky for a team this good.  June was relatively even, winning two of three most of the month, until another hitting another losing streak as the month turned into July.  In July, they would lose at least back to back games once or twice a week, never putting together a winning streak until August hit – and then they went on another tear.  Down the stretch, Boston played well, but lost four of six in two series to the Rays and finished the division in second place.

Tell me about that offense

For the last couple of years, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez got all the press.  In 2008, the big bats were Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia.

I know – Pedroia is the little guy with the big bat and Youkilis is rather odd looking, with that shaved head and big goatee (shaved for 2009), plus that huge waggle when he stands in the plate.  But, the MVP award should have gone to Youkilis.  Youkilis generated about five fewer runs than Pedroia (122 to 117), but he did so making fewer outs.  Youk’ created 8.2 runs every 27 outs, while Pedroia was a full run behind that (7.2).  Defensively, Pedroia was a steady second baseman – but he had slightly below average range and was solid turning two and avoiding errors.  Youkilis was well above average playing first base, was solid playing third – and even when forced into right field for a game, turned in a solid game.  Pedroia plays a tougher position, but Youkilis plays his far better – and more of them.

Anyway – the two were both great.  Mike Lowell was good until his hip failed him.  The only weak spot was Julio Lugo.  Even Jed Lowrie and Alex Cora were better hitters – but none were better than average.  Cora should have been the starter.  Jeff Bailey backed up Youkilis and Lowell and was a solid hitter.  He’s Kevin Millar without the job.  Sean Casey was decent in a backup role, too.

In the outfield, Ramirez was still solid – .299 with 20 homers and nearly 70 RBI for four months.  His replacement, Jason Bay, hit just as well when he arrived.  In center, both Jacoby Ellsbury and Coco Crisp were good, though not great.  Ellsbury has room to improve and hasn’t lost a step defensively and will keep his job for 2009.  In right, J. D. Drew remains productive, but can’t keep his back healthy – he’ll never be much for 120 games anymore (not that he played 120 every year before).  The other outfielders didn’t really produce.

David Ortiz had an off year but was productive, some power, still walks, still fierce with the game on the line.  Catcher Jason Varitek had a well-publicized off year, hitting .220 with a little power, but it was his homer that nearly turned the AL Championship Series into Boston’s party.  Kevin Cash didn’t hit well either.  Maybe he got tired chasing knucklers.

On the whole, though, with at least three amazing performers and four other positive offensive contributions in the lineup, the Red Sox had a fantastic offense.

Defensively:

Like the offense, the defensive lineup was a collection of remarkably good performers, surrounded by a number of players who didn’t quite make the expected contributions.

Around the horn, both Lowell and Youkilis were impressive – Youkilis, as mentioned before, was really good at both first and third, saving the Sox about 24 runs with his glove.  Pedroia is a good, but not great second baseman (101 DPs and only 7 errors, but -2.8 range factor – meaning he made about three fewer plays per 800 balls in play than the average second sacker).  The shortstops were a mixed bag.  Cora, who had the best offensive numbers, also was the only above average shortstop in the field.  Lugo and Lowrie struggled – Lowrie was especially immobile when playing shortstop, making just 3.39 plays per nine innings (Lugo was below average at 3.71, while Cora was well above average at 4.63 plays per nine).  The net was positive, but shortstop was an obvious hole.

In the outfield, Ellsbury was awesome – he played all three outfield positions well and saved the Red Sox about 25 runs.  Unfortunately, Crisp, Ramirez, and Drew (and even Bay, who had to learn to play the Green Monster), negated Ellsbury’s value.  Mark Kotsay was imported from Atlanta to help out, and his back doesn’t allow him to be very mobile anymore either.
Behind the plate, Varitek remains solid, and Cash is actually very good despite having to deal with catching Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball.  Neither were very good stopping base stealers, but the way Boston scores runs in bunches, it doesn’t really matter.

David Ortiz doesn’t play the field anymore.

Now Pitching…

Jon Lester was Cy Young worthy last year – leading his team in innings and saving his team about 33 runs more than the average pitcher.  Daisuke Matsuzaka was equally baffling; despite walking way too many batters, nobody hit him.  He was 30 runs better than average, too.  Josh Beckett alternated between solid performances and injury recovery – missing a few starts but still pitching enough like an ace to rank near the top of the league in strikeouts despite missing at least six starts.  Tim Wakefield is still an above average pitcher, eating innings while tossing butterfly balls.

The fifth spot was less steady, shared by either Clay Buchholtz, who was lousy (6.75 ERA), or Justin Masterson, who looks like another ace in the making.

One day, I have to write this up but I happened to notice this.  Every once in a while, Josh Beckett doesn’t have it – gets whacked around right from the get go.  Terry Francona, though, knows that (a) it’s early in the game and (b) Beckett is one of those guys who won’t be happy getting yanked in the first inning.  However, every time Beckett threw 30 or more pitches in the first inning, he would get a tight elbow and then miss a start or two.  I had this theory that I have been using for about, oh, twenty years now that says that we need to stop looking at the total number of pitches thrown (managers start looking to the bullpen as the pitcher reaches 100 pitches) and start looking at pitches thrown in an inning.

I’m going to watch this again this year.  It makes no sense to let any pitcher throw 30 pitches in an inning.  If 100 is bad over six innings, what is 30 pitches in ten minutes?  In a perfect world, I think the max number of pitches someone should throw starts at 28 – and once a pitcher reaches 15, the catcher should go out there and let the pitcher catch his breath.  Then, each inning, I’d drop that number by one, unless he threw 20 pitches in that inning.  So, let’s say Beckett throws 24 pitches in the first, the new max number would drop from 28 to 26 in the second inning.  If he gets to 28, though, get him out of there.  If the pitcher has two innings where he clears 20 pitches, give him an extra day of rest.

My second theory has to do with the amount of time between pitches.  The way most of these guys throw – whipping everything they have into a pitch to get 95 MPH on the gun – they shouldn’t be resting for 30 seconds between pitches.  I think that gets in the way of keeping an arm loose.  As a weightlifter, you don’t do a heavy rep of one, and then rest, and then another heavy rep of one, and then rest, and then another heavy rep of one.  You’d blow out a tendon.  You want smooth, steady movement, without letting momentum force you out of bad mechanics.  I understand that in throwing, momentum is part of getting speed on the ball, but you don’t want to overexert yourself such that it wrecks your momentum.  I would think you want the pitchers to work more quickly – not letting muscles and tendons get cold with every pitch – using a controlled momentum so as not to overwork any one tendon that either provides the thrust or the braking of the movement.

Part of that isn’t the pitcher’s fault.  Some of it is the batter.  If I were pitching to Youkilis, for example, I’d remind the umpire that I don’t want him stepping out and moving all over while I was working.  I’d just get the ball, get my sign (without shaking off the catcher), and fire away.  He can dance after the game, but not while I’m pitching.  And if he complains that I’m working too quickly, he can duck out of the way of my next pitch.  I’ve got a job to do, and that’s to work smoothly, and not sit around while he scares small children with his gyrations.

But I digress.

The bullpen was great – only Mike Timlin was a weak link.  Jonathon Papelbon is a legitimate ace, Hideki Okajima was even more effective in terms of runs allowed, and Manny Delcarmen is solid.  All three were 10 runs better than average.  The long relievers, when Masterson was being used as a starter, were weak but fortunately rarely used.

Again, four solid starters, a solid swing man, and three killers in the bullpen, and you can see why the Red Sox, despite playing in Fenway, was third in runs allowed.

Forecasting 2008:

When you are the best team in baseball, you can’t really move up – but the Red Sox might actually be better in 2009.

Offensively, Big Papi could improve by ten runs.  If Ellsbury improves, and he seemed to be making steps in the right direction by season’s end, that would be another ten runs.  I don’t see Pedroia or Youkilis getting worse, though one or the other could take a little step back.  The key will be getting production out of Lowell when his hip heals.  If not, Youkilis at third and Jeff Bailey at first isn’t a step down.  The other outfielders, Bay and Drew, won’t be better than last year, but Bay might be a bit better defensively.  It would be great if Varitek bounced back, but he’s been declining regularly for years and it’s probably not going to happen.  Still – the offense could be ten to fifteen runs better, and that’s not bad.

Defensively, a full year from Beckett might be worth ten runs.  If newcomer Brad Penny comes back strong, the fifth spot suddenly is very productive.  If not, Justin Masterson is a great option.  Or John Smoltz, who will get to pitch sometime this summer after getting his shoulder rehab done successfully.  I don’t know if Lester and Matsuzaka will stay 30 runs better than average, but they will stay productive if they stay healthy.  Adding Takashi Saito and not throwing Mike Timlin will help, as will adding Ramon Ramirez to the pen.  On paper, this is the best bullpen in baseball.  The net change is going to be slim, but probably a slight improvement over last year.  Say ten runs.  If so, the Red Sox will be in line to win 98 games, outpacing everyone by at least six or seven games, and cruising into the playoffs.

Down on the Farm…

If Boston has a prospect at AAA Pawtuckett, I don’t see it.  The best players, like Bailey and Buchholz and Masterson are already on the major league roster, and the others (Devern Hansack, Charlie Zink) are pushing 30 and still haven’t made it.

The Portland (AA) Sea Dogs features Lars Anderson and Zach Daeges, who both hit a little like Youkilis – decent average, great eye, some power.  Michael Bowden went 9 – 4 with great strikeout and control numbers before moving to AAA.  There’s not a lot of room on the major league roster right now, but if he has one more solid season in AAA, they’ll have to make space for the 22 year old from Winfield, Illinois.

A couple of A ball catchers might make a splash in a couple of years.  At Salem you have Koby Clemens (his father is rather famous in Boston), and Luis Exposito hit pretty well at Greenville.  Expo has the better average and power, but Clemens has a better eye at the plate and, well, he has connections.  Kyle Weiland dominated while pitching for Lowell (low A), good strikeout numbers and few walks.  The rookie from Notre Dame has good tools and should be in either Salem or Portland in 2009.