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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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 Top AL Shortstops

Alexei Ramirez – CHI (76.7 Runs Created, 32.1 Runs Saved = 108.8 Total Runs Production)

After an odd year where his bat fell and he couldn’t hit any doubles, Ramirez had a stunning 2010 season.  He slugged .431 thanks to 18 homers and 29 doubles, his batting average was a more than acceptable .282, and he scored 83 runs.  His glove work was spectacular, really – a ball magnet who also helped on the double play.  He earned the new contract…

Cliff Pennington – OAK (66.6 Runs Created, 26.9 Runs Saved = 93.5 Total Runs Production)

Would you have believed he was the second best shortstop in the AL?  His bat is marginally better than average, he played a lot of games, and his defensive range is stunning. His replacing Marco Scutaro was one of many reasons the As moved up in the standings last year.

Elvis Andrus – TEX (63.8 Runs Created, 26.0 Runs Saved = 89.8 Total Runs Production)

Has NO power, but slaps a few singles, draws some walks, and can scoot a little around the bases.  Oh – and he’s probably the best glove in the AL.  Robbed of the gold glove again, but will start winning it probably this year.  The voters are weird about these things…

Alex Gonzalez – TOR/ATL (77.3 Runs Created, -0.4 Runs Saved = 76.9 Total Runs Production)

The wind was blowing out, huh?  Had a great first half, which allowed Toronto to trade him while his stock was up to Atlanta for Escobar.  I always liked him when he was a Marlin – did a lot of good things.  Still can play enough, but isn’t a long term solution for anyone anymore and he can’t seem to stay somewhere longer than a year…

Yunel Escobar – ATL/TOR (53.5 Runs Created, 18.3 Runs Saved = 71.8 Total Runs Production)

Struggled mightily last year with Atlanta, came to Toronto and started to show signs of life.  I think he’ll rebound in 2011 and is going to be worth a late round draft pick in your fantasy leagues.

Jhonny Peralta – CLE/DET (69.7 Runs Created, 2.1 Runs Saved = 71.8 Total Runs Production)

Moved to third base in Cleveland, then brought to Detroit in hopes that he could solve the shortstop problem and keep Detroit in contention down the stretch.  He’s really not a very good defensive shortstop (he was a pretty good third baseman, though), but there are plenty of guys who are worse than him still getting chances to play.  And Peralta can put a few runs on the board, too.

Yuniesky Betancourt – KC (65.3 Runs Created, 5.3 Runs Created = 70.6 Total Runs Production)

He actually had a pretty good season on the surface…  Some power, he cut down the strikeouts, and fielded his position pretty well.  I can’t tell if anyone thinks he’s a championship type player, but he isn’t hurting you either.

Reid Brignac – TB (40.3 Runs Created, 14.3 Runs Saved = 54.6 Total Runs Production)

Hits like Ben Zobrist and played well enough in the field to allow Jason Bartlett to hit the road in 2011.  The Rays will be just fine.

Derek Jeter – NYY (80.0 Runs Created, -27.4 Runs Saved = 52.6 Total Runs Production)

Was the top shortstop last year because his offense made up for his total lack of defensive range.  He got a lot of at bats at the top of the Yankee order but was a league average hitter – which knocked him well down the ladder in 2010.  He can bounce back a little offensively, but he may not have a position with this team – except as captain.  The Yankees were in a tough position in dealing with Jeter, who really is a superstar as a personality, but no longer as a player.  Realistically, he only has a couple of years left unless he bounces back a lot in 2011.

Erick Aybar – LAA (62.0 Runs Created, -9.7 Runs Created = 52.3 Total Runs Production)

Not his best season –  has little power, doesn’t get on base or slap a bunch of singles, and didn’t play his best shortstop last year.  Can do better, and will have to if the Angels want to win the division again.

Ramon Santiago – DET (36.0 Runs Created, 11.6 Runs Saved = 47.6 Total Runs Production)

Four players got time here, including Adam Everett (some glove, no bat at all) and Danny Worth (not yet ready for the majors).  Santiago was nearly effective in the role last year, but it was a fluke and he really isn’t the answer.

Jason Bartlett – TB (61.6 Runs Created, -16.4 Runs Saved = 45.2 Total Runs Production)

No longer the rangy shortstop of two or three years ago, still contributes with the bat even when his average slips to .250.  Hits a few doubles, gets on base, and can still run smartly around the paths.

Marco Scutaro – BOS (79.9 Runs Created, -35.1 Runs Saved = 44.8 Total Runs Production)

That didn’t work out, did it…  Scutaro wasn’t blessed with great range when he was younger, and after signing the big deal in Boston, he really fell off the map defensively.  Offensively, he’s still pretty good, with a decent eye and a bit of power.  But if you are looking for reasons that the Boston pitching struggled in 2010 it starts right here.

J.J. Hardy – MIN (44.3 Runs Created, 0.2 Runs Saved = 44.5 Total Runs Production)

Only played 101 games, but was reasonably productive when he played.  Not appreciably different from Betancourt – just less playing time.  Alexi Casilla is currently listed as the new starter – a slap hitter with some range, but to be honest – might be a step down from Hardy.

Josh Wilson – SEA (33.5 Runs Created, 8.9 Runs Created = 42.4 Total Runs Production)

Does a good Jack Wilson impersonation – a bit less offense and a bit less defense (a little less range, a bit more error prone), but also a bit younger.  Not the answer without a serious upgrade in his output, which isn’t likely, and will have to be replaced if Seattle is going to compete.

Asdrubal Cabrera – CLE (45.6 Runs Created, -9.5 Runs Saved = 36.1 Total Runs Production)

Not a championship level player at this level – unlike his solid 2009.  In fact, Jason Donald made more plays per nine (though he committed a few more errors), and is a bit stronger offensively.  (I discuss Donald with the second basemen…)  Cabrera had a tolerable batting average, but – again – if you aren’t going to contribute more than 60 runs with the bat, your glove has to be solid – and Cabrera’s has not consistently been above average.

Jack Wilson – SEA (19.4 Runs Created, 12.9 Runs Saved = 32.3 Total Runs Production)

His best days are behind him; he can’t hit as well, can’t stay healthy, but he still does play a mean shortstop.

Cesar Izturis – BAL (35.0 Runs Created, -9.1 Runs Saved = 25.9 Total Runs Production)

If you’re going to hit like Mark Belanger, you had better field like him, too.  Izturis disappointed, putting up just 2.5 runs per 27 outs thanks to a .230 batting average and just 15 extra base hits in 150 games.  Now a utility player, with J.J. Hardy moving in to play short.

2010 AL Gold Glove and Dirty Brick Award Winners

My fielding ranking system is a method that looks at the number of plays made per 800 balls in play.  In effect, if someone makes one play more than another person at the same position, he reduces the batting average of the hitter by a point.  The best fielders occasionally make a run at 15 plays per 800 balls in play more than average, the worst can go 15 in the other direction.  Then, I convert those plays made into runs saved (or not saved, if the number is negative) based on the types of hits allowed on balls hit toward that fielder.  I also convert double plays and errors into runs based on Pete Palmer formulas found in the old Total Baseball encyclopedias.

Does it work?  Actually – yes.  It passes the eye ball test (Elvis Andrus, when you watch him, looks like an impressive fielder), and the system is comparable to other methodologies.  I’ve used this for about ten years, when I was first trying to rate fielders to make player cards for the old Superstar Baseball board game.

I try to remove biases for groundball/flyball tendencies, and for lefty/righty balls in play.  If there is one position where I am always concerned, it’s first base because much of that is based on the rest of the infield – so I essentially remove infield assists from the first baseman’s putout total.  Even with that, there is usually a greater range between the best and worst fielders.  However, after doing this for years, I have reached the conclusion that the reason for this has more to do with the fact that the worst fielders are, indeed, the least mobile athletes on the field and if you get someone at first base who is young and still fleet of foot, that person is going to make GOBS more plays than a big lumbering first baseman whose first move is to start heading to first to catch a throw on almost any ball hit to his right.

Mighty Casey generally doesn’t rank pitchers individually, but the best team in this regard was probably Cleveland.  Cleveland pitchers had a positive ratio of double plays to errors (19/13, where the league pitchers participated in 180 DPs and made 181 errors) and also handled about 5 chances more than the average team per 800 balls in play.  The worst was easily Detroit (17 DPs, 18 errors, 6.4 plays below average per 800 balls in play).

I also rank catchers differently, choosing to score them as a team.  There are seven categories for which a team of catchers could be graded:  ERA, Winning Percentage, SB%, Fielding Percentage on plays not including strikeouts, Mistakes per Game (passed balls, errors), Plays Made per Game (or Mobility), Other Assists per Game (not including Caught Stealing).  The catchers get a point for each category in which they are above the league average, and lose a point if below league average.  The highest score, theoretically, is seven and the lowest would be -7.  Nobody was that good, nor that bad.

Catcher:

Toronto had the best rankings, being above average in six categories and dead even on Mobility.  John Buck did the yeoman’s share of the work, but his backup Jose Molina was also exceptional against the run, tossing out 15 of 34 runners.  That being said, I don’t think that John Buck is the best catcher in the AL, it’s Joe Mauer.  But the rankings say that Toronto’s catchers held their own collectively.

Behind Toronto, the White Sox scored at positive four, failing only in mobility categories, and then a tie between Boston, Detroit, and Minnesota at positive three.

The worst catching was a toss up between three teams that all scored at -3: Seattle, Los Angeles, and Kansas City.

First Base:

For the first time in several years, the stats matched the reputation.  Mark Teixeira earns the nod, saving his team nearly 32 runs with his range and ability to avoid errors and turn double plays.  I was surprised at how good Ty Wigginton was, showing even better range, but then again – he’s an infielder moving over to first – and frequently those guys are used to straying as far as possible to get grounders where many first basemen will give up on balls to the right and let the second sacker get them while moving to first base.

I’m not totally certain that Teixeira would have won the award had Kendry Morales not gotten hurt.  Morales, in just 51 games, had a slightly higher range and was on pace to save just as many runs as Big Tex.  Two others who didn’t get 1000 innings at the position also scored well here – Kevin Youkilis and rookie Justin Smoak.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Mark Teixeira    1291.2    10.2    31.7
Ty Wigginton    787    12.5    18.7
Justin Smoak    807.2    10.3    17.5

The Dirty Brick goes to Cleveland’s Matt LaPorta, whose poor range didn’t help a season where his bat wasn’t very strong – negating half of the runs he created offensively.  The other two shouldn’t be a surprise.  Miguel Cabrera is looking less and less lean, and Mike Napoli is a catcher playing first.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Matt LaPorta    791.1    -13.5    -25.0
Miguel Cabrera    1285.1    -5.6    -19.9
Mike Napoli    586.1    -12.7    -19.2

Dishonorable mentions go out to Daric Barton, Justin Morneau (on pace to match LaPorta, but he missed half the season), and Paul Konerko…

Second Base:

Robinson Cano had an amazing year with the bat, and was equally strong with the glove.  His range factor was nearly 11 plays per 800 balls in play more than average, and he made just 3 errors while turning 114 double plays.  As such, he not only saved his team 26 runs just by eliminating hits, but he took more than seven more runs off the board by avoiding errors and helping with the DP – the most at his position by far.  Orlando Hudson provided value for Minnesota, and KC’s Mike Aviles returned and made a positive contribution with the bat and glove, too.  Regular leaders here, Ian Kinsler and Mark Ellis, fell back as both missed about 500 innings at the position due to injuries.  Honorable mention to Sean Rodriguez at Tampa who nearly made the list in just a half season of innings, and to Gordon Beckham who switched over from third and was solid for the White Sox.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Robinson Cano    1393.1    10.9    33.3
Orlando Hudson    1067    7.4    16.3
Mike Aviles    765.2    14.8    15.8

The Dirty Brick goes to a position switch as well – Seattle’s Chone Figgins.  He was a decided bust at second base, making 19 errors and making an adjusted 4.11 plays per nine – 11.9 plays fewer per 800 balls in play than the average second baseman.  Seattle signed him as a third baseman, switched him over to let Jose Lopez play third.  Thankfully, Lopez was fantastic over there – else it would have been a total loss…  Brian Roberts, a regular to the brick list, was abhorrant in a shade under 500 innings, 20 plays worse than the average second sacker per 800 balls in play, and Aaron Hill took his struggles at the plate with him to the field.  Dishonorable mentions to supposed glove man Chris Getz (-7 runs) and rookie Scott Sizemore (-11 runs in must 314 innings).  So much for replacing Placido Polanco…

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Chone Figgins    1417    -11.9    -33.3
Brian Roberts    498.1    -19.5    -17.1
Aaron Hill    1188    -6.1    -14.5

Third Base:

As poorly as Chone Figgins played second base for Seattle, converted third baseman Jose Lopez was a decided success.  His range was superior, and he didn’t disappoint in terms of errors or double plays.  Evan Longoria remained in the 30 runs saved range – a remarkable player, really – and Adrian Beltre continued to field his position remarkably well.  An honorable mention goes to the reluctantly converted Miguel Tejada, who had greater range than even Longoria, but played just 808 innings before being shipped out.  Nick Punto played an out shy of 345 innings there without making an error…

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Jose Lopez    1252.2    13.3    36.9
Evan Longoria    1330.2    8.7    31.1
Adrian Beltre    1342.2    6.6    19.0

The dirty brick goes to a part-timer, Royals infielder Wilson Betemit, who must have had ball repellant on him, making barely 2.2 plays per nine and having a range about 17 plays worse than the average player per 800 balls in play.  Another halftimer, Omar Vizquel got close to 600 unnecessary innings at third base for the White Sox – he’s an ancient shortstop who hadn’t played there for his entire career.  You want to know why the White Sox lost the division – look right here.  Of the regulars, Michael Young was, again, a lousy third baseman – but he did make improvement over last year.  No wonder he volunteered to be a DH.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Wilson Betemit    455.1    -16.9    -18.4
Omar Vizquel    582.1    -19.4    -17.4
Michael Young    1370.1    -3.3    -10.3

Shortstop:

Nobody was more surprised to see this than I, but Alexei Ramirez had a remarkable year at shortstop, showing great range – as good as he ever played.  He was one assist shy of 500 – a great season by any measurement.  Cliff Pennington helped out the young A’s staff by making his share of plays, and Elvis Andrus remained among the best fielders of his time.  Seattle’s Jack and Josh Wilson, if combined, saved Seattle more than 20 runs.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Alexei Ramirez    1376.2    12.8    32.1
Cliff Pennington   1304.2    12.0    26.9
Elvis Andrus    1291.1    10.3    26.0

At least the reigning gold glove winner didn’t finish last, but he did have the worst range amongst the regulars.  This year, Marco Scutaro’s 18 errors and only contributing to 57 double plays made up for making slightly more plays than Derek Jeter, who had just 6 errors and 94 double plays.  The 11 run swing gave the brick to Scutaro, who killed the Red Sox infield.  He’ll need to be replaced soon if the Sox want to be competitive.  Third place went to Jason Bartlett who no longer looks like the slick fielding shortstop he was before all the ankle injuries in 2009.  Thankfully for the Rays, they have other options for 2011.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Marco Scutaro    1166    -13.2    -32.0
Derek Jeter    1303.2    -15.0    -27.4
Jason Bartlett    1104    -8.9    -16.4

Left Field:

A centerfielder playing left who also had his best offensive season heading into free agency, the gold glove goes to the perennially amazing Carl Crawford.  Crawford was the only left fielder to save his team more than 10 runs, but only because the next closest guys played too few innings to save enough runs.  Only three left fielders played 1000 innings there in 2010.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Carl Crawford    1260.1    4.2    13.1
Michael Saunders   647.2    6.3    9.6
Alex Gordon    486.1    7.6    9.0

One of those three was Dirty Brick winner Delmon Young, who abused left field until he cost the Twins 25 runs out there.  At least he found his bat last year…  Fred Lewis played a disinterested left field for Toronto, and Daniel Nava was the Boston representative of the list of bad outfielders who played between 200 and 500 innings in the AL.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Delmon Young    1277.2    -8.5    -25.0
Fred Lewis    726.1    -7.8    -13.2
Daniel Nava    380    -12.9    -10.4

Center Field:

The Angels are rightfully excited about the defensive capabilities of their new centerfielder, Peter Bourjos.  The man can fly – reminding you of a young Gary Pettis.  He can throw, too – ten assists in what amounts to a third of a season in the field.  This allows Los Angeles to move Torii Hunter, who is now a slightly below average centerfielder to right (where he was really good), and makes room for another below average centerfielder, Vernon Wells, to move to left.  As it was, there isn’t a whole lot of difference amongst the starting centerfielders, except for Bourjos, in terms of overall range.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Peter Bourjos    449.2    12.0    12.4
Adam Jones    1298.1    2.9    7.9
Alex Rios    1246.2    2.8    7.1

The Dirty Brick goes to a guy whose body and game are falling apart, and that’s Grady Sizemore.  One hopes he can heal and start to put his career back in the right direction, but it’s probably going to have to be at a different position.  Sadly, his replacement (Brantley) doesn’t look much better, and among those who played at least 1000 innings, Vernon Wells, who was healthier than in recent seasons, is still the worst of the lot (costing his team about 7.5 runs).  Thankfully, he’s done as a centerfielder.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Grady Sizemore    269.2    -17.5    -11.2
Michael Brantley562.2    -6.9    -9.4
Gregor Blanco    347    -11.2    -8.4

Right Field:

For the second year in a row, Nelson Cruz was a remarkable outfielder, though he threw hardly anybody out from right.  I was surprised to see how well Nick Swisher did, but that could be because opponents may allow more lefties to bat in the new Yankee Stadium.  Honorable mention to Ben Zobrist, who has to play everywhere but looked solid enough in right.  I wonder if there isn’t some form of statistical bias in Texas, though, as even Vlad Guerrero showed up as above average in his 118.2 innings there.  Not WAY above average, but slightly.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Nelson Cruz    799.1    15.2    25.9
Nick Swisher    1102    6.1    14.5
Jason Repko    226    16.4    9.3

The Dirty Brick goes to the surprise hammer of the league – Jose Bautista, followed by a bunch of guys who are either ill-suited for the outfield, aging, our out of position (David DeJesus).  The worst right fielder who played at least 1000 innings was Shin-Soo Choo, who barely edged out the immobile Nick Markakis and the aging J.D. Drew, and were all between -7.02 and -7.17 runs in the wrong direction.

Player        Innings    Range    Runs Saved
Jose Bautista    982.2    -6.8    -14.6
Carlos Quentin    897    -5.3    -13.6
Bobby Abreu    805.2    -3.4    -7.9

2010 Season Forecast: Toronto Blue Jays

Last Five Years:

2009: 75 – 87 (4th AL East)
2008: 86 – 76
2007: 83 – 79
2006: 87 – 75
2005: 80 – 82

Runs Scored: 798 (6th AL)
Runs Allowed: 771 (12th AL)

Having outscored their opponents by 27 runs, the Jays should have won about 84 games.  This isn’t the first time that Toronto has won fewer games than one might expect based on their runs scored and allowed data.  In 2008, they were ten games over .500 with essentially the same ratio of runs as the World Series bound Tampa Rays.  In 2007, the Jays scored one fewer run than they allowed in road games, but lost 47 of 81 games.  And that 2005 club finished under .500 despite outscoring their opponents by 70 runs.  That’s four of five years that Roy Halliday thinks that he should have been on a contending team – only to fall by the wayside.

Who should be held responsible for this?

Season Recap:

Most teams had the Jays landing in fourth place in the prediction category, but most of us figured it would have been more like 85 wins.

The Jays got off to a GREAT start.  It wasn’t long before Toronto, led by Halliday, Scott Richmond, and Ricky Romero, were running off and looking like they would be a force in the AL Beast.  After sweeping the Chicago White Sox on May 18, Toronto hit a SLUMP – all CAPS because they lost nine straight, six to Boston and Baltimore.  Rumors that Halliday was to be traded starting dominating the news – when it wasn’t some member of the rotation going down to injury – and I think the Jays got horribly distracted.

I know this – the team’s OBP every month was about .333 except July, when they must have started swinging at everything.  The OBP in July was .298.  So, even though the pitching staff was still getting the job done (a 3.81 ERA, best of the year), they couldn’t win, and it was July that put them out.

At this point, the Jays lost a lot – killing off the season as July started and finally bottoming out after reaching fifteen below .500 in early September.  Halliday never got traded and, in fact, once the team figured out they had better just enjoy being a team the rest of the way, the team had a winning September when it didn’t matter.

Pitching:

Roy Halliday was marvelous – 17 – 10 with a 2.50 ERA and saving his club 47 runs more than average pitching would have provided.  Ricky Romero finished with 13 wins and was about 8.5 runs better than average in 178 innings.  Scott Richmond lost 11 of his last 15 decisions, costing his team 14.5 runs, and then hit the DL where he’ll likely miss most of 2010.  Brian Tallett got 160 innings and his control got the best of him.  Brett Cecil got 17 starts, had a winning record, but seemed very hittable (5.30 ERA, 17 homers and 116 hits in 93.1 innings).

On the other hand, Marc Rzepczynski proved a potential rotation player with 11 decent enough starts – and hopefully can build on that for 2010.

In the bullpen, a closer could not keep a job.  B.J. Ryan wasn’t worthy – 6.53 ERA – and was shipped out.  Scott Downs hung in there for a while with 9 saves and decent numbers (good control); Jason Frasor was even better and eventually earned the closer role for good.

No worries – for 2010, the pitching staff will look different with Halliday having been shipped to Philadelphia for a boatload of prospects.

First, Shaun Marcum returns from an injury forced exile to take over the front of the rotation.  I like Marcum – he’s a fine pitcher, but he’s no Halliday.  Romero returns, as does Rzepczynski and Tallett, with former Mariner Brandon Morrow joining the rotation to take the ball in the first inning every fifth turn.

Marcum has always been an above average pitcher – but not 40 runs above average.  And Morrow has never been dependable as a starter.  Even Tallett is a converted reliever – which means his arm hasn’t been abused, but he needs to find consistency this year.

The bullpen starts with Frasor, but adds Kevin Gregg from the Cubs.  Scott Downs returns and will help.  Jesse Carlson and Jeremy Accardo round out the top five.  Gregg is inconsistent, too – but he’ll be a nice eighth inning option.  There is more depth here than in, say Baltimore.  I like Baltimore’s rotation better, though.

Looking forward, I see this unit performing about 50 runs worse than the 2009 rotation – mostly because Halliday won’t be there.  That puts a lot of pressure on the bullpen, and the sixth and seventh guys.  And THOSE aren’t the guys you want pitching important innings.

Catching:

Rod Barajas provided solid catching, but couldn’t get his batting average over .230.  Still – he had 19 homers and 71 RBI.  Essentially, the Blue Jays replaced him with the same guy – former Royal John Buck.  Buck can get the same numbers at the plate but probably not behind it; Buck isn’t as good as Barajas against the run.

Infield:

Lyle Overbay didn’t seem as mobile with the glove, and with a falloff at the plate, he was a bit of a problem.  Overbay ISN’T a bad first baseman.  Usually he makes up for his lack of power with fantastic fielding.  If he’s not going to be a gold glove winner, then his bat – still above average – looks pedestrian when compared to others.  His backup, Kevin Millar, didn’t help at the plate or in the field.

Aaron Hill came back from concussion issues to give head injuries to the baseball, hitting 36 homers and another 37 doubles.  Hill was nearly an MVP candidate.

Marco Scutaro was an amazing leadoff hitter, getting on base at a .383 clip and scoring 100 runs.  Backup infielder John McDonald still fields well, but his hitting is pedestrian.

The Jays started with Scott Rolen, who hit .320 (who saw THAT?), but was traded to Cincinnati for Edwin Encarnacion – who didn’t.  Rolen was traded because he was expensive, but at least he was producing.

For 2010, the infield still has Overbay and Hill, but the other side of the infield features Alex Gonzalez, who has little range and a fading bat.  He WON’T generate 100 runs of offense, and he’ll be worse in the field than the below average Scutaro.  Rolen, until the injuries, was know for being dependable – something Encarnacion is not – and he won’t ever hit like Rolen, either.  I can’t see Hill repeating, Overbay may slide some more, and the other two will KILL the Blue Jays offense.  Look for a 80 run decline offensively and a 20 run decline defensively.

Outfield:

Yes – Alex Rios was disappointing when considering his pay and his production.  However, Rios is an above average fielder and hitter.  He’s gone.  Jose Bautista, who was nearly as productive and cheaper, will get the nod in right field.  It’s no better than a wash going forward.

Vernon Wells remains in centerfield.  He’s old, has had below average range for half a decade now, and will have hamstring problems until he’s 100.  He’s no longer capable of 20 homers and doesn’t get on base much.  He also has a contract nobody else wants.

In left, Adam Lind will be a DH (whew!) but Travis Snider needs to step forward.  There’s a lot to like – he has power, but needs to make better contact.  At least he’ll get to more fly balls than Lind.  Randy Ruiz, a slugger, will also get some more at bats after hitting ten homers in 115 at bats last year.  Like Lind, Ruiz is immobile in the field, too.

I don’t think Bautista is a long-term answer and if Wells go down (and he will), they’ll need to get Phillies prospect Michael Taylor to the big leagues.

Prospects:

First, you have the prospects that the Jays got in the Halliday trade.  one, catcher Travis D’Arnaud, will make the club in a couple of years.  Pitcher Kyle Drabek will be allowed to find his feet in AAA before moving up to the bigs later this year.  And Michael Taylor isn’t listed on the 25 man roster, so he’ll get some time to prove his worth before getting the call.

Looking at AAA Las Vegas, you have to remember that to be a prospect, you have to hit about .330 – like Travis Snider.  J.P. Arencibia would be a better power prospect if he hit .336, but he hit .236 instead.  Other than Snider, who should be ready, nobody else is a prospect for the lineup.  For the same reason, pitching prospects never look so good – so you want good control and an ERA under 4.00 and there just aren’t that many who fit that bill.  Dirk Hayhurst might be close – but he starts 2010 on the 60-day DL after surgery on his right shoulder.  Maybe he can come back in 2011.

At AA New Hampshire, Reidier Gonzalez showed control but not enough strikeouts in his 93 innings.  Fabio Castro, a tiny lefty who has seven years with four franchises, looked okay but doesn’t have a strikeout pitch that he can depend on as he moves up and faces AAA hitting.

The best hitter at AA was Brian Dopirak, who hasn’t yet made it to the bigs but is starting to look like he might hit about .270 with some power if he gets there.  Dopirak hit .308 with 19 homers in New Hampshire, then .330 with 8 homers in Las Vegas.  With Overbay around, he won’t get a chance without someone getting hurt.

A+ Dunedin featured Darin Mastroianni, a speedy centerfielder who can steal bases (70 in Dunedin and New Hampshire last year) and finally started to look like a hitter last year.  He needs to keep drawing more walks to look like a Brett Butler type, but he made progress on that last year, too – 76 in 131 games.  Pitcher Bobby Bell had 112 Ks and just 22 walks in 96.1 innings, but the real ace might be reliever Tim Collins, a teenager last year, who had 99 Ks and 29 walks in just 64.2 innings.  That’s CLOSER material, and I’d name him as the most exciting prospect on the farm.

The Lansing Lugnuts featured a few young arms with promise.  Of them, I like Henderson Alvarez, who walked just 19 in 124.1 innings and led his team in Innings, ERA and wins.

Forecast:

Let the rebuilding begin.  We’re talking about a team that is going to lose 100 runs of offense, probably, and another 80 runs defensively.  Toronto will likely lose 95 games and possibly 100, costing Cito Gaston his sanity if not his job.  The system says 65.5 wins, but I’m rounding down in this division.

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.

Top AL Shortstops in 2009

Derek Jeter (NYY):  Dog his defense, but the guy produces runs.  Jeter gets on base, occasionally swats for power, runs the bases well, and despite his well below average range, ranks as the best shorstop in the AL.  And he’s the oldest guy at the position.  Enjoy it while it lasts.  (128.9 Runs Produced, -14.2 Runs Saved = 114.67 Total Run Production)

Jason Bartlett (TB):  His ankle cut into his defensive range – where in 2008 he was WELL above average, he was slightly below average in 2009.  On the other hand, he hit .320 and smacked 14 homers and looked like a poor man’s Derek Jeter.  A very valuable player.  (102.6 Runs Created, -8.7 Runs Saved = 94.00 Total Run Production)

Elvis Andrus (TEX):  As a rookie, he was tolerable offensively – just six homers, a .267 bat, and not too many walks.  He did help by stealing bases – 33 of them.  But Andrus was the best infield glove imaginable.  If he can show growth as a hitter and keep his enormous advantage defensively, we’re talking about a young Omar Vizquel here.  Jeter was worth double the offense, but Andrus made up nearly 45 runs with the glove.  (62.6 Runs Created, 30.8 Runs Saved = 93.38 Total Run Production)

Marco Scutaro (TOR):  Had a season that was just out of whack with his career and turned it into a nice paycheck from Boston.  The big improvement was plate discipline, but he also added power (12 more doubles, 5 more homers) and ran more often.  He’s better than what Boston had the last couple of years, but I won’t be surprised if he falls back to the middle of the pack in 2010.  (96.0 Runs Created, -6.5 Runs Saved = 89.54 Total Run Production)

The guy slated to take Scutaro’s slot is Alex Gonzalez – who has lost a step, doesn’t get on base, barely hits .250 with middling power, and won’t be here when the season is over, I bet.  John McDonald, a good glove and three years older than A-Gone, will back him up.  If Tyler Pastornicky or Ryan Goins are legitimate prospects, there is nothing in their path to get to the majors…

Erick Aybar (LAA):  Good batting average and a few doubles and a plus fielder.  Would like a little more patience at the plate, but you can live with the total package at this level.  Does he have another notch to climb?  (77.9 Runs Created, 11.1 Runs Saved = 88.94 Total Run Production)

Asdrubal Cabrera (CLE):  A slight shade better offensively than Aybar – but essentially the same guy.  But, he’s not in Aybar’s league as a fielder (few are).  Like Aybar, is still young enough to take a step forward.  (94.0 Runs Created, -5.5 Runs Saved, 88.55 Total Run Production)

Orlando Cabrera (OAK/MIN):  Played well enough in Oakland – then moved to Minnesota to finish the season and fill a void there.  Now with Cincinnati – Cabrera is a valuable commodity.  He’s not the great hitter anymore, but he still can field well enough.  He’s NOT a franchise changer, but he still has skills.  J.J. Hardy has the job now, and he won’t be this good. (83.1 Runs Created, 4.4 Runs Saved, 87.50 Total Run Production)

Adam Kennedy would be listed here…  He’s not a shortstop but played a lot of innings all over the infield for Oakland…

Alexei Ramirez (CWS):  He’s got some pop in the bat, and his glove isn’t horrible but not top notch.  The Sox don’t have a better option at this point, but Ramirez could easily play a few more games and fill out his stats.  For example – he had 15 homers, but just 14 doubles…  14/19 as a basestealer, too.  He could sneak up the list in 2010.  (71.7 Runs Created, -6 Runs Saved = 65.66 Total Run Production)

Jack Wilson (SEA):  Came over from Pittsburgh – a decent glove who occasionally contributes with the bat.  If he’s healthy, he’ll be better than Betancourt – but that’s not saying much these days.  (44.2 Runs Created, 13.2 Runs Saved = 57.6 Total Run Production)

Cesar Izturis (BAL):  Great glove, no hit guy in the tradition of Mark Belanger.  (38.6 Runs Created, 15.7 Runs Saved = 54.25 Total Run Production)

Yuniesky Betancourt (KC):  Seattle discarded Betancourt after a rather disinterested start; the Royals got a bit more of the same.  (45.4 Runs Created, 3.17 Runs Saved = 48.57 Total Run Production

Cliff Pennington (OAK):  Took over when Cabrera was moved out, Pennington hit better and held his own as a fielder.  I think he could hold the job regularly and contribute to wins for the A’s, but I can’t tell if Oakland agrees with me.  He’s better than Betancourt – just didn’t play enough to rate higher.  (31.5 Runs Created, 5.5 Runs Saved = 36.96 Total Run Production)

Ramon Santiago or Adam Everett (DET):  Combined, weren’t worth 60 runs.  Everett lost his range and his bat.  Santiago is a step ahead of Everett at this point.  If this is Detroit’s idea of being competitive for 2010, I don’t see it.  A full season of Santiago wouldn’t be as good as Alexei Ramirez production…  (It’s better than a full year of Adam Everett, but that’s not saying much.)

Nick Green (BOS):  The guy with the most innings and the highest rating (a lot of ugly numbers) – the job now belongs to Marco Scutaro.