The best thing the World Series Champion Boston Red Sox did in the off-season was…nothing. Sure, they got involved in the Johan Santana Sweepstakes, and for a while it even looked like they were going to land him. It might have been nice to pick up the best left-hander, maybe even the best pitcher, in baseball. It would have given the Sox arguably the best 1-2 pitchers in all of baseball with Santana and Josh Beckett. But at what cost? The Twins were asking for just too much in return. They wanted pitcher Jon Lester, shortstop prospect Jed Lowrie, and new fan favorite center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury. This was just too much of the Red Sox’ present and future for GM Theo Epstein to trade away.
So, the end result was the Red Sox ended up standing pat with what they had. Which, by the way, isn’t too shabby. This was, after all, the team that won the last World Series. Let’s try something totally unique and not make any changes. Epstein did shore up the pitching rotation by picking up Bartolo Colon (and I use that word figuratively, considering Colon’s size: 5-11, 245) at what may end up being a bargain-basement price of an incentive laden contract. Hopefully, Colon will help the team immensely with Curt Schilling expected to be on the shelf for at least half the season, then again later in the season as the regular rotation starts to tire. Despite Colon’s size, let’s not forget that he is a Cy Young Award winner, and he was no slimmer then.
Last season Colon appeared in only 19 games for the Angels of Southern California due to several stints on the DL for elbow and back problems. He finished with a 6-8 record and a 6.34 ERA and gave up 15 HR and 70 ER. In 2006, he appeared in only 10 games due to an injured shoulder and then ultimately a partially torn rotator cuff. He finished the season in July with a dismal 1-5 record and a 5.11 ERA. He gave up 11 HR and 32 earned runs on his shortened season. If you’re looking for a silver lining, his one win was a complete game shutout. His last good year, the ’05 season, he won the Cy Young with a 21-9 record with a 3.49 ERA. He still gave up the long ball (26), but it was over 222 innings. The Red Sox aren’t looking for any miracles out of the big guy. They just want him to plug some holes where needed and keep the rotation moving along.
Another solid acquisition by the Sox that may have gone under the radar was the pick-up of 1B free agent Sean Casey. This will give manager Terry Francona the flexibility to rest regular first baseman Kevin Youkilis or give third baseman Mike Lowell a break and move Youkilis over to third whenever he needs to. He wouldn’t be giving up anything on offense, either. Last season, playing full time for the Detroit Tigers, Casey batted .296 with 4 HR and 54 RBI. He also had 134 hits, 30 of which were doubles.
Looking at the starters, there are virtually no changes from last season’s championship team. But there are still a couple of major questions going into this season. One of the biggest questions that is facing the team this season is what to do with two very talented center fielders. On one hand they have the incumbent, Coco Crisp. Crisp is one of the better center fielders in baseball. He’s proven again and again that he will go after any ball without any regard for life or limb. Offensively, he rebounded last season from an injury-filled ’06 season and played in 145 games where he hit .268 with a .330 on base pct. and a career high 28 stolen bases.
On the other hand, they have young Mr. Jacoby Ellsbury, who is an absolute jackrabbit on the basepaths and out in the field. He caused quite a stir around Beantown with his late-season hitting (.361 in Sept,) including a 13 game hitting streak where he hit .426 with 3 doubles, 3 HR, 13 RBI and 11 runs. In his 32 Major League games, he has either gotten a hit, been hit, or walked in 29 of them. In the last month of the season, he hit 3 HR, 17 RBI, scored 16 runs, and stole 8 bases, while getting hits in 23 out of 26 games.
Ellsbury slowed down a little in the post-season. In the ALCS against Cleveland he only went 2 for 8 with one stolen base and 3 runs scored. But the lad picked it right up again in the World Series against Colorado where many argued that he could have been the series MVP. He went 7 for 16 (.438) with 3 RBI, 4 doubles, 4 runs scored, and 1 stolen base. Yeah, he created quite a buzz around town this past fall. Trade him? Are you nuts? Not even for the best pitcher in baseball. This guy has a future in this town.
Speaking of the World Series MVP, Mike Lowell gave the fans of Boston quite a scare of his own this past late-fall when he filed for free agency and started looking at other clubs, most notably the New York Yankees. Lowell went with his heart instead of his wallet, something so few do these days, and took less money and less years than other clubs were offering and took a 3-year deal to stay with the Sox and try to win another Championship. According to Seth Levinson, one of his representatives, “This deal was driven solely by Mike’s heart and passion for the fans, his teammates, his manager and the team.”
Lowell finished last season tied for the 7th highest batting average in the AL (.324), 21 HR and 120 RBI (5th in AL). He also 7th in hits (191), and had 37 doubles. By the way, his hits, RBI, and batting average were all career highs, as was his on base pct (.378). His OPS (.879) just missed his career high set in the ’03 season by .002 (.881). Not bad for a guy who was “thrown in” with the trade with the Florida Marlins involving Josh Becket and Hanley Ramirez. I think the Sox got the better of that deal.
While the 73 RBI and 33 stolen bases were the 2nd highest in shortstop Julio Lugo’s career, the .179 batting average he carried into the All-Star break was the worst half of his career. It also called into question why Francona would keep playing him, game after game, when he had a more than capable back-up in Alex Cora. Lugo was able to pick it up in the 2nd half of the season to finish with a .237 average, but it was still far below his split average of a season earlier of .278 (.308 with TB in 73 games, .219 with LAD in 49 games).
Second baseman Dustin Pedroia was the first Red Sox player since Nomar Garciaparra in 1997 to win Rookie of the Year honors. If that wasn’t good enough, he also set a new record for rookie second baseman in batting average (.317) and finished 2nd on the team in both runs (86) and doubles (39). Pedroia had a great ALCS, batting 10-29 (.345) with one HR, 5 RBI, and 8 runs scored. Not to mention a couple of key defensive plays that had as much to do with anything as the Sox making it to the Series.
One of the best moves Francona made a couple of seasons ago was to move Kevin Youkilis from third to first base. Sure, he can play both, but OMG (as my 17-year old daughter would say), can that boy play first base. Between the 2006 All-Star game and the end of the 2007 regular season, he set a new major league record for first baseman by recording zero errors. Over the past two seasons, he has a .998 fielding percentage at the position. And his bat-work wasn’t half-bad either. In 2006, Youk’s first full season (if you believe that), he recorded 159 hits in 147 games (569 at bats) for a .279 batting average. Last season, he improved to 152 hits in 145 games (528 at bats) for a .288 average. There is almost nothing as exciting as hearing “YOOOOOUUUUKKKK” bellowed from all over various stadiums everytime he steps into the on-deck circle then up to the plate. He is truly a fan favorite, wherever the Sox play.
Right fielder J.D. Drew had one of the worst seasons of his career last season. His 11 HR was a career low and while his 64 RBI wasn’t a low for him, it was nowhere near the 100 RBI season he had the year before with the Dodgers. His .270 batting average was the lowest of his career since he batted .252 in the ’02 season. Drew has never come close to his potential as a hitter, and he certainly has potential. His best season was in ’04 with the Braves when he hit 31 HR, 93 RBI and had a .305 batting average. Drew did come alive, however, during the Post-Season where he went 9-for-25 (.360) against the Indians with 6 RBI and 5-for-15 (.333) against Colorado with 2 RBI. After trading Wily Mo Pena last season to the Nationals, the Sox hope Drew has a better year this year.
Manny Ramirez is entering his 15th Major League season, his 8th with the Red Sox. Last season was a definite “off-year” for Manny at the plate. His HR (20) and RBI (88) were both the lowest that they’ve been since 1997 (26 and 88, respectively) and his batting average (.296) was the 2nd lowest it’s been in ten seasons. It was also his least amount of hits (143) since his rookie season. This season, he plans on turning all of that around. According to a recent column on MLB.com, Manny has lost weight, he’s practicing yoga with his uncle, and he has a whole new outlook on life.
“Manny being Manny” may be a thing of the past. Last season his concentration in left field appeared to have improved as well as his overall hustle. His career batting numbers, despite his sometimes lackluster fieldwork, are truly amazing. Prior to last season’s dip, Ramirez went nine consecutive seasons with at least 30 HR, 100 RBI, and a .575 SLG. His 922 RBI since 2000 is second to only Alex Rodriguez (1040). He’s second among active players in career SLG (.593). Albert Pujols is currently a bit ahead of him at .620
But here is the clincher that will make Manny Ramirez a first-time ballot entry for the Hall of Fame: He’s 10 HR shy of joining the illustrious 500 HR Club. Out of all of its eminent members, there are only three that have higher career batting averages than Ramirez (.313). Who are they? First 5 correct responses emailed to me at email@example.com or in post get mentioned in next column.
No Red Sox preview column would be complete without mention of David Ortiz. Although Big Papi had an off-year for him, plagued by injuries to his shoulder and knee, he still finished the season tied 3rd in the AL in HR (35) and 6th in the AL in RBI (117). In each of the past five seasons, Ortiz has at least 30 HR and 100 RBI. There’s no reason to think he won’t make it six seasons in a row. He and Ramirez have become one of the most lethal batting combinations in all of baseball. It’s almost impossible for a pitcher to pitch around one of them because he just has to face the other.
Last season, catcher and team captain Jason Varitek had a somewhat average year at the plate last year. His .255 batting average was a little below his career average of .267 and his 17 HR and 68 RBI were both up from the season before and about what we’ve come to expect. Strangely, Varitek still landed near the top in most statistical categories among AL catchers: 3rd in both RBI and OPS (.787), 4th in HR, runs (57), and SLG (.421), and 7th in hits (111). Not to mention the fact that his on-field presence cannot be ignored. He’s regarded as one of the best catchers in all of baseball as far as calling a game, handling pitchers, and knowing how to move the defense around. In a recent poll among baseball executives as to which current players they see as future managers, Jason Varitek led the list.
The Red Sox pitching staff took a big hit right before Spring Training when Curt Schilling announced that he would miss at least half the season, and maybe even all of it due to shoulder problems. They had just signed Schill to an $8M contract, and they weren’t sure how much of it they were going to get in return. Hence the signing of Bartolo Colon, who, so far is doing far better than anyone has expected in Spring Training. Reportedly, Colon has even hit the 90’s on the radar gun several times for the first time in a couple of years. He may find himself on the regular roster in a couple of weeks if he’s not careful.
Staff ace Josh Beckett gave everyone a bit of a scare at the start of the spring when he stepped off the mound after throwing a couple of warm-up pitches prior to a game holding his lower back. A subsequent MRI showed no real damage and it was determined that it was muscular in nature. Red Sox Nation breathed a huge sigh of relief. Still, he’s not going to make the trip to Japan to start the season against Oakland, nor is he going to make the trip to Oakland to pitch any games there. He’ll probably make his first start in Toronto the following week.
Last season, Beckett very nearly won the AL Cy Young Award. His stats were eerily close to award winner Indians’ hurler C.C. Sabathia:
Beckett: 20-7, 3.27 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 194 SO
Sabathia: 19-7, 3.21 ERA, 1.14 ERA, 209 SO
But here was the rub: Sabathia threw 40 more innings than Beckett. Some say that 40 extra innings may have been the difference in the ALCS when Beckett was on fire and Sabathia was getting crushed by the Sox. All in all, Beckett got the better deal.
Beckett: 14IP, 2-0, 1.93 ERA, 9H, 18K 1BB
Sabathia: 10.1IP, 0-2, 10.45 ERA, 17H, 9K, 7BB
Japanese phenom Daisuke Matsuzaka was not the “lights out” pitcher that he was in his native land, but he still had a pretty good rookie season. He led all rookie pitchers in wins, ERA, and strikeouts (15-12, 4.40 ERA, 201K). Now that all the fanfare has died down and he can concentrate on his pitching, he’s expected to increase his winning total a bit this season.
Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield comes into this season, his 14th season with the Sox and 16th overall, without his good friend and personal catcher, Doug Mirabelli. Mirabelli was released by the team on March 13th, much to Wakefield’s dismay. Not only are they very close friends, but Mirabelli is one of the few people in baseball who know how to catch that crazy knuckleball that’s been described as “a butterfly in a windstorm”. Wakefield will have to depend on new catcher Kevin Cash to catch for him. Last season Wakefield went 17-12 with a 4.76 ERA.
Lefty Jon Lester worked his way back up through the Sox farm system after beating Lymphoma. He worked so hard that by the second half of last season, he was back on the big league roster. He finished the year 4-0 with a 4.57 ERA. The Sox expect big things out of him this season.
Closer Jonathon Paplebon had an amazing 2006 season where he finished 2nd in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting. He continued that tremendous play last season when he converted 37 out of 40 save opportunities and had an ERA of 1.85 with a batters average against of .219 with a WHIP of 0.77. In the Post-Season he was even more dominant. Against the Indians in the ALCS he appeared in 3 games, converted 1 for 1 save opportunity, and gave up 3 hits and zero runs in 5 innings pitched. In the World Series against Colorado he appeared in 3 games, had 3 saves in 3 chances, and gave up 2 hits and 0 runs in 4.1 innings pitched. Yeah, that’s 0.00 ERA in case you can’t do the math.
The Red Sox could very easily win the World Series again this season. They have the chemistry and virtually the same players in place from last season. They didn’t make the same mistake as they did in 2005 when they let key members of the team go after winning the ’04 World Series. Sure, there are very serious contenders out there, Detroit, Cleveland, the Angels of Southern CA, etc…but barring injury there’s no reason for Red Sox Nation not to go into the 2008 season with real hope and not just dreams as in seasons past.