2007 Team Preview: Boston Red Sox

2006 W-L: 86-76 (3rd place)

2006 Pythag: 81-81

2007 Depth Chart

Coming:

Daisuke Matsuzaka, J.D. Drew, Julio Lugo, Joel Pineiro, Brendan Donnelly, J.C. Romero, Nick DeBarr

Going:

Mark Loretta, Alex Gonzalez, Trot Nixon, Javy Lopez, Keith Foulke, Lenny DiNardo

The Red Sox In a Nutshell:

In Theo Epstein's tenure in Boston, the Red Sox have taken their share of risks.  Those risks have paid off handsomely, but also (when combined with some serious bad luck) resulted in a disastrous 2006.  86 wins isn't too terrible for an off-year, but allowing more runs than you score is never a recipe for success.  In order to compete with the Yankees, Boston had to reload: one Matsuzaka, one Drew, and one Lugo later, it's done, and once again the Red Sox have built an extreme high-variance, high-upside team.

Offense:

For a team known for their juggernaut-type offense, last year's Red Sox were not very juggernaut-like.  Sure, Manny and Papi hit like Manny and Papi, and Mike Lowell gave the group a nice boost, but there were plenty of laggards.

Jason Varitek OPS'd only 725, while Alex Gonzalez's OBP was an Alex Gonzalez-like 299.  Coco Crisp barely cracked an OPS of 700, and while Trot Nixon provided his usual solid on-base skills, his injuries limited him to a 394 slugging percentage.  Any one of those things is survivable, but it's a whole lot of gaps in the armor of a powerhouse offense.

$100+ million later, many of those problems are solved.  Replacing Nixon and friends in right is J.D. Drew, who ZiPS projects for 266/383/452--not exactly a superstar at a corner position, but couple with better defense than you get from the likes of Wily Mo Pena and Eric Hinske, a major upgrade.  Drew is at the core of this year's high-variance approach: I'm sure the Red Sox know more than I do about Drew's health, but the fact that we have to discuss it indicates that there's plenty of risk in trusting him for corner-quality production.

The most dramatic improvement should be at shortstop.  A-Gon and others combined for a 250/306/368 line last year, while Julio Lugo projects (via ZiPS) for 292/355/407.  Again, that's not the single thing that'll turn a 86-game winner into a champion, but it's a substantial boost.  If he half-season in Tampa last year--308/373/498--is a harbinger of things to come, he could turn out to be the best shortstop in the division.

The other positive changes on the offensive side will have to come from within.  It's hard to imagine that Jason Varitek won't provide at least a mild bounce back.  Nearly every projection system puts him back in the 350 OBP range, while an adjustment for his batted ball data pushes his forecasted performance even higher.  

Among returning regulars, the other 2006 disappointment was Coco Crisp; his 264/317/385 was hardly what the Red Sox extended him for.  Again, projections like him to bounce back (as projections so often do).  He could provide yet another .350 OBP threat in the lineup.

The two biggest question marks are Lowell and Dustin Pedroia.  It's easy to predict a decline for Lowell with his dreadful 2005 in mind, but if you take out 2005, his 2006 stats represent a natural decline from his 2003-04 peak.  His defense may take a step back from his superhuman '06 performance, but I don't see any reason to foresee disaster at the hot corner.

Pedroia is a bigger variable: while he lit up the International League, you never know what his transition to the big time will be like.  His translated line last year was 273/338/367, eerily close to the 285/345/361 that the Sox got from Mark Loretta.  Unlike Loretta, Pedroia is on the right side of his late-20s peak: ZiPS likes him for 274/347/394, a fantastic level of production for a rookie who will likely bat ninth.

See a pattern here?  It's possible (though not likely) that everybody in this lineup will get on base 35% of the time.  With the positive OBP impacts of Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, and Kevin Youkilis, even last year's team had an aggregate on-base clip of 350, but this year's team has the potential to set a record.  That might not translate into the 949 runs that the '04 club scored, but a return to the bright side of 900 seems likely.

Starting Rotation

As good as this Red Sox offense could be, that will surely not be the focus of the Boston team, at least for the first couple of months of the season.  That honor goes to Daisuke Matsuzaka, the $51 million Japanese import.  I'm not going to even try to summarize all the theories about how he'll do this year; for starters, you can read my November column on the topic at The Hardball Times.  

There are plenty of question marks surrounding Dice-K: will he quickly adjust to American baseball? new hitters? a new country?  None of those elements find their way into forecasting systems, which are universally optimistic about his prospects for '07.  Unless the adjustment period is rough and protracted, it seems like a safe bet to pencil Matsuzaka in for nothing worse than a 4.50 ERA, and perhaps something good enough to garner him some Cy Young votes.

The rest of the rotation consists of returning players: Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield, Josh Beckett, and probably Jon Papelbon.  Last year, the Red Sox staff was 4th from the bottom in AL runs allowed and ERA; while it would be nice to be something better than a 5.01 ERA from Beckett, the biggest thing the Sox can hope for is more health.

Having Matsuzaka (that is, another starter who is less likely than David Wells to break down at any time) will help matters; simply having more options is a plus.  While Jon Lester will likely see time in the rotation, and one or two other guys may start games as well, avoiding double-digit starts from Matt Clement and Kyle Snyder will make this team better.  (Not to mention avoiding the 38 starts from Julian Tavarez, David Wells, Lenny DiNardo, Jason Johnson, Kason Gabbard, Kevin Jarvis, David Pauley, and Devern Hansack.  Sorry, Sox fans.  Optimism requires a reference point.)

The important thing to remember here is just how bad the staff was last year; a league-average performance would be worth an extra four or five wins over last year.  Just like the offense, there's tons of upside here, a hefty dose of injury risk, and more depth than last year's edition.  While Papelbon is the guy everyone is focusing on, I think Lester will end up being more important, even if he starts the year in Triple-A.  The Red Sox barely had a #5 guy last year, let alone a #6.  

The Bullpen

The seemingly random group of guys assembled to pitch the late innings in Boston is not as easy to get excited about as the rest of the team.  If you throw enough mud at a wall, some of it will stick, but you're stuck with a really ugly, foul-smelling wall.

As with the rest of the team, there's tons of upside here: Joel Piniero has the potential to be a quality reliver; Craig Hansen and Manny Delcarmen are due for breakout seasons; and Papelbon provides insurance in case none of those possibilities turn into reality.

I have no doubt that, among the top 15 or so relievers in Red Sox camp this spring, five of them would give Boston a solid, average-or-better season in '07 if given the chance.  I would imagine that's what the Sox brass are thinking too.  The problem with that is that it's so hard to tell in spring training who those five guys will be.  While you can stash Kason Gabbard in Pawtucket, you can't do the same with J.C. Romero, Brendan Donnelly, or Joel Piniero.  

Once Terry Francona picks his six or seven guys to be his April bullpen, he'll probably end up cutting the original pool down substantially.  If, say, Javier Lopez doesn't make the cut, but he goes on to have a great season in Atlanta, it proves that the law of large numbers holds for that original pool of relievers, but it doesn't do any good when J.C. Romero has a 7.00 ERA in May.  Reliever performance is volatile, and it's even more volatile in spring training.

All that said, the Red Sox have the capability of putting together a nice pen.  Say they go with the following:

  • Piniero (CL?)
  • Mike Timlin
  • Tavarez
  • Donnelly
  • Romero
  • Hansen
  • Delcarmen
I'd bet that won't be the opening day alignment, but that could be a very nifty relief corps.  Romero isn't much of a LOOGY, so they'd be missing a late-inning weapon against Jason Giambi, et al, but that's a solvable problem if Romero doesn't impress and the Sox are willing to eat his salary.

But the cold water remains: especially with Papelbon moving to the rotation, it's tough to see this year's bullpen exceeding last year's.  On the other hand, there were nearly as many dreadful performances from relievers last year as starters; a step forward from one of Hansen or Delcarmen could cancel out the loss of Papelbon.

All Together Now

If the offense makes it back to 900 runs scored, that's a gain of eight wins.  If the pitching staff finds its way to league average, that's another four or five.  Give the Sox a couple of bonus wins for the addition of Matsuzaka, and you've got a gain of 14-15 victories.

Add that to last year's record, and you're in triple digits.  Add it to the pythagorean record and you're still at 95, which last year would've only gotten them into a playoff for the wild card.  

As I've said, this is a high-variance team: it's as easy to construct an 85-win or 105-win scenario as it is to show the middle-ground 95-win version.  Apart from the individual players like Drew and Matsuzaka who could be anywhere between league-average and league MVP, the biggest wildcard is the 'pen, where it will take skillful managing and a bit of luck just to tread water.  

Luckily for the Sox, there's enough talent on this team that everything doesn't need to go right for a 95-win season and a playoff berth.  It isn't perfect, but I think that's all you can ask for out of an offseason.

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