Team Preview: Boston Red Sox

[Note: I'll be doing AL team previews this spring; as regular readers know, RJ has a head start on me, but keep an eye out for the remaining 13 AL teams, as I go from best '07 record to worst.]

2007 W-L:  96-66
2007 Pythag W-L: 101-61
2007 Payroll: $143MM
2008 Payroll: ~$150MM

Coming: Sean Casey

Going: Eric Hinske, Brendan Donnelly, Eric Gagne

Sliding In:

They won the World Series in convincing style, and they're back, almost unchanged.  Keeping the team together as is isn't a sentimental move: it's a product of long-term deals in progress, key players still in their arbitration (or even pre-arb) years, and some role players who want to stick around.  There are no guarantees in the AL East, but it'd be hard to bet against these guys repeating their way into the playoffs, at the very least.

Offense:

The last Red Sox World Champions were known for their offensive attack; this time, it wasn't so dramatic.  The '07 Sox were 3rd in the league in run scoring, just behind the Tigers and way behind the Yankees.  Adjusted for park, it's a little less impressive, as Fenway played even more hitter-friendly than usual last year.

The advantage, naturally, is that there's plenty of room to improve.  Mike Lowell was the only regular to far outperform expectations; Pedroia and Varitek probably beat out plenty of projections too, but not by the same margin.  The glaring holes in the offense were up the middle, in Julio Lugo and Coco Crisp.  

Neither Lugo nor Crisp is likely to turn things around and win a Silver Slugger, but neither is likely to head further south, either.  Lugo posted a career-worst OPS+ of 65, thanks largely to a sub-300 OBP.  Crisp was closer to respectable, but is still 28 years old with two above-average offensive seasons behind him.  What's more, Jacoby Ellsbury is around to push him; Ellsbury isn't going to keep hitting .353, but if Crisp's bat slips, there's no reason to give him another 500+ ABs in 2008.

The player who could provide this offense the biggest lift is the one who ranked second in 2007 in OPS+: Manny Ramirez.  Strange as it is to say, his .296/.388/.493 performance was something of a disappointment, and it was by far his worst campaign since he established himself as a regular more than a decade ago.  For the first time in recent memory, the pre-season noise regarding Manny is positive, so perhaps that $20MM 2009 option will lead Manny to another 150-160 OPS+.

The X-factor is team health.  Of the projected starters, Jason Varitek had the fewest ABs with 435, and even the usual subs were ready to go when needed.  J.D. Drew is, of course, always a question mark, and while there aren't many other health risks on the team, the downside of bringing the same team back is that everyone is a year older, and with enough 30-somethings on the team, bad luck happens.

But as long as major injuries don't strike, it's hard to imagine this team scoring fewer than 850 runs, and it's easy to dream up a scenario where they once again see the sunny side of 900.

Starting Rotation:

As with the starting lineup, the 2007 starting rotation is back.  There's better news here, though: while all five guys are available, it's highly unlikely that they'll all return to the rotation.

Of course, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Josh Beckett, and Curt Schilling will all be back, and Tim Wakefield will probably get his share of starts.  But, for those of you who have (mercifully) forgotten, Julian Tavarez started 23 games for the '07 Sox, and unless disaster strikes, he shouldn't top 3 starts in '08.

The difference is youth: Jon Lester is healthy and able to contribute, and Clay Buchholz's September audition strongly suggested he's ready to pitch in the bigs.  It was surely tempting for the Sox to part with one of those (and others) to acquire Johan Santana, but if both Lester and Buchholz perform up to expectations, the Sox could have the best rotation in the league anyway.

Of course, when talking about starting rotations, it's dangerous, and often just plain wrong, to say something like "if all goes well," so I'm not about to put my money down on a team ERA of 3.50.  But, when Wakefield is your 6th starter, and Tavarez (yes, a 5.15 ERA, but that's a 92 ERA+ in Fenway) behind him, it's really hard to be negative about this group.

The rotation was very good in 2007, and it is likely to be better in 2008.

Bullpen:

If there's one aspect of the 2007 Red Sox's performance that screams, "Regression!" it's the core of the bullpen.  The top six of Papelbon, Okajima, Lopez, Timlin, Snyder, and Delcarmen combined for about 320 innings and none of them had an ERA above 4.00.  (Paps, Okajima, and Delcarmen were all below 2.25.)

I'm not saying those guys aren't good, but except for Papelbon and maybe Okajima, they are almost certainly not that good.  Timlin will be 42, and while he's likely to be solid, he's equally like to take a step back; Snyder came out of nowhere to be a credible reliever; and as with the starting lineup, once some early-season jumbling was over, the bullpen stayed remarkably healthy.

This will still be a good bullpen, though.  For one thing, there won't be 20 innings of utter crap from Eric Gagne.  There'll be no messing around with Joel Pineiro, either.  Since we are talking about relievers, someone will get hurt, and somebody like David Aardsma will show up and underwhelm for a few weeks, but because of the depth of the pen, Terry Francona isn't likely to hand any important innings to the Pineiro of 2008.

And, while Pepto-Bismol sales will suffer for it, there will be no reason to trade for next year's Eric Gagne, either.

The Hook

There are really only two scenarios in which the Red Sox don't again go deep into the playoffs.  The more likely of the two is that team health doesn't hold up.  A pair of injuries to, say, Manny and Beckett wouldn't cripple the team, but it would make this group look a lot more like a 90-win crew than a 100-win one.

The other reflects the fact that the Red Sox don't play in a bubble.  Once again, there will be four very solid teams in two divisions, and among the Yankees, Sox, Indians, and Tigers, it's very possible that a 95-game winner will be left out of the playoffs.  I would guess that the Sox will outperform at least one of those other teams, but you can make rosy projections for the Yanks, Indians, and Tigers too.

My foolish prediction: 98 wins and a loss in the ALCS.

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