With today being the first official day for pitchers and catchers to report, I felt I'd give a pre-spring training report card on the Red Sox position by position, assessing where I think the team stands. Obviously there have not been any major changes to the look of the team like the Yankees, who acquired Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia, AND A.J. Burnett, along with some other role players like a Nick Swisher. Theo again took a more conservative approach, sticking with the general makeup of the team and adding some support pieces and low risk/high reward players that could potentially contribute in a meaningful way. That being said, let’s take a look at where the Sox grade out heading into the spring. Please note that there will be two grades listed in the “OVERALL GRADE” section. The first will be for the starter, the second attributed to the backup/bench players at that particular position.
Starter: Jason Varitek
Bench: Josh Bard/George Kottaras
All winter, I prayed that Epstein would come to his senses and part ways with the longtime Sox catcher. Let's face it: his best days are far behind him. His bat continues to slow down, as evidenced by his 122 strikeouts in 2007 and 2008... in less than 450 at-bats. He managed to hit .255 in 2007, but raked .238 in '06, and his average, slugging, OBP and OPS all dropped significantly last year in what became a difficult season to watch. His presence behind the plate and his rapport with the pitching staff is second to none in Major League Baseball. But it comes to a point where you wonder if the tradeoff from offense to defense is becoming a bit skewed, to a point where it's best to look elsewhere. I think we've reached that point. The Sox put themselves in a difficult position by not preparing for this a few years ago. They've yet to acquire, via draft or trade, a catcher with MLB potential by the end of the decade. Because of that, the only options were to sign Varitek or trade the farm for a young player with the ability to start immediately. Bottom line is that the Sox were not in a favorable bargaining position. Teams had the ability to ask for key players in exchange for a catcher, and that left Boston between a rock and a hard place.
Backup: I like the signing of Bard. He had an injury plagued 2008, but he's MLB ready and hit .338 and .285 in '06 and '07, respectively. Kottaras is merely insurance, but don't expect a whole lot out of him unless you're talking AAA. I'm setting the over/under for games started by Varitek at 117. And I'm taking the under. What ya got?
OVERALL GRADE: C-/B-
Starter: Kevin Youkilis
Bench: Chris Carter, Mark Kotsay
Can Youkilis repeat his incredible production from last season? And will he have the motivation to do so after signing his big contract this past off-season? It's going to be interesting to see, especially considering some mitigating factors that are beyond Youkilis' control. First and foremost is the continued absence of Manny Ramirez. Youkilis is most likely looking at an entire season as the cleanup hitter. He filled in admirably in more of a temporary role, but can he sustain his '08 production over an entire season with that pressure on him? And of course there are the health concerns of David Ortiz and Mike Lowell. Any sort of protection he may have is certainly in question at this point, and health-wise, those two guys aren't the only ones when you bring J.D. Drew. But aside from all that, Youkilis has continued to get better year in and year out, and while I don't know whether he's hit his ceiling or not, he's too good a player and too hard a worker to have a significant slip in production. Factor in his gold glove defense and versatility in the field and you've got quite a player. While he's not the most feared cleanup hitter in the game, he's a hell of a run producer and will squeeze out extra bases more often than most players in the game. The Sox are in great shape with this guy.
Backup: This is where the Sox should be concerned. There's the long-term option of Lars Anderson, but he was in High-A last year and it's doubtful he'd be MLB ready by the end of the season. It's certainly a possibility, and we'll get a look at the kid in spring training, but immediate replacements for Youkilis are Carter and Kotsay, the latter of which is currently injured. I felt Sean Casey retiring was a major blow to the team, not just because of his clubhouse presence, but his ability to hit and contribute when filling in and giving Youkilis a blow. For now, let's just hope that Youkilis and his blue collar mentality don't take him to the DL anytime soon.
OVERALL GRADE: A/C+
Starter: Dustin Pedroia
Bench: Jed Lowrie
There may not be a better, more valuable player in baseball, particularly at second base in all of MLB. That's evidenced by Pedroia's unlikely MVP award at the end of last season. The guy does it all. He hits for average, has a high contact rate, can hit for power, drives in runs at the top of the lineup, scores and can steal bases at a high success rate. Not only that, but his defense is remarkable. He's made only six errors in each of his first two official seasons, and he's bound for a highlight reel play at least once a week. Boston made the right move in locking up both Pedroia and Youkilis fairly long term, because these are two guys that can serve as a cornerstone as a franchise, not just in terms of play and production, but their gritty, hard working mentalities serve well in the clubhouse with their teammates and are exemplary for younger players coming up.
Backup: Like Casey, the loss of Alex Cora will hit harder than most people think. Cora was the model utility man, able to fill in at every possible infield position and do it well. Not only that, but while he wasn't a beast with the bat, he could do the little things, like laying down a bunt, moving a runner over or working a count. Lowrie is still young, and it remains to be seen if he's the everyday shortstop or not. But you can bet he'll most likely be filling in at second if and when Pedroia needs a blow or suffers an injury. His youth and inexperience concern me, but he's quite serviceable.
OVERALL GRADE: A/A-
Starter: Jed Lowrie
Bench: Julio Lugo
Lowrie was thrust into the starting role after Lugo, who had been struggling anyway, severely injured his hamstring. And the rookie started off well, having a solid month of August hitting .284 with 24 RBI. But he struggled down the stretch and a non-displaced wrist fracture along with hitting the proverbial "rookie wall" all had a factor in the decline. He has to be the favorite to start here, because Lugo is simply too much of a risk. His defense is porous, he no longer has pop (I wonder why?) and he doesn't utilize his tools as he should, i.e. get on base and steal bases. Lowrie, meanwhile, seems to play with a more deliberate, tactical approach. He makes the routine plays and manages solid at-bats. He was a solid run producer, even in the midst of his September swoon, and his switch hitting ability makes him an even more attractive option. I think he'll continue to improve and settle in during his first full season, and I can only hope that Lugo is okay with the fact that he won't be the everyday starter. Even so, Lugo is going to get some looks. On days when the likes of Pedroia, Lowell or possibly even Youkilis need a breath, Lowrie is a nice option to fill-in, which will open up some playing time for Lugo. I think it could turn into a situation much like Coco Crisp last season: while he's the designated back-up, there could be some varied mixing and matching that enables him to get enough looks to appease the pricey shortstop. For $9M, Epstein and Terry Francona have to feel some pressure in getting Lugo in and trying to utilize some of the tools they thought they signed, particularly his speed. Will it happen? That remains to be seen, and spring training will tell a lot.
Starter: Mike Lowell
Bench: Jed Lowrie, Kevin Youkilis
This is certainly a major concern for Boston, and the reason they were in the mix for Mark Teixeira during the off-season. When healthy, Lowell is a great player both offensively and defensively. He reinvigorated his career after joining the Sox and had a breakout season in 2007 that earned him a new, lucrative deal. It was well deserved, but age was a concern that those concerns were justified when Lowell severely injured his right hip last season. It hindered his ability to hit and field, and we all remember that painful looking throw he made in Tampa last season, fielding the ball on the run and making an off-balance throw. It hurt just to watch. He most likely won't be ready until the start of the season, so fans and the team will need to be patient as he finds his bearings over the first couple weeks of play. But if he stays healthy, it could be vital to the success of the franchise. He can hit for power and average, and would serve as protection for Youkilis in the 5-spot. More importantly, it would allow for the likes of J.D. Drew and Jason Bay to hit lower in the order and take pressure off them to produce in the middle of the lineup.
Backup: If Lowell can't go, expect to see Lugo at short and Lowrie at third. All in all, things could be a heck of a lot worse. While they'll lose a lot of power, Lowrie will be extremely serviceable at third, and Lugo will then have his starting role back. It'll add some speed to the lineup, but like I said, the Sox will lose a lot of pop. While it won't be the end of the world, the Sox are definitely better with a healthy Lowell in the lineup, that's for sure.
Starter: Jason Bay
Bay was a pleasant surprise to me when Boston acquired him at the deadline last year. He hit for .293/9/37 in 49 games and for a while, helped Boston fans get over the debacle that was Manny Ramirez come the end of his tenure in a Red Sox uniform. While it's important to remember that Bay was not brought in to replace Manny, nor should he be expected to, he serves as a great 5 or 6 hitter in the lineup and adds tremendous depth to what could potentially be a seriously potent offensive attack. He's only 30, so there's a high ceiling for this guy. The only question is whether he can sustain this over an entire season. Remember, he did a lot of damage in Pittsburgh last year, and while he played well in Boston after coming over, it was kind of a whirlwind experience. Now that he's settled in and has an entire season in Boston, dealing with the fans, media, etc. ahead of him, it'll be interesting to see if there’s a hangover. I don’t expect one, but it's something to watch out for.
Starter: Jacoby Ellsbury
2008: .280/9/47/50 SB
Ellsbury got off to a fast start last season, literally. He stole 26 bases in his first two months, and everyone seemed to think the kid had officially arrived. But he went through a rough stretch in June and July, failing to hit over .250 in either month. He came on strong in August and September, but his .188 postseason average was a bit of a concern, particularly considering how well he did in the World Series in 2007. Attribute it to growth, and the fact that it was Ellsbury's first full season in MLB. Now that Coco Crisp has gone off to Kansas City, the job is undoubtedly his, and there will no longer be rumblings as to whether anyone behind him should be getting more looks. The important thing for Ellsbury in 2009 will not necessarily be the need to hit .300 or even remotely close to that, but to just find a way to get on base. His game speed is unlike anyone else in the game, and Boston will need him to jumpstart the offense by stealing bases and grabbing extra bases on hits, whether by him or a teammate behind him. His defense is remarkable due to that speed, but one downside is his arm. It's Damon-like. But he'll rob enough hitters of singles, doubles and triples in the gap to make up for his deficiency in the throwing department. He's still got some growing to do, but looking at how he bounced back later in the season last year, it shows that mentally he is stronger than most at his age.
Starter: J.D. Drew
So Drew had a "nice" season. Looking at the final numbers, they weren't all that bad. But one number that is alarming is 109, which is the total number of games he played. Keep in mind, 16 of those home runs and 49 of those RBI's came by June 30. Not good. Drew was healthy by the post-season and came up with a couple huge home runs, but it's safe to say that he'll never make through an entire season without some significant time on the DL. That's really his only downside. I think Drew is one of the best pure hitters in the game, and when healthy, he's dangerous, especially if he's hitting 6 or 7 in this lineup, which is where I project he'll be. Take a look at his month of June when he hit .337 with 12 home runs and 27 RBI and you'll see just how good he can be when he’s hot. Defensively, he's a solid player and covers a lot of ground in that large right field area at Fenway. But again, health is a concern, and that dims any optimistic outlooks anyone may have towards Drew.
This is a good signing for the Sox. Baldelli seems to regaining his health and his return to form, and he brings a lot of nice tools to the table. He can hit for average and power and brings speed and defense to the table, as well. With Crisp gone and Kotsay injured, the Sox were in need of a solid reserve outfielder. That's an important void to fill with Drew's health in question and concerns over Ellsbury's ability to sustain an entire MLB season. So they brought in a hometown kid who seems to be on the upswing. Hopefully he stays healthy as well, or else they could really be in trouble.
The Wilkerson signing is likely the most influential of the bunch here. Kotsay is expected to miss the first month after back surgery, and it's hard to expect Carter and van Every to contribute meaningful AB's with such little experience. But Boston got Wilkerson on a minor league deal, and he’s a proven veteran that has nine seasons under his belt. His 32-homer season in 2004 was a long time ago, and that certainly won't happen again, but nonetheless, the guy knows the game and could be a major asset if any of the outfielders go down.
Starter: David Ortiz
Probably the biggest question mark of the Red Sox lineup. Can Ortiz get over his wrist injury and return to previous years' form? He was clearly affected by that tendon tear in his wrist last season, as well as the loss of Manny Ramirez protecting him in the 4-hole. But Ortiz is still a threat when healthy, and if he can hit 30 homers and drive in 100 runs, I think that will ease the worries of Red Sox Nation. Let's face it: it's hard to rationalize believing he can hit 40 or 50 homers and drive in 120-130 runs again, not with Ramirez gone and Ortiz seemingly beginning a downswing in his career. But if we taper off our expectations and gear our hopes towards a healthy 2009 with solid, respectable numbers, it will make things more bearable in Boston and take some pressure off Ortiz to do too much.
Projected Rotation: Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield, Brad Penny
Beckett showed up to spring training in much better shape than he did last year, and that's important. The Sox will need him to anchor this rotation because it's one of the best in the game when he's at his best. Dice-K will continue to be a heart attack in waiting, but he's effective and gets the job done and that's what counts. Meanwhile, Lester is ever-improving, and it's hard not to get excited about a kid who made a tremendous leap last season, going 16-6 with a 3.21 and tossing a no-hitter. Wakefield is Wakefield, and he'll probably win at least 10 games, lose a lot of one-run games, but give the Sox a chance to win in 75% of his starts. He's good for a beatdown now and then, but he dishes more than he takes, and that's huge for an aging knuckleball pitcher. Penny, meanwhile, is an interesting wildcard. This guy was a beast in L.A. in 2006 and 2007, the latter of which he went 16-9 with a 3.03 ERA over 208 innings. If he gets over the injuries that nagged him last season and resulted in a poor 6-9 campaign with a 6+ ERA, having him anchor the Sox rotation will be crucial. Imagine sending your team's fifth starter up against Penny. At his best, he's a low-end #1 guy, and certainly a middle of the rotation pitcher on a bad day. But to have him at the end of your rotation? Amazing. Let's hope he regains his health. And as Rich pointed out to me this morning, he believes Smoltz could be starting come end of May/June. He has a point. If a starter goes down and Smoltz is healthy, they could gear his appearances to building up arm strength and having the ability to go out and give five lockdown innings. It remains to be seen, and will depend a lot of the health of all parties involved.
Jonathan Papelbon, Hideki Okajima, Takashi Saito, Manny Delcarmen, Justin Masterson, John Smoltz (?), Javier Lopez, Ramon Ramirez
I don't know about you, but I'm really excited about this bullpen heading into 2009. Papelbon is one of the best closers in baseball. And now he's got some pieces that could not only get him more opportunities to save games in the 9th, but fill in when he's in need of rest. Okajima is clearly the 8th inning guy. He's received a lot of praise during his impressive stretches, but some serious criticism in times of struggle. But he's handled it professionally and recovered well. He had a great postseason in 2008 and rebounded from that horrific month of June during which he compiled a 9+ ERA. But the signings of Saito and Smoltz are tremendous because they could potentially take a lot of pressure off of not just Okajima, but everyone else in the bullpen as well. Delcarmen is going to see less responsibility, but that's a good thing. He struggled in tight situations last year and having a less critical role could be a confidence builder and nice way to start '09. Meanwhile, it will give Okajima more opportunities for rest and hopefully prevent him from hitting the proverbial wall. Smoltz is better served in the bullpen here, especially coming off major shoulder surgery. If he recovers nicely, and it's hard to believe he won't with his work ethic, he has the mentality to serve in a myriad of roles. Unlike Eric Gagne, I think Smoltz can handle not being the 9th inning guy. He's bounced back and forth from starter to closer on a couple occasions and showed no signs of struggle, so you know he's a mentally strong guy. Saito, meanwhile, was the closer in L.A. and got bounced out in favor of Jonathan Broxton. His age and arm trouble allowed for the change, but with his high strikeout ratio, it's hard to believe he can't continue his solid production in the 7th or 8th innings. Masterson, meanwhile, will be the long relief and spot start guy, and that's a great role for him. He's also apt to come in during double play situations, and he showed terrific poise in tight spots last season. Lopez will continue to serve as the situational lefty, and it was nice to see him more effective in that role last season. And lest we forget Ramon Ramirez, a reliever acquired in the Crisp deal who had an ERA in the mid 2's last year. He could contribute meaningful innings. Thank god Mike Timlin is gone.
Overall, I think Boston is going to do what it normally does. Compete night in and night out and be right at the top of the AL East, or battling for the top spot, all season long. It's possible to argue Boston may be the 3rd best team in its division right now, but a lot of that is based on the injuries and question marks it's facing heading into 2009. But with tremendous depth, the best manager in baseball and a great front office, you can never count out Boston regardless of what injuries and internal strife it's hit with. Right now, there's a lot of upside if certain low risk situations play out with high reward. The pitching will anchor this team and give this team a chance every night. While there are concerns at catcher, third base, shortstop and with Ortiz, there are enough tools and options offensively to combat those issues with the pitching staff currently in place. That being said, I'm optimistic this team can compete for a World Series if injuries don't plague them once again.
OVERALL GRADE: B+, purely because of the wait-and-see outlook for some important pieces of this team
Let us know what you think about the Red Sox heading into 2009.
Check out more of The Sports Brief at http://sportsbrief.blogspot.com or e-mail us at email@example.com