Five Questions: Boston Red Sox

The 2003 season was just the latest in a series of exciting years that end in heartbreak for the Boston Red Sox. They put together one of the best offenses in baseball history and reached the playoffs for the first time in four years. They overcame a two games to nothing deficit against the Oakland A’s in the ALDS and were on the verge of winning three games at Yankee Stadium in the ALCS to advance to the World Series.

Then came the heartbreak, and two new phrases were added to Boston lore. First, Grady Little left Pedro Martinez in too long. Then, Aaron Boone acquired Bucky Dent‘s middle name.

So, what does 2004 have in store for the team that many people think is cursed? Here are five questions facing the Red Sox as they enter their 86th season since their last World Series title.

1) Will Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez be distractions and/or perform worse because of what happened in the off-season?

In a word, no. Garciaparra and Ramirez will be fine, despite all of Boston’s efforts to trade both superstars.

Ramirez is a strange individual, almost like a child in many ways. The one thing he likes to do above all other things is hit a baseball. He’ll occasionally forget to run out a ground ball or take things a little nonchalantly on defense or say something stupid, but he always hits well.

If he’s really upset about the team trying to trade him, he may say more stupid things and he may sulk a little more often. He will not, however, suffer when he is hitting. It’s what he loves to do. It doesn’t even look like Ramirez is still upset about everything.

He’s seemed as happy as I can remember him being since joining the Red Sox, and he’s even been joking around with reporters this spring. It may very well be that passing through waivers and almost getting traded served as something of a wakeup call for Ramirez.

Garciaparra is a different animal. He’s very intense about everything, and not just on the baseball field. While I have a hard time believing Ramirez is upset about what happened this off-season, Garciaparra probably is at least a little hurt by the Red Sox trying to unload him.

He’s a professional, though, and he won’t let his feelings toward the Red Sox affect the way he approaches the game of baseball. He actually can’t afford to have a bad season, because he’s in the last year of his contract and he needs to show everybody that the wrist he injured a few years ago isn’t causing him to decline at an early age.

There is a chance that what the Red Sox did this off-season will make it harder for them to re-sign Garciaparra after this season, but it won’t affect his play during the season. He and Ramirez will both be just fine.

In fact, I’m much more concerned with what happened to Garciaparra in September than with what happened to him during the off-season, which leads to the next question.

2) What does Garciaparra’s late-season slump mean for this season?

At the end of August, Garciaparra’s name was being mentioned frequently in MVP discussions, as he was hitting .323 with a .362 OBP and a .553 SLG. Then, he hit just .170/.248/.351 in 94 at-bats in September to finish the season hitting .301/.345/.524. As for what that means for this season, there’s good news.

Slumps, even season-ending ones, are more common than you may think. In the last 30 years, there have been 99 instances in which a player received at least 90 at-bats in September and hit below .200.

We can’t draw any real conclusions from the entire group of 99 because several of the players included were simply bad players having months slightly worse than normal. Others were soon-to-be-good players struggling at the end of their rookie seasons. However, there were some players in a situation similar to Garciaparra’s.

Despite his slump, Garciaparra finished with an OPS+ of 121 last year. Of the 98 other instances of a player hitting below .200 in at least 90 at-bats in September, there were 13 in which the player still had an OPS+ of at least 120 for that season.

In the seasons in which they slumped, those 13 hitters combined to hit .272 with a .360 OBP and .478 SLG for a .281 GPA, while averaging 650 plate appearances. That group rebounded to hit a combined .280 with a .373 OBP and .497 SLG for a .292 GPA, while averaging 639 plate appearances the following season.

Mike Schmidt hit .188 with a .331 OBP and .344 SLG in September of 1979. He bounced back to win the National League MVP award in each of the next two seasons.

Alex Rodriguez hit .173 with a .261 OBP and .365 SLG in September of 1999. He seems to have recovered just fine.

While that group of 13 players (the other members of which are George Scott, Darrell Porter, Darrell Evans, Juan Gonzalez, Reggie Jackson, Craig Biggio, George Hendrick, Cesar Cedeno, Tony Phillips, Matt Stairs and Lou Whitaker) does not show that Garciaparra will have a good season, it does show that it’s possible for very good hitters to struggle mightily to end a season and hit very well again the following year.

Fortunately, there is more good news for Garciaparra. Even during his slump, his home run, walk and strike out rates didn’t decline much, if at all. Through August, Garciaparra hit a home run once every 24.5 at-bats, drew a walk once every 17.6 at-bats and struck out once every 10.6 at-bats. In September, he hit a home run once every 18.8 at-bats, drew a walk once every 13.4 at-bats and struck out once every 11.8 at-bats.

The problem he had was hitting singles and doubles. Through March, he singled once very 4.7 at-bats and doubled once every 16.2 at-bats. In September, he singled once every 10.4 at-bats and doubled once every 47 at-bats.

It’s possible that his inability to hit singles and doubles was partially just bad luck, with hard-hit balls going right to waiting defenders. You could bring up his poor performances in the post-season as well, but he did hit .300 in the ALDS and he was facing some of the best pitchers in the league almost every at-bat.

He’ll probably never hit like he did before hurting his wrist again, but Garciaparra should be a fine offensive player once he gets back into the lineup. Of course, if he does have a bad season, we won’t know whether to blame it on his wrist, his Achilles tendon or just natural decline.

3) How much will the offense decline from the historic levels it reached in 2003?

In terms of personnel, the only difference between last year’s regular lineup and this year’s regular lineup is second base. Todd Walker played 139 games there last season, but the Red Sox decided not to bring him back and he will be replaced by some combination of Pokey Reese and Mark Bellhorn.

Walker didn’t have his best season, but he was still pretty good for a second baseman, hitting .283/.333/.428 with 13 homers in 587 at-bats. Reese barely played last year, and he was an awful hitter when he did play. If he could replicate his best season (1999), it would be almost as good as what Walker did last year. Bellhorn also had a disappointing 2003 season, but he’ll get on base a good amount and he has some power.

It remains to be seen how Reese and Bellhorn will be used after Garciaparra returns, but the absolute best-case scenario is probably that they provide slightly more offense than Walker did. More likely, they’ll match him or be a step below where he was.

The rest of the lineup will be returning pretty much in tact, but that doesn’t mean everything will be the same. Four players (Trot Nixon, David Ortiz, Bill Mueller and Jason Varitek) had seasons that have been frequently called career years. How close they can come to matching last year’s performances will have a big impact on how close Boston comes to matching last season’s runs scored total.

Nixon set career highs in batting average (.306), OBP (.396), SLG (.578) and home runs (28). His previous best season was in 2001 when he hit .280/.376/.505 with 27 homers in 535 at-bats. He’ll turn 30 years old a week into the season, and it’s unlikely that he’s just now establishing a new level of performance. Most likely, he would have regressed to somewhere around his 2001 level.

Unfortunately, he’s now going to be out for a while with a mildly herniated disc in his back. In the meantime, he will be replaced by Gabe Kapler, which will likely be a significant downgrade.

Ortiz had his best season last year at age 27, as many players do, hitting .288/.369/.592 with 31 home runs in 448 at-bats. However, Ortiz has shown steady improvement since playing just 10 games in 1999 and the fact that he’s always shown the ability to be a good hitter in his limited playing time makes me think he’s the least likely of the four to have a big regression. He should set a new career-high in at-bats if he stays healthy, but he may not have to face left-handers as often with Ellis Burks in the fold, which will only help his final numbers.

Mueller was the biggest surprise for the Red Sox, as he set career highs in hits (171), doubles (45), triples (5), home runs (19), total bases (283), RBI (85) and SLG (.540). His .326 average and .398 OBP were his highest in any season with at least 250 at-bats. There is simply no way he will match that production this season.

However, his swing is clearly well-suited for Fenway Park and he’s always had solid OBP’s. He won’t win another batting title and his power numbers should decrease significantly, but he will still be well above average offensively.

Varitek hit .273/.351/.512 with 25 homers in 451 at-bats, but that’s not even as good as he was hitting in 2001 before a broken elbow sidelined him for the rest of the season. If he just needed a year to get back into form after his injury, then it’s entirely possible that he could duplicate his 2003 performance.

However, he is almost 32 years old, so he’s more likely to get worse than he is to get better. At the very least, you can expect him to hit .260/.330/.440, which is pretty good for a catcher.

While those four players are all likely to decline, Johnny Damon and Kevin Millar are more likely to improve and Garciaparra and Ramirez can be counted on to anchor another strong offense. Things look even better when you consider that last year’s team should have scored more than 1,000 runs based upon their component statistics.

The injuries to Garciaparra and Nixon will hurt the offense, but if they both return on schedule, the Red Sox should score more than 900 runs again, and they could still top the Yankees for the most runs in the league.

4) Could the addition of Curt Schilling give the Red Sox the best rotation in the AL?

Even without Schilling, Boston didn’t have a bad rotation last year, as the Red Sox starters ranked fifth in the AL with a 4.30 ERA. With Schilling, the Red Sox definitely have a claim to the title of “Best AL Rotation.”

Pedro Martinez is a given in that he hasn’t had an ERA above 2.40 since 1998. The question is how much he’ll be able to pitch since he also hasn’t made more than 30 starts since 1998 and his innings pitched total has ranged from 116.2 to 217 over those five seasons.

Schilling also dominated last year with a 2.95 ERA despite being limited to 168 innings by appendicitis, which is obviously a one-time thing, and a fluky broken hand. He’s 37 years old, but there’s no real reason to expect him to be unable to pitch around 225 innings while finishing in the top 10 in ERA.

The rest of the rotation is more of a question mark. Derek Lowe and Tim Wakefield were both excellent in 2002, but slumped significantly last year. Byung-Hyun Kim was effective as a starting pitcher last year, but he only made 12 starts and he’s currently out with a shoulder injury.

Lowe was a Cy Young candidate in 2002 who saw his ERA skyrocket by nearly two runs last year. Nobody expected Lowe to match his 2002 season, but there were two things working against him that made the falloff even more dramatic. First, he had skin cancer in his nose that prevented him from working out most of the winter. Second, the infield defense was weakened by Walker at second, which was an immense problem for Lowe and his extreme groundball ratio.

With both of those problems fixed for this season, Lowe should find a happy middle ground between what he did last year and what he did in 2002. Wakefield can be counted on to put up an ERA in the vicinity of 4.00 and Kim should only miss a start or two and has the potential to be a tremendous fifth starter if he can improve his durability.

Most people have been talking about Boston’s rotation as if Schilling is replacing John Burkett, but that’s not exactly the case. In reality, Schilling and Kim will combine to replace the starting pitcher innings provided last year by Burkett, Kim, Casey Fossum, Jeff Suppan, Ramiro Mendoza, Bruce Chen and Ryan Rupe. Those seven pitchers combined to post a 5.32 ERA in 370.1 innings last year.

Even with Kim’s current shoulder problems, it would probably be on the conservative side to project Schilling and Kim to combine for 370 innings and a 3.50 ERA. If they did that, they would allow 75 fewer runs than the septet they are replacing allowed last year.

To put that in perspective, had Boston’s starting pitchers allowed 75 fewer runs last year, the Red Sox rotation would have posted a 3.59 ERA last year to lead the American League. Instead, the A’s led the AL with a 3.62 ERA from their starters.

So, even if the trio of Martinez, Lowe and Wakefield doesn’t improve at all, the presence of Schilling and Kim in the rotation could allow Boston’s starting pitchers to combine for a 3.60 ERA this year. A handful of starts from Bronson Arroyo and maybe a couple starts from some replacement level pitcher shouldn’t hurt that number too much.

Now that we’ve gotten through all that, let’s look at Boston’s competition. There are only two rotations in the AL that can challenge the Red Sox for the top spot: the Yankees and the A’s.

Both the Yankees (Mike Mussina and Javier Vazquez) and the A’s (Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder) have a very good top two in their rotation. However, neither team’s duo is as good as Martinez and Schilling for the Red Sox. And both teams have at least as many questions in the rest of their rotations as Boston.

For the A’s, Barry Zito won the Cy Young award in 2002, but his strikeout ratio has been declining at an alarming rate. Mark Redman comes in to be the fourth starter after a season far better than any he had turned in before and Rich Harden has a world of talent, but he has serious control issues that he will need to overcome before he can be a good starter.

For the Yankees, Kevin Brown is a great pitcher when healthy, but he’s healthy less often than almost any other pitcher. He’s 39 years old and has made seven trips to the disabled list in the last four seasons. Jose Contreras looked nasty at times last year, but he was only healthy enough to pitch 71 innings and 37.5-percent of those innings came against the Tigers and Devil Rays. Jon Lieber could be one of the best fifth starters in the league, but he hasn’t thrown a pitch in a real game since Aug. 1, 2002 and will be out for awhile with a groin injury.

Barring a serious injury to Martinez or Schilling, the Red Sox should have the best rotation in the AL.

5) How much will Keith Foulke help the Red Sox in the bullpen?

As most people know, the bullpen was the biggest weakness for the Red Sox last year. Boston set the pens of the local media aquiver by announcing that there was no need for a traditional closer before the season. When 12 relievers combined to blow 21 saves on a Boston team that only recorded 36 saves, the reaction from said media was vicious.

Boston’s relievers ranked 12th in the AL with a 4.83 ERA during the regular season. In the playoffs, however, Mike Timlin, Alan Embree and Scott Williamson anchored a bullpen that posted a 1.31 ERA in 34.1 innings. All three of those pitchers are back this season, and Foulke‘s presence will allow them to move into lower-leverage roles.

Foulke, meanwhile, has pitched between 77.2 and 88 innings with an ERA between 2.08 and 2.97 over the last four seasons. As impressive as he’s been, he could have an even bigger impact than that as Boston GM Theo Epstein has indicated that the Red Sox will try to use Foulke as often as possible.

If Foulke can approach 100 innings pitched with an ERA around 2.50, he will give the Red Sox the best closer in the AL (for the regular season, at least). And with Timlin, Embree and Williamson setting him up, the Red Sox could jump from 12th in the league in bullpen ERA to the top three.

In Closing…

The Yankees are probably the favorite to win the division, but not by much. Both teams are clearly loaded from top to bottom, and it will be a surprise if they don’t both make the playoffs. In fact, it wouldn’t be at all shocking to see both teams top 100 wins and then meet in the ALCS for the third time in six years.

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