Five Questions: Boston Red Sox

For the first time in a long time, the question facing the Boston Red Sox as the season gets underway is not whether or not they can finally win the World Series for the first time since 1918. They used an amazing 10-day stretch last October to change from a team with one of the three longest droughts in baseball to just another team that’s won a World Series recently.

Now, they get to see if they can become just the third franchise to win back-to-back titles in the last 25 years.

It’s obviously not just because of him, but Theo Epstein has received — and deserves — a ton of credit as the GM of this team. In the two years Epstein has been in charge, Boston’s won 193 regular season games, 17 postseason games (five more than in the previous 27 seasons combined) and a World Series title.

One big reason is that he’s picked players like David Ortiz, Bill Mueller, Mark Bellhorn, Kevin Millar and Bronson Arroyo off the scrap heap and gotten big contributions from them. So, there’s an obvious first question for this season.

1. Did Epstein find any huge bargains this off-season?

Obviously, it’s hard to say who was and wasn’t a bargain at the beginning of the season. Two years ago, I thought Jeremy Giambi would be the bargain 1B/DH instead of Ortiz, and I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Another thing worth noting is that Epstein didn’t really need to find any bargains this season. Because of the bargains he got the last two off-seasons, he was able to shore up several positions, which gave him the ability to concentrate more on the positions where the Red Sox had big free agents this year.

That said, there seem to be two candidates to be this year’s Epstein Specials: Wade Miller and Matt Mantei. Mantei is a 31-year-old reliever who signed for $750,000 and Miller is a 28-year-old starter who signed for a base salary of $1.5 million. The reason the Red Sox were able to get both so cheaply is because of injuries.

Mantei only pitched 10.2 innings last year, and just seven innings in 2001, so he’s had some real problems staying healthy. But when he has been healthy, he’s shown the ability to be a dominant reliever. He had a 2.62 ERA in 55 innings in 2003, and a 2.85 ERA in 120 innings in 1998 and 1999, combined.

Miller was only able to make 15 starts last year, and he’s out until at least May. However, he’s also shown great ability when healthy. In 2001 and 2002, he went a combined 31-12 with a 3.35 ERA and 327 strikeouts in 376.2 innings.

If all goes well with those two pitchers (and that’s obviously a big if), the Red Sox should have an excellent set-up man to put in front of Keith Foulke and a very solid No. 2 or No. 3 starter for the second half of the season (and, most importantly, the playoffs).

But Miller’s not in the rotation yet, while two other Boston newcomers are. That leads me to my next question.

2. Is Boston’s rotation a strength or a weakness?

A lot will depend on injuries. As mentioned above, Miller’s out until at least May. Curt Schilling missed Opening Day as he recovers from off-season ankle surgery, David Wells is 41 and has a bad back and although he’s a knuckleballer, Tim Wakefield is still 38 years old.

So, there are definite injury concerns for this rotation. I still think it’s going to be a strength when all is said and done though.

First of all, it’s worth noting that Schilling’s problem isn’t with the ankle itself. The reason he missed his first start (and will miss one or two more) is that the surgery delayed his off-season training regimen, and his body simply wasn’t ready to make a major-league start Sunday.

Once he gets on track, Schilling shouldn’t be any more of an injury concern than normal, and I’m not worried about the ankle at all. I don’t see why he can’t approximate last year’s 3.26 ERA and be one of the two or three best starters in the league again.

Next, let’s look at the other two starters who are returning from last season: Arroyo and Wakefield.

Arroyo only went 10-9, but he had a 4.03 ERA and 142 strikeouts in 178.2 innings, which are pretty impressive numbers when you consider that it was his first full season in a major-league rotation. I would expect Arroyo to improve on the numbers he put up last year, especially when you consider that his strikeout, walk and home run rates all got better as the season went along.

Wakefield had a very ugly 4.87 ERA last year in 188.1 innings. His ERA over the previous three seasons was 3.64. I don’t think Wakefield will necessarily have an ERA below 4.00 this year, but I doubt he’ll have an ERA above 4.87, so at worst he’ll be just as bad as last year.

The returning trio of Schilling, Arroyo and Wakefield posted a 4.01 ERA in 587.1 innings last year. This year, I see no reason why they can’t have at least that good an ERA, and probably a better one. I don’t know if they’ll reach that innings total, but that may depend more on Miller’s healthy than anything else, because he’ll send either Arroyo or Wakefield to the bullpen when he’s healthy.

The other part of Boston’s rotation is the new part, where Wells and Matt Clement replace Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe. Really, though, Wells and Clement are not replacing a great duo.

Martinez and Lowe combined for a 4.59 ERA in 399.2 innings last year. Wells and Clement are both solid pitchers, and should be able to post an ERA in the vicinity of 4.00 this year. The worst ERA I could see either of them having is 4.50, in which case, it would be impossible for them to combine to have an ERA as high as Martinez and Lowe did.

Now, Wells and Clement may not be able to pitch 400 innings. Clement’s reached 200 innings three times in his career, but he’s never gone far over the mark, and he only pitched 181 innings last year. Wells has pitched at least 195 innings nine of the last 10 seasons, but as I mentioned above, he’s 41 years old.

Still, even if they only pitch 350-375 innings, Miller will be able to make up the difference. Martinez and Lowe had very nice careers for the Red Sox, but their regular season production from last year should be easy to replace for this year’s Red Sox.

The Red Sox were fairly lucky last year in that they only needed five starts from a pitcher not among their top five, but they were fairly unlucky in how those guys pitched. Byung-Hyun Kim (who was originally supposed to be one of the top five), Pedro Astacio and Abe Alvarez combined for a 7.40 ERA in 20.2 innings.

This year, the Red Sox have six starters they should be able to rely on. And if they need to go to somebody not on that list, John Halama should be able to provide better than a 7.40 ERA in however many starts he makes.

If you think the Boston rotation was a strength last year, you pretty much have to consider it a strength this year. The Red Sox starters were third in the AL with a 4.31 ERA, and I don’t see that number rising this year. The only pitcher who should make a significant number of starts who I think could have an ERA significantly higher than 4.31 is Wakefield.

Even if the rotation is still a strength, however, that doesn’t mean the pitching staff will be as strong as a whole.

3. So, is the bullpen going to be a problem at some point this year?

The Red Sox were tied for third in the AL with a 3.87 ERA from their bullpen, but a good part of the reason for that was Scott Williamson, Ramiro Mendoza and Curtis Leskanic combining for a 2.79 ERA in 87 innings. None of those three pitched a lot, but together they accounted for about 20 percent of Boston’s bullpen innings. And none of them are back.

Keith Foulke is obviously great. You can count on him to pitch 80-90 innings and have an ERA somewhere between 2.00 and 3.00. But after him, there are some question marks.

Mike Timlin and Alan Embree are both back, but neither of them was great last year. They both posted 4.13 ERAs, and both of them are getting older. Timlin’s 39 years old, and Embree’s 35. I wouldn’t say either of them is particularly likely to have a sub-4.00 ERA, and both of them are capable of a sudden decline.

Mantei’s certainly capable of picking up the slack if that happens, but he’s no guarantee either. And after that, you’re looking at Halama, Blaine Neal and Mike Myers.

The best-case scenario is that Mantei replaces most of what Williamson, Mendoza and Leskanic provided, Foulke is his usual great self and Timlin and Embree pitch at least as well as last year. The worst-case is that Mantei is hurt again, Timlin and/or Embree succumbs to old age, and none of the other newcomers step up.

And you don’t even want to consider the situation if something happens to Foulke. Anyway, that’s enough talk about the pitching.

4. Can Boston’s offense really be better this year than the last two seasons?

The Red Sox led the majors with 949 runs last year, and they led the majors with 961 runs the year before that. And yes, they can be even better this year because of two players — Edgar Renteria and Trot Nixon.

Renteria wasn’t a great hitter last year, but he did put up a .728 OPS (.327/.401). Even if he only matches that OPS, which was significantly worse than what he did the previous two seasons, he’ll be a sizeable improvement for the Red Sox.

The four players who saw time at shortstop for Boston last year combined to put up a .305 OBP and .389 SLG for a horrid .694 OPS. It’s entirely conceivable that Renteria could put an OPS 100 points higher this season, which is a huge improvement for one position.

Nixon was only able to play 48 games due to injury last year, and while he’s always been fairly injury-prone, he’s healthy right now. Assuming he doesn’t suffer a serious injury, he should be able to play 130-140 games, and he’s got an .863 career OPS.

The guy who saw much of the time in Nixon’s absence was Gabe Kapler, whose .700 OPS (.311/.390) would have fit right in with the shortstops.

So, with huge improvements offensively at shortstop and in right field, the Red Sox will be able to overcome drops in production from Johnny Damon and Jason Varitek (likely) and Mark Bellhorn, Kevin Millar and David Ortiz (possible).

The Red Sox should once again be able to score around 950 runs this season. If they get some good fortune (i.e., avoid major injuries), they’ll have a definite shot at breaking 1,000 runs.

But all this regular season stuff isn’t that important, because the Red Sox are most likely going to make the playoffs either as the AL East winner or as the wild card.

5. But are they built for success in the playoffs as well as they were last year?

A lot was made of how the Red Sox had two aces to rely on in the playoffs last year, but those two aces weren’t really ace-like in the playoffs. Schilling had a 3.57 ERA in four starts, although that’s skewed by his terrible start in the first game of the ALCS, and Martinez had a 4.00 ERA in the playoffs.

The only Boston starter with an ERA below 3.50 in the playoffs was Lowe at 1.86. Arroyo (7.82) and Wakefield (9.82) were both terrible.

So, the Red Sox didn’t really win because of their aces or their rotation, although some members of the rotation made big starts at the right times.

They won because they had a relentless offense, a solid rotation, an excellent closer and a great bench. And they have all of those things again this year. They also had luck last year, but you can’t build a team for luck, so they’ll just have to hope they have it again.

Basically, the Red Sox are most likely going to make the playoffs and once they get there, they’ll be just as dangerous as they were last year, and probably as dangerous as anybody else in the playoffs.

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