Five Questions: Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox had a busy offseason, both in the front office and on the field. Assistant GM Josh Byrnes left the team to take the GM job with Arizona, and GM Theo Epstein left the team before returning in the same capacity a couple months later.

On the field, three players who played key roles in Boston’s 2004 World Series title (Johnny Damon, Bill Mueller and Kevin Millar) left via free agency, and new players came in via trade at second base, third base, shortstop, center field, the starting rotation and the bullpen. With all that transition going on, it might be difficult to figure out where the Red Sox stand heading into the season.

Luckily for you, we’re here to answer five important questions about the team.

1. What can the Red Sox expect from Schilling and Foulke?

In 2004, Curt Schilling went 21-6 with a 3.26 ERA in 226 2/3 innings, and Keith Foulke recorded 32 saves with a 2.17 ERA in 83 innings. Last year, Schilling was 8-8 (with nine saves) and had a 5.69 ERA in 93 1/3 innings, while Foulke was limited to 15 saves with a 5.91 ERA in 45 2/3 innings.

In case you don’t feel like doing the math, that’s a combined drop from a 2.96 ERA in 309 2/3 innings to a 5.76 ERA in 139 innings.

So where in that wide range of performance will the two of them fall this year? Well, let’s take them one at a time, starting with Schilling.

There are a couple reasons to think Schilling will make a decent recovery from last season. The first is that he never really let himself heal last year, and he was pitching through an injury every time he took the mound. He’s had a whole offseason to get the rest he should have just gotten at the beginning of last season, and there haven’t been any reports of him dealing with the injury this spring.

The other promising sign is that even while pitching hurt last year his strikeout rate didn’t suffer, actually improving his strikeout-per-nine-innings rate (K/9) from 8.06 in 2004 to 8.39 last year. The problem was that he walked more people, and the stuff that did get hit got hit hard.

It’s probably unreasonable to expect Schilling to return to the 2.95-3.26 ERA range he lived in from 2001-04, but he should be able to shave 1.5-2 runs off his ERA from last year. That would put him somewhere from 3.70 to 4.20, and that would make him a very solid starter if he can get back to throwing 200-225 innings.

Foulke’s a bit more problematic, as his strikeout rate fell while his walk and home run rates both climbed last year, and he’s also still dealing with the injury that hampered him last year. I definitely wouldn’t bet on him posting the sub-3.00 ERA that he had from 1999 to 2004. In fact, I’ll be a bit surprised if he gets below 4.00, which means he’s not likely to remain Boston’s closer all season.

The good news for the Red Sox is that they’re less reliant on Foulke being good this year than last year. They added Julian Tavarez, Rudy Seanez and David Riske to provide some depth in the bullpen, and they’ve got young pitchers like Jonathan Papelbon, Craig Hansen, Lenny DiNardo, Jon Lester and Manny Delcarmen who could help out in the pen at some point this season.

2. Who will Boston miss more, Damon or Mueller?

You might be inclined to think that the answer’s Johnny Damon because of all the fuss over him joining the Yankees, but it’s actually Bill Mueller.

Last year, Damon played 148 games for Boston, hitting .316/.366/.439 for an OPS+ of 113. He was also terrific on the base paths, stealing 18 bases while only getting caught once, but he wasn’t as good defensively as people think (probably in the bottom third among center fielders). Mueller played 150 games for Boston, hitting .295/.369/.430 for an OPS+ of 112. He was a very solid defender, probably in the top third among regular third basemen.

So, all in all, Damon and Mueller provided similar value to the Red Sox last year, meaning the question of who will be missed most lies with their replacements. That would be Coco Crisp for Damon and Mike Lowell for Mueller.

Last year, Crisp played 145 games for Cleveland, hitting .300/.345/.465 for an OPS+ of 119. He was also among the very best (if not THE best) defensive left fielders in baseball. So he was already a better offensively player than Damon last year, before even accounting for the fact that he’s moving into his prime at 26 years old while Damon’s moving out of his at 32. And while there are questions about how he’ll adjust to center field, it seems likely that he’ll be at least average, and he should certainly be at least as good as Damon was defensively.

Lowell, on the other hand, played 150 games for Florida, hitting .236/.298/.360 for an OPS+ of just 77. He’s also probably not quite as good defensively as Mueller is.

The mitigating factor here is that Lowell had a 127 OPS+ in 2004 and a 132 OPS+ in 2003. So while it’s likely that Lowell will be at least a slight (and possibly major) drop off from Mueller, it’s also possible that he could return to his 03-04 level and actually be an improvement.

3. Can Boston’s offense be better this year than last?

This year’s team will have four positions that are mostly the same as last year and five that are mostly different. Let’s tackle the ones that are staying the same first.

Jason Varitek returns to see the bulk of the action behind the plate, David Ortiz is still the designated hitter, Manny Ramirez is back in left field and Trot Nixon will be expected to get the majority of the at-bats in right field. Left field and DH should be pretty similar to last year, with either a small decline or small improvement possible but no major change unless Ortiz or Ramirez gets hurt.

Catcher may see a decline because Varitek is a year older and more likely to slip a bit from last year’s .855 OPS than improve on it (although it was his third consecutive season with an OPS of at least .855). Also, Josh Bard has a career OPS of .659 and may not be able to match Doug Mirabelli‘s .721 OPS from last season.

In right field, however, the Red Sox should be better. First, Nixon should be better. He had an .803 OPS last year, but he was playing through injuries much of the year. His career OPS is .855. Second, the player platooning with Nixon (who shouldn’t start against lefties at all) is better.

Last year, Gabe Kapler and Jay Payton saw 130 at-bats in right, and combined to hit .254 with just six walks and three home runs. This year, newly-acquired Wily Mo Pena will be Nixon’s platoon partner, and Pena has an .883 OPS against lefties the last three years.

For the positions with changes, we’ve already covered center field and third base. Crisp should be at least as good a hitter in center field as Damon was, and probably better. Lowell should be worse than Mueller was, but he has a slight chance to be as good or better. That leaves first base, second base and shortstop.

The Red Sox got a .795 OPS from first base last year, thanks more to John Olerud being a good backup than starter Kevin Millar. Kevin Youkilis should see most of the time this season, with J.T. Snow backing him up. While Youkilis is likely to be a significant upgrade from Millar, Snow is equally likely to be a significant downgrade from Olerud, so the position is probably going to be about the same overall.

The addition of Hee Seop Choi is good for depth more than anything right now. He’s a better hitter than Snow and Lowell, but they’re likely to at least get a chance with the Red Sox. If the Sox give up on Snow, Choi will be a much better backup first baseman. If they give up on Lowell, Youkilis can move to third and Choi can start at first, once again improving Boston’s production.

At second base, Boston got a .729 OPS last year, largely because of the struggles of Mark Bellhorn. Mark Loretta is the starter this year, and even while struggling with injuries and playing in a pitcher’s park, he had a .707 OPS last year. When you consider his .886 OPS in 2004 and .813 OPS the year before, you figure he should definitely improve Boston’s production from second base.

Edgar Renteria struggled as well for the Red Sox last year, which is why they only had a .708 OPS from their shortstops, their lowest OPS from any position. For some reason, however, they let their shortstops use more at-bats (668) than any position besides center field (695). Alex Gonzalez has a .682 career OPS, so he may be a slight drop in production, but his presence will make sure the position gets fewer at-bats.

Gonzalez will probably bat last instead of second, where Renteria hit last year, and the Red Sox are likely to pinch-hit for him in big spots, which they never did for Renteria last year. If the Red Sox lose 10-20 points of OPS at shortstop but take 100 at-bats away from the position and give them to a position with better hitters, that’s probably a wash.

And pinch-hitting is another area where the Red Sox are likely to be better. Last year, they had 86 pinch-hit at-bats and posted a .585 OPS. This year, they’ll have a quality bat on the bench every day with either Nixon or Pena, and Youkilis will provide another quality pinch-hitter on days Snow starts (and Choi will be another quality pinch-hitter when he’s in the majors, which he may not be to start the season).

So overall, the Red Sox are looking at similar performances at designated hitter, left field, catcher, first base and shortstop, with either a slight decline or slight improvement possible but a major change unlikely for all five. They’re looking at anywhere from a big decline to a slight improvement (but most likely some kind of decline) at third base. And they’re looking at improvements in center field, right field, second base and pinch-hitting, with the latter three probably being significant.

With all that in mind, the Red Sox could very reasonably be expected to score more runs (or at least as many) this year than last if they can avoid major injuries to Ramirez, Ortiz, Varitek and Crisp.

4. How big an impact will Boston’s top prospects have this year?

Papelbon is the only one who will start the season in the majors, and he is slated to go into the bullpen. Based on manager Terry Francona’s comments, it seems like Papelbon will be used as a high-leverage reliever who can go multiple innings in a close game if necessary. Francona said he won’t be used as a spot starter in case of injury, leaving that role to DiNardo. If Foulke struggles, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see Papelbon take over as closer, or at least share the role with Mike Timlin.

Last year, Papelbon struck out 34 batters in 34 innings and posted a 2.65 ERA in the majors, although he did also walk 17 batters. The last two years, he had a 2.62 ERA with 263 strikeouts and only 69 walks in 244 1/3 innings in the minors. Without having to worry about facing hitters multiple times very often or pacing himself to go six or seven innings, Papelbon should be able to be a very effective reliever.

The Red Sox also have two other highly rated pitching prospects in Hansen and Lester. Hansen is generally regarded as Boston’s closer of the future, while Lester is ticketed for the rotation at some point.

The Red Sox thought so highly of Hansen after drafting him last summer that he received a very brief stint in the majors despite hardly pitching at all in the minors. If he proves to be effective in Triple-A early in the season and Boston’s current crop of relievers struggle, Hansen will almost certainly get called up. It’s not even out of the question that he, not Papelbon or Timlin, could be the closer by the end of the year if Foulke can’t do the job.

Lester hasn’t yet made his major-league debut, but he dominated AA last year (2.61 ERA with 163 strikeouts and 57 walks in 148 13 innings) and will get to show what he can do in Triple-A this season. Multiple injuries in Boston’s rotation could earn him a call to the majors some time after June or so, but he’s the least likely of Boston’s top three pitching prospects to have much of an impact on the big-league squad.

That leaves middle infielder Dustin Pedroia among Boston’s top four prospects. Pedroia posted a .970 OPS in 157 at-bats at Single-A in 2004, and then had a .917 OPS in 256 at-bats at Double-A before moving up to Triple-A. He struggled to a .738 OPS in Triple-A while dealing with a wrist injury. He’ll go back to Triple-A to start the season, but if he proves that he can handle that as well as he handled the lower levels, he may very well replace Gonzalez at shortstop mid-season.

If Pedroia replaces Gonzalez at shortstop and can put up a .750-.775 OPS, that will give the Red Sox another position at which they’re better offensively this year than last year. He’s also a potential call-up if Loretta gets hurt this season.

5. How likely are the Red Sox to make the playoffs for the fourth year in a row?

When you look at things, it seems like this Red Sox team may have more talent than last year’s (or at least more potential).

Schilling should be more effective and they’ve added a potential new ace in Beckett. Foulke may not be more effective, but they’ve added enough talent in the bullpen that they don’t need him to be great as much as they did last year.

The offense might be better than last year, and it at least looks like it shouldn’t be much worse. And the Red Sox have four top prospects that are ready or close to ready to contribute in case some of the guys in the majors get hurt or can’t get the job done.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Red Sox are as likely to make the playoffs as they have been the past two or three seasons. The last two years, the Red Sox may not have been as likely to win the AL East as the Yankees, but they weren’t far off. And more importantly, there was no other team in the division that looked like a strong contender to finish in the top two of the division.

This year, the Blue Jays look like they could be such a contender. The obvious problem with that is that if the Blue Jays win the AL East, either the Red Sox or Yankees will definitely not make the playoffs. The same thing is true if the Blue Jays finish second in the division. If the Blue Jays have at least a 30% chance of finishing in the top two (which may be low), then there’s a 30% chance that either the Red Sox or Yankees cannot make the playoffs even if the AL East is guaranteed the wild card.

The other problem is that just finishing in the top two in the AL East may not be good enough this year, as the AL Central has three capable teams in Chicago, Cleveland and Minnesota, while Los Angeles (or Oakland) is perfectly capable of being the Wild Card from out west. It’s even optimistic to say the AL East has a 50-percent shot at winning the Wild Card.

That means that if the Red Sox have a 35-40% chance of winning the division, their chances of winning the wild card are probably only 20 percent or lower.

While the Red Sox have gone into the previous two seasons looking like 80-90% bets to make the playoffs, this year their chances are probably no better than 50-60%. And they may even be lower than that.

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