Five Questions: Boston Red Sox

Two games are in the books and Boston is 1-1. With 160 games to go, there’s plenty left to learn about the 2008 edition of the Red Sox.

1. Is the rotation now a concern?

Early in the offseason, Boston’s rotation appeared to feature Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jon Lester and Tim Wakefield, with rookie Clay Buchholz filling in for injuries or replacing an ineffective starter at some point during the season.

Now, however, Schilling’s out for at least half the season and may not pitch at all this year, and Beckett’s back spasms forced him to skip the trip to Japan. Beckett’s eligible to come off the DL April 4, but all indications are that he’ll skip Boston’s season-opening trips to Oakland and Toronto and pitch the home opener on April 8. Assuming that’s the case, he’ll essentially miss only one start and there’s no reason to expect the back to be a recurring problem.

Losing Schilling is more of a blow to the team’s depth than to the team’s actual chances of winning. Schilling’s 41, and was likely to miss time at some point even if he didn’t have this injury. And while he’s had an ERA below 4.00 each of the past two seasons, he was probably more likely to be above 4.00 this season than below. Buchholz may not be able to post a sub-4.00 ERA quite yet, but there’s no reason to think he can’t be in the mid-4s. Replacing Schilling’s innings with Buchholz’s innings is unlikely to be a dramatic drop for the Red Sox.

The issue is that if somebody else gets hurt, the Red Sox will be left scrambling for a starter. Beckett has had trouble making it through an entire season without missing at least a few starts, Wakefield’s 41 years old and neither Lester nor Buchholz has ever thrown more than 150 innings in a professional season, so the odds of the Red Sox making it the entire year with only five starters are very, very low.

Boston starting pitchers posted a 4.21 ERA in 2007. For them to match that this season, Beckett will need to be every bit as good as he was last year, Buchholz will have to post at worst a 4.50 ERA in his rookie season and one or all of Matsuzaka, Lester and Wakefield will need to improve on their 2007 performances. And if any of them needs to miss a start or two, whoever fills in will need to not completely stink.

2. What’s going on in center field?

In Japan, Jacoby Ellsbury and Coco Crisp each started one game. That does not, however, mean they’re going to split time in center field equally throughout the season.

Unless he struggles, the majority of the playing time should go to Ellsbury this season. However, Crisp will still see action because the Red Sox want to showcase him for a trade at some point. And that trade is still likely to happen before July 31. The Red Sox have been patient to not give Crisp away, which is smart. There will be a point where a contender is unhappy with the performance it’s getting from center field. That team will see Crisp as a good player who isn’t making too much money and isn’t tied up for too many years, and will give the Red Sox a legit prospect for him.

The best guess here is that Crisp starts about a game a week and sees time as a late-inning replacement in half the other games before getting traded before the end of May.

3. Will the two biggest 2007 disappointments bounce back?

The Red Sox signed free agents Julio Lugo and J.D. Drew to big deals before the 2007 season, expecting big things from both. Instead, Lugo posted the worst season of his career and Drew had his worst season since he was a rookie.

It was only two games, but it was good to see Lugo hit three singles in six at-bats in Japan. His problem in 2007 wasn’t power or patience, but hitting singles. His home run, double and walk rates were pretty much in line with the rest of his career, but his rate of hitting singles was by far the lowest of his career. If he can bring his singles rate back in line with the rest of his career, his OPS can easily climb by 100 points.

Drew didn’t play in either game because of back issues, which is kind of funny. Coming into 2007, injuries were what you worried about with Drew, not lack of performance. Instead, he played 140 games for just the third time in his career, but he had a .796 OPS after four consecutive seasons with an OPS of at least .885.

At 32, Drew is getting older, but he’s not so old that his ability to hit should be disappearing completely. It’s much more likely that 2007 was either a fluke off-year or a difficulty adjusting to Boston and the AL. It may be unrealistic to get his OPS back up to his .890 career average, but he can certainly split the difference between that and last season’s .796. Whether he can play 140 games again is a different question.

4. Are the Red Sox going to get any offense from their catcher?

If you had to pick one candidate to have a significant decline from his 2007 performance, it would be Jason Varitek. After three consecutive seasons with an OPS+ around 120 from 2003-2005, Varitek’s OPS+ fell all the way to 83 in 2006. He bounced back nicely last season with a .788 OPS for a 103 OPS+.

However, he’s now 36 years old and his swing is very slow. In the two games to open the season in Japan, he didn’t just go hitless, he looked like he might not get a hit all season. That’s obviously an exaggeration, but striking out six times in your first eight at-bats, even for somebody who has always struck out a lot, is not a good thing. Varitek should still hit some home runs and draw some walks, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see his batting average drop into the .230s, as it did in 2006.

5. Which strategy to defend a World Series is better?

After winning the 2004 World Series, the Red Sox made significant changes before the next Opening Day. Of the 25 players on the World Series roster, seven were gone by the start of 2005, including starting pitchers Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe and starting shortstop Orlando Cabrera.

This time, only three players who were on the 2007 World Series roster are missing from the 2008 team. What’s more, everybody who either had at least 200 at-bats or pitched at least 50 innings last season is back, at least for now, so even the guys who are gone were minor factors in 2007.

Which way is better? Well, the Red Sox made some good decisions in 2004 and some that weren’t great. Letting Martinez leave was smart, because it was nearly certain that he wasn’t going to stay healthy for the entire four-year deal he wanted, and he hasn’t. But the team probably should have just re-signed Cabrera, because the Sox have used three shortstops in the three seasons since he left and all have been disappointments.

This season, the Red Sox really had only two tough decisions. The first was whether to re-sign Mike Lowell, and he made that easy on them by deciding to accept less to stay in Boston than he could have gotten elsewhere.

The other was whether to trade several players, including at least one player who figures to play a big role this season, to land Johan Santana. Since they easily could have trumped the package the Mets gave the Twins, it’s pretty clear that they decided they didn’t need Santana and would keep their young guys. If Schilling’s injury had been revealed three months earlier, it’s very possible this offseason would have had a different look.

Ultimately, this year’s title defense should go better than the last one. The Red Sox made it back to the playoffs in 2005, but they didn’t look like a particularly good team by the time they were losing to the White Sox. With all the reliable veterans returning and several promising youngsters getting bigger roles, Boston should be every bit as good when the 2008 playoffs start as it was at the end of the 2007 playoffs.

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