Five questions: Boston Red Sox

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Jon Lester (Icon/SMI)

As the decade winds to a close, the Red Sox have to be considered the team that did the most significant 180°. From a frustrating “just good enough to tear our hearts out every September” team beloved by all as the Little Engine That (Never) Could to a big-market, confident team with a winning pedigree and scorn from those who had cheered them on so heartily in 2003 and 2004. No team has experienced such a drastic shift in every facet of the club: from a decrepit ballpark being rejuvenated to a lifetime-long ownership regime ending to the minor league system bearing fruit to two World Series rings. Now, the Sox have added depth their team in hopes it can get them a third ring after losing to the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALCS last year, despite having pushed the series to seven games.

Can the club stay healthy?

True, the health issue is more prevalent with the New York Yankees, but the Red Sox have their fair share of questions on the health front.

To wit, can Josh Beckett turn in a healthy season? To date, in Beckett’s eight years, he has only reached the 30-start plateau twice: 2006 and 2007 with the Red Sox, also the only times he has topped the 200 inning barrier. Last season, he made 27 starts. The odds on Beckett staying healthy are rare, but he has made significant strides since (a) getting out of the humid weather of Florida which contributed to blister troubles and (b) having a medical staff termed one of the best in the league on his side. Even if Beckett lands on the 15-day DL at some point this season, odds are it will be for something relatively minor to serve as a breather for him. This is what happened last year; Beckett took a two-week breather on the DL to tune up for October and recover from the innings load he had been on the full year previous. Projecting long-term injuries is hard to do, but unless a freak injury occurs, Beckett should be good for at least 25 starts. With the depth the Sox have, that’s not a problem.

Mike Lowell had hip surgery to repair a bone spur and shave fragments off his hip, while also repairing a torn labrum. It’s the same surgery that Chase Utley underwent in the offseason and Alex Rodriguez is trying to avoid. He has looked fantastic in spring training and has cleared every hurdle without a problem, so there might not be anything to be worried about. I’m not sold. The older you get, the easier it is to break down. Plus, a torn labrum in your hip is not something to sneeze at. It’s especially imperative Lowell stay healthy, thanks to poor depth behind him. The backups at third include Kevin Youkilis and Jed Lowrie, although Lowrie will serve at short while Julio Lugo recovers.

Speaking of Lugo, he missed the second half of 2008 with a torn hamstring. This spring, he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, taking him out of the shortstop competition, at least initially. When he returns, he’ll see a lot of time at short, but only due to Jed Lowrie being the backup at second and short. If Lugo is lost, despite his poor overall numbers, it will be a blow to the depth of the Red Sox at middle infield. It would certainly necessitate a long-term acquisition. While the Sox have some emergency depth options in Nick Green, Angel Chavez, Ivan Ochoa and Gil Velazquez, none of the four should be relied upon the entire year.

Other names that are important:

David Ortiz is reportedly at full health as well, much like Lowell. The “clicking” in his wrist that concerned him last year is gone and there have been absolutely no indications of any setbacks. What puts at him less of a risk than Lowell is Ortiz’s showing in the WBC, his position as designated hitter, and his surgery, which is further behind in the rearview mirror than Lowell’s.

Jason Varitek—he slid off a cliff in terms of offensive contributions. When (if?) will he start breaking down like many other aging catchers?

J.D. Drew—since when is he not an injury concern?

Jonathan Papelbon is an interesting name. He has been relatively overworked as a closer and complained of fatigue gassing him out in 2008. Of course, he was shut down in September 2006 due to shoulder issues, so the situation bears watching.

The Red Sox have plenty of question marks surrounding their team. No, it’s not as old or at cause for concern like the Yankees, but they’re certainly at risk of their season falling apart, more so than most teams. The heath of this club will be paramount. (As is true of any other team, but the risk factor involved with the Red Sox here is greater.)

Can Josh Beckett and Jon Lester be aces 1A and 1B?

For all of the Red Sox’s newfound depth in the rotation—Beckett, Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield, Brad Penny, John Smoltz, Clay Buchholz, Michael Bowden, Justin Masterson and more—the key to the season rests in the top two starters pitching to their potential. In a competitive division, Beckett and Lester will be relied up to be the two stoppers to carry them deep into October.

Beckett, 29 and entering his last guaranteed year (the Sox hold an option for 2010), was the talk of baseball two years ago and would have won the Cy Young if postseason performance had been factored in. After going 20-7 with a 3.27 ERA in 200.2 innings, he was looked on to carry the Sox in 2008. That didn’t work out so well as he had a brief DL stint in the middle of the year and could never consistently get his game down. He ended at 12-10 with a 4.03 ERA in 174.1 innings.

So can he be the 2007 version? Absolutely—he was the 2007 version in 2008. It just didn’t show. He actually pitched better in 2008 than 2007 by the xFIP measurement—a 3.35 xFIP as opposed to 3.56. His K/9, BB/9 and K/BB were all better than 2007. His HR/9 went up slightly, but was still fourth-best in his career. What was his issue, then? For one, BABIP reared its head as Beckett posted a .327 BABIP, up from .316. Kind of scary to think the numbers Beckett can/could put up with a normalized BABIP of .300. In addition, his strand rate decreased from 75.2 to 71.3. He gave up a ton more line drives in 2008 than 2007, which is directly related to his higher ERA.

A line drive percentage of 25.2 percent a year after a 15.8 percent (career: 19.4) at the expense of ground balls (47.3 percent down to 40.8 percent) will undoubtedly harm a pitcher. With all of Beckett’s peripherals strong, an inflated BABIP and a unsustainable spike in line drive percentage, not only is Beckett not a concern for the Sox, but he’s got to be considered one of the top three candidates to win the Cy.

As for Lester, last year at the halfway mark saw a full year elapse between his chemotherapy and recovery. Doctors all along had told him it would take a full year to recover, and that manifested itself as Lester got stronger as the season went on. Seemingly established as a 90-92 mph pitcher, he spiked up to 93-96 with his fastball after the half and all but abandoned his slider (15.9 percent thrown in 2006, 0.2 percent in 2008) in favor of his developing cutter, which is now one of the better cutters in the game that can saw off a bat.

Hurling 210.1 innings, he posted a 3.21 ERA that may be unsustainable—his FIP was 3.72 and xFIP 4.19, but certainly not cause for alarm. Now that his health is in full force, many assume he will establish himself as a top-tier pitcher. This is certainly possible and everything is trending positively, but there is one glaring red mark: his innings pitched jump. I addressed this earlier in the offseason:

Lester pitched 26.2 innings in the postseason for a sum of 237 total innings in 2008, a 45 percent jump from 2007 when he pitched a cumulative 163 innings.

The Verducci Effect calls for a significant risk of injury for young pitchers who experience of jump of 30 or more innings in their previous two seasons. Considering Lester jumped 74 innings, this makes him a prime candidate for injury.

How worried should we be? A 45 percent jump in innings is rather drastic, but Lester may be the exception to the norm.

He may be the exception due to his recovery from cancer, but there’s no denying the very real concern that he will tire earlier in the season or sustain an injury. This is the only red flag hovering over Lester; past that he should serve as a fine pitcher for the Sox, another with a strong playoff pedigree (2-2, 2.25 ERA, pitched the winning World Series game in 2007).

While most of the Sox’s pitching questions are mitigated by depth, it’s imperative that Beckett and Lester continue to be the frontmen for the rotation. Matsuzaka is best utilized as a three due to his wildness, Wakefield is a solid No. 4 and nothing more, and the jury is out on the rest. Beckett should be a lock to dominate, while Lester should continue to trend well albeit with the specter of a 45 percent increase in innings hanging over him.

Lugo or Lowrie?

In 2004 and 2005, Julio Lugo posted 20 and 24 Win Shares, respectively. He was one of the better shortstops in the game over that time period, with his value in his speed (39 stolen bases in 2005) and doubles power (41 doubles in 2004). He slumped to 12 WS in 2006 and posted a meager one win share for the Los Angeles Dodgers after being traded at the deadline. Lugo also had superior range, grabbing 53 balls out of his range in 2004 and 70 in 2005. He had a propensity to throw the ball away, as he posted 16 throwing errors against nine fielding errors in 2004. That number improved somewhat to 12/12 in 2005.

Lugo was able to live up to his defensive hype in 2007 for the Sox, posting a 55 OOZ and a 8 TE/11 FE line for errors. Unfortunately, that’s all he’d live up to as he posted a meager 1 WS and a .237/.294/.349 line on the season. Given his post-All-Star .280/.322/.406 there was reason for optimism entering 2008. Indeed, his batting average “rebounded” and he posted a .268/.355/.330 line. Taking out for the moment the poor slugging, the batting average and OBP were certainly numbers the Sox could live with. What couldn’t they live with? Well, the slugging for one. His nine throwing errors, seven fielding errors in 671 innings when the year previous he had eight throwing errors and 11 fielding errors in 1,228 innings. He was able to get to 23 balls out of his zone, so he still at least retained his range. That’s about it, though. He then tore his hamstring in mid-July and that was that.

Taking Lugo’s place was Jed Lowrie, who ended the season in an 8-for-51 skid due to a small fracture in his wrist all season long that went unnoticed. As the season wore on and he lost power in the wrist, he became a liability. With that in mind, his overall .258/.339/.400 line is impressive. Indeed, if you throw out his September, Lowrie posted a season line of .278/.341/.439. That’s ’04-’05 Lugo-esque. He also impressed scouts and players alike with his surprising effectiveness in the field after getting a rap as a poor fielder. He made 14 OOZ at short in 386 innings. Extrapolate that to 1,228 innings (Lugo’s innings played in 2007) and you get 45 Out of Zone plays (Lugo had 55).

Why, then, was Lugo set to be the starter before he was felled by injury? (He will return one-to-two weeks into the season.) The Red Sox did not want to move Lugo around the diamond and risk him being discontented while Lowrie had recent experience playing second and third. Thus, while Lowrie was still going to see a lot of playing time at short, the Sox were going to be able to technically anoint Lugo as the starting shortstop. That’s changed now and Lowrie will open the season at short. When Lugo returns, he will have every opportunity to play himself into a full-time gig, but the leg up Lowrie will have by then may prove impossible to overcome.

Lowrie is the future for the Sox and unless Lugo can get off to a hot start, the pressure will be too great to keep running Lugo out there like he was in 2007 and 2008. A lot of teams will be looking to dump salary at the deadline, and Lugo’s contract will (surprisingly) be one of the more palatable ones (that just goes to show how bad the pacts to Juan Pierre and Gary Matthews Jr. are). The Sox may be able to dump Lugo off on a desperate team looking to move one of their own hefty contracts that the Sox have a need for.

How can the offense be sustained?

One of the bigger concerns for the Sox this year is offense. With Manny Ramirez off in the west, there is no clear legitimate big-bopper in the lineup apart from David Ortiz. Oh sure, Kevin Youkilis and Jason Bay had strong seasons, but who’s to say last year wasn’t a career year for Youkilis? Until he can repeat those numbers, he’s far from a sure thing. Jason Bay, aside from 2007, has always been a 30-homer bat but isn’t the pure power bat that the Sox need to survive.

The Red Sox offense has gone a long way from the bruising 2003 lineup to the solid 2009 group. As the club has shifted more emphasis to defense, the lineup has begun to thin out. Despite ranking third in runs scored in all of baseball last year, there is significant liability in the lineup.

The leadoff position belongs to Jacoby Ellsbury. Mired in a deep slump for most of the year, Ellsbury has to show he can turn on the inside fastball and better his .336 OBP. Ortiz will man the No. 3 spot, and despite no indications he is hobbled by the injury that plagued him in 2008, he is becoming increasingly prone to injuries and it’s anyone’s guess if he can turn in the 40-homer season the Sox need from him. Youkilis, as previously mentioned, may be a flash in the pan and could return to his good, not great, ways. Drew has not exactly tore the American League up with his bat. Aside from a torrid run against National League pitching in 2007 and an awe-inspiring June in 2008, he has been nothing more than standard fare. Jed Lowrie has great promise, but it’s just that at the moment: promise. And Jason Varitek is clearly declining. While he showed encouraging power in spring training, the Sox will be fortunate to squeeze a .240 season out of him.

The one saving grace is that the Sox have the budget and the wherewithal to acquire a bat during the season if needed. With the economy the way it is, the teams that find themselves out of the race in July will scramble to dump their higher-priced hitters. For example, if Oakland fizzles out, Matt Holliday will almost certainly be traded. If Milwaukee has a terrible season, the team may dangle Prince Fielder.

The list goes on. Most of the big-market teams, not just the Red Sox, have angled themselves to have the financial flexibility to bring in another player while those that are looking to clear their red ink are hoping to get off to a fast start and get fannies in the seats.

The offense will not be among the best of the best, but they’ll certainly be good enough to rank in the top 10 in the league, if not top five. Really, it all comes back to David Ortiz regaining his power stroke. As much as I hate to rely on spring training numbers, Ortiz’s .556 slugging percentage and three home runs in 36 at-bats allay my worries. Youkilis, on the other hand, is hitting .185/.290/.296 in 27 at-bats. Not the greatest way to prove your doubters wrong.

Did the Yankees’ offseason vault them past the Sox?

No. Unequivocally no.

The Yankees went home with 89 wins and faced a tall task trying to stay up with the two teams that finished ahead of them: teams that had a productive minor league pipeline with one of those teams commanding a big market advantage. They had to do something, and three major free agent signings later, they did.

Was it enough to put them as heavy favorites?

No.

Look, CC Sabathia is heads and tails better than Mike Mussina ever was, but Moose went 20-9 with a 3.37 ERA and 132 ERA+ and since CC’s career average in the AL is a 3.82 ERA and 116 ERA+ (3.22 in his two previous full years in the American League from 2006-7, 142 ERA+) I’m going out on a rather sturdy limb and saying that Sabathia will replace Moose’s production, maybe a win or two more. But that’s it.

Teixeira is better than Jason Giambi was, but take Giambi plus Bobby Abreu and I’m thinking Teixeira replaces their production, with a bit of an extra boost for defense and overall package coming out of one body, not two. As for Burnett, the dude breaks down pretty much every year, and while last year he saw a full, healthy year, his 4.07 ERA won’t cut it as a No. 2 in the AL East. To me, compared to last year’s team, the Yankees essentially only brought in the production of AJ Burnett, and I’m not seeing much more than a 1-3 win increase for them. Plus, they have way too many injury/age issues—far more than the Red Sox, so to me, all this offseason did was restock their team to continue their push for a division. It didn’t just hand it outright to them, and of all the three teams in the hunt for the playoffs in the division, the Yankees are the ones with the most warts, issues and question marks.

Oh, and losing A-Rod until at least mid-May (and if Ken Rosenthal is to be believed, most of the year) isn’t going to help, is it? Not with Cody Ransom at third. And don’t believe the hype around Ransom—the same hype that surrounded Miguel Cairo becoming their “star” first baseman. I remember Yankee fans talking him up and then a couple months later he was released. Facts are facts: Ransom doesn’t even count as a band-aid across the wound.

No, the more pressing question is: did the Rays’ offseason vault them past the Sox? Or to be more factually accurate, did their offseason keep them ahead of the Sox? By bringing in Brian Shouse and Pat Burrell, they certainly didn’t hurt themselves. As a matter of fact, they improved themselves.

But the Rays have to answer these questions: can they avoid a “sophomore slump,” even if that slump consists of 3-5 fewer wins? Will the Rays grow to regret having David Price start in Triple-A? Little known fact: games in April count just the same in the standings as games in September. Do the Red Sox’s impossibly long depth in pitching, best bullpen in the game on paper and competent offense present a tougher challenge than the Sox of last year? All the answers aren’t clear yet, except the last one, which is a resounding yes.

If the Red Sox don’t make the postseason, it will only be because injuries decimated this team and saw their luck go horribly, horribly wrong. As is, they’re one of the best teams positioned for success: deep pitching, flexibility to bring in answers to questions yet to be asked, enough depth to sustain the inevitable cluster of injuries.

These are certainly not your 2001 Red Sox.

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