1. How much better will the defense be?
Boston upgraded several positions defensively this offseason. The signings of Marco Scutaro at shortstop, Adrian Beltre at third, and Mike Cameron in center, and moving Jacoby Ellsbury to left to replace Jason Bay, should all help to improve Boston’s defense. According to UZR, the Red Sox had the 16th-best defense in the league last year at -16.3 runs. I expect that they should be near the top of this category next season provided these new acquisitions stay healthy.
Beltre will provide an immediate upgrade over the aging and injured Mike Lowell. Lowell’s range has deteriorated, while Beltre is in Gold Glove form. He missed time last year. but when healthy, he is among the best defensive third basemen. Scutaro is a solid defender as well. He may not be the whiz that Alex Gonzalez is, but he at least provides some offensive support as well. Although not spectacular, he makes the plays you would expect your shortstop to make. Cameron has earned the reputation as one of the best defensive center fielders of this era. He possesses great instincts, which is something Ellsbury has lacked at times. Ellsbury may be better suited for left field, where he has played very well, albeit in small sample sizes, in the past.
I took a rather unscientific approach to looking at how much the run prevention would improve from 2009 to 2010. I suggested that a reduction of somewhere around 80 runs allowed would seem reasonable, putting them at about 650 runs allowed in 2010. This would put them among the best teams in the league at preventing runs.
Obviously, this will depend on several factors. Cameron is 36 this year and entering his 16th season in the major leagues. Beltre is coming off an injury-plagued year, although he does appear healthy now. Scutaro will be 34 this year, and Ellsbury will have to adjust to playing a new everyday position. Ellsbury’s defense has been subject to much scrutiny by Boston fans and media. His UZR last year was -18.6, which was among the worst of all full-time center fielders. He should benefit by playing in left alongside Cameron, and I expect that his numbers will return to being above average defensively. Dustin Pedroia at second, Kevin Youkilis at first, and J.D. Drew in right round out a solid all-around defensive unit that should make a vast improvement from last year.
2. Does this lineup need another big bat?
After all the Adrian Gonzalez trade talk this winter, the Red Sox decided not to make a move. Boston lost Jason Bay’s production in the outfield and replaced his bat with Mike Cameron’s. The team did upgrade the lineup with Scutaro and Beltre. While this team may lack a true 40-home-run slugger, it has depth from top to bottom.
The Opening Day lineup could look something like this: Ellsbury, Pedroia, Youkilis, Martinez, Ortiz, Drew, Beltre, Cameron, Scutaro. It is true that no one player strikes fear into opposing pitchers and managers, but there are no glaring holes in the order as of now. Ultimately, the team will likely need to add a big bat down the line. Whether or not this move comes this season will largely depend on the production of David Ortiz. Ortiz’s struggles were well documented last year. He still managed to slug .462, but this was a far cry from his previous numbers. If he can return to hitting 30-plus home runs and slugging over .500, the Red Sox will be pleased.
The organization knows, for the most part, what to expect from Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, and Victor Martinez. While none of them are true power threats, Youkilis has posted ISOs of .257 and .242 in the last two seasons. Pedroia and Martinez will provide high averages and the ability to reach base consistently. J.D. Drew, when healthy, is among Boston’s most productive hitters. He walks at a high rate (14.5 percent for his career) and has decent power (.221 ISO). He is 34 now and entering his 13th season, but he will still be able to reach base even as he ages.
Jacoby Ellsbury emerged as a premier base stealer last season after he swiped 70 bags and was caught just 12 times. After struggling for some of the 2008 season as pitchers began to adjust to him, he looked much more comfortable at the plate last year. Adrian Beltre will be looking to bounce back from a career-low ISO of .114. He signed a one-year deal in Boston and should benefit from playing at hitter-friendly Fenway Park. Beltre will never again be the player that hit 48 home runs in 2004, but 25 or more is not out of the question this season. Cameron, although nearing the end of career, has still shown some power and should use the wall to his advantage. Scutaro is a classic moneyball type player and has a penchant for reaching base.
3. What can they expect from the back of the rotation?
Boston’s top three rotation spots appear to be set with Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and John Lackey. These three give Boston one of the best pitching trios in the league. However, there are some big questions about the other starting spots.
Daisuke Matsuzaka finally appears rested and recovered from shoulder fatigue and weakness that plagued him all of last season. He is not expected to begin the year on the 25-man roster as he just made his spring training debut last week. Dice-K threw just 59.2 innings for Boston last year and was completely ineffective as a result of an injury suffered during the World Baseball Classic. This was compounded by the fact that he hid his injuries from the team and then criticized the organization’s conditioning program.
Matsuzaka’s style has always been unique and oftentimes frustrating to watch. He is content to nibble at the corners and his pitch counts are often very high. He walks over four batter per nine innings but also posts high strikeout numbers. He relies on his deceptiveness and changing speeds to keep batters off-balance. When healthy he can be a successful pitcher and probably the best fourth starter in the league. Barring any setbacks, Matsuzaka should rejoin the team by mid- to late April. For now, the veteran knuckler Tim Wakefield will fill his void. Wakefield is durable and consistent even as he enters his 18th major league season.
Clay Buchholz will look to establish himself in Boston’s rotation this season after spending parts of the last two seasons between Boston and Triple-A. Buchholz has been somewhat of an enigma during his tenure. He burst onto the scene with a no-hitter in 2007. He has dominated Triple-A hitters with ease, but his stuff has not always been able to translate into the majors. He did pitch much better during September and his command is improving.
This could be a critical season for Buchholz. He has top-of-the-rotation stuff, but it is easy to overlook the fact that the 25-year-old has made just 34 career starts. The organization will be looking for him to make 25-30 starts this season. If Buchholz can put the pieces together this year, Boston’s staff could be a force to be reckoned with. If not, I wouldn’t be surprised if Clay were used in a potential trade next year.
4. What will happen to Ortiz?
No player is more loved and respected in Boston than David Ortiz. Big Papi has been a staple in the middle of the order for Boston and a fan-friendly ambassador for the organization. This is precisely why last year was such a painful season for him and fans. Ortiz has, deservedly, been given a longer leash than most in Boston. Boston is pretty thin at 1B/DH without Ortiz, and the team is banking on him regaining his form. He did bounce back somewhat form a horrid start last year but never truly regained his confidence at the plate.
Ortiz will be out to show that last year was a fluke and prove the steroid skeptics wrong. There are concerns, however, that the 34-year old is aging rapidly and his power is diminishing. On top of this he has dealt with some nagging injuries, including a wrist injury that forced him to miss time in 2008. After posting ISOs of over .300 his first five seasons in Boston, Ortiz’s numbers have dipped to .243 and .224 in ’08 and ’09. Dave Allen of Fangraphs pointed out that his power to right has dwindled as his power to left has risen. He appeared to be swinging and missing more often and was having trouble getting around on good fastballs, both of which could be indicative of his aging.
THT Forecasts project for a .364 wOBA and 1.6 WAR, which compares favorably to other projections for Ortiz. This is a far cry from his past numbers, but still the Red Sox will gladly take this type of production. Behind Ortiz, Boston’s options are Mike Lowell or Jeremy Hermida, so Ortiz is a significant upgrade here. His days are likely numbered as Boston’s DH. If he gets off to a slow start, I think Boston will begin to look elsewhere. The Sox cannot afford to watch and hope the old Ortiz returns, especially in the competitive AL East. For now, Ortiz will be given every opportunity to start and knock in runs.
5. Can they top the Yankees?
This is the question every year in Boston. The Red Sox were more active this winter, spending more money than their adversaries in New York. As it stands right now, CHONE projects for 99 wins for New York and 93 for Boston. As much as it pains me to say, I think the Yankees will be the team to beat. Boston will have a difficult time keeping up with the Yankees’ slugging lineup.
New York may win the division, but I certainly feel an eventual ALCS match-up is in the future. The Red Sox are built to win in the postseason as their staff will give them a huge advantage in any short series. They should be competitive with New York throughout the season, although the expectations are that another World Series may be in store this year.