Who here likes platoon situations? Ever-changing lineups? Unspectacular depth? Don’t be shy now, raise your hands high.
Those of you with your hands up will be rewarded this season, because the Boston lineup will be sporting plenty of positional time-sharing. For those who did not follow the flurry of winter activity, a review might be in order. These Red Sox will look quite different from the “idiots” and “dirt dogs” of 2004, and so Parts I and II of the 2010 Season Preview will reflect on the new lineup and pitching situation.
This year’s team bears little resemblance to the 2007 World Series winning club. Gone is the erratic lunacy of slugger Manny Ramirez. The heavily-bearded and forever diving Johnny Damon. Gone are the role players who stumbled into perfect short-term employment- Orlando Cabrera, Julio Lugo, Coco Crisp, Mark Bellhorn, Bill Mueller. Gone are the days of Jason Varitek and David Ortiz in their primes, roping doubles down the line and crushing prodigious home runs in seemingly every meaningful ninth inning the team faced.
While some old favorites remain– Mike Lowell eluded potential trades to remain in Boston, and J.D. Drew is still lurking about ready to keep the medical staff on it toes– others have left or faded into mediocrity. In turn they’ve been replaced by new glue holding the Sox together and forming the core of a club that continues to be one of baseball’s most successful teams this decade. Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury, two of the game’s best young players, bring electricity to the top of the lineup. Kevin Youkilis has evolved from a contact hitter and OBP man into a complete star, capable of slapping a single the other way or launching a Green Monster home run as the situation warrants.
And as always, there are new faces, including veterans Mike Cameron, Bill Hall, Marco Scutaro, and Adrian Beltre along with relative youngster Jeremy Hermida. The question in 2010 is this: Will Boston’s off-season moves provide enough of a supporting cast to allow the Red Sox to compete in the always tough A.L. East? Let’s take a spin around the diamond and see. And as I said at the outset- be ready for platoons and a very fluid lineup.
It begins behind the plate, where 2009 acquisition Victor Martinez is the official starter. Jason Varitek, longtime captain and heart of the team will still be pressed into service a couple of times per week, but his waning offense has the organization on constant lookout for the opportunity to secure its future at backstop.
Martinez is an excellent offensive threat and is a decent option behind the dish, but hasn’t caught a full season in several years. He lacks arm strength and accuracy, and there are concerns about his ability to hold up physically given the demands of the position. Expect to see the Sox rotate him to first base every so often to reduce the wear and tear on his knees.
Varitek has unfortunately become a liability both at the plate and behind it. His .313 OBP over the past two years has hurt the team’s production, and his inability to throw out baserunners has enabled thefts galore. But his most important attributes remain as sharp as ever- ‘Tek is a genius at handling the pitching staff, particularly the Sox’s stable of young arms. He’s a tremendous clubhouse leader and the unquestioned soul of the team. For those reasons, ownership was smart to retain him. But 2010 could well be his final season, and the Sox need to be looking ahead.
Earlier this winter, they tried to trade Mike Lowell for Rangers’ backup Max Ramirez, but Lowell’s poor health nixed the deal. Expect the Sox to continue their efforts to find a long-term solution at the catching position regardless of what they choose to do with Martinez. For now, the team can expect good production as long as Martinez stays healthy. 25+ homers and 100 RBI aren’t out of the question.
While V-Mart will likely see some spot duty at first, the main man here is Kevin Youkilis. Despite the fungible lineup, Youk is one of a handful of guys who should be in nearly every game. Most of his playing time will involve first base duties, but don’t be surprised to see him slide back to the hot corner every once in a while.
Youk has blossomed into an all-around superstar, capable of 25+ homers and an OBP near .400. With Manny Ramirez and his replacement Jason Bay both gone for good, and with slugger David Ortiz on the decline, the pressure falls squarely on Youkilis to be the team’s primary run producer and biggest bat. Expect something like 100 runs, 25-30 homers, and 100 RBI.
Perhaps the most secure of all the positions, second will be manned by former MVP Dustin Pedroia. There was some talk this winter of shifting him to shortstop, but the signing of Marco Scutaro squelched that chatter. Now Pedroia can concentrate on merely having another stellar season.
Pedroia might be the best all-around middle infielder in the game, with a highly effective mix of speed, defensive range, and on-base percentage. He has just enough power to keep pitchers honest, rarely strikes out, and should swipe 20 bags or so. Factor in about 15 homers and an OBP over .380 and you’ve got a 2-hole hitter who can throw the team on his back as needed.
Scutaro, who is already 34 years old, is not the future. But he is the present, and the Sox desperately need him to come close to matching the production he enjoyed in Tornto. With the Jays, Scutaro set career highs in nearly every category including at bats, runs, hits, doubles, home runs, batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging. He tied his career best in RBI with 60.
In Boston, he won’t have the luxury of hitting at the top of the order, meaning his numbers may dip. But the team needs him to come through by getting on base at something resembling the .379 clip he managed in 2009. If he can’t, it will be yet another disappointing offensive year for Boston from a key defensive position.
Scuatro does provide solid range and a decent glove, which are a couple of the reasons the Sox inked him. Another was the lingering doubt about Jed Lowrie’s wrist, which is still healing after a rough 2009. Reports indicate that the Sox will likely start Lowrie at AAA Pawtucket to give him regular playing time, a move that I find questionable given how much time he’s spent with the big league club.
While their new shortstop is a bit of unknown quantity, the Red Sox’s real wild card is at third base. Already owing veteran Mike Lowell $12 million, the team still opted to reach out and sign free agent Adrian Beltre to a $10 million deal, thereby sinking quite an investment into the hot corner. It’s still possible that the team will move Lowell and reduce the overcrowding, but health issues seem to be getting in the way.
Lowell has hip and thumb woes that will ensure Beltre gets a good crack at the starting job. And while the Beltre signing was lauded by “experts”, I was a little mystified as to why. Adrian Beltre, once a prospect with nearly immeasurable upside, has struggled with nagging injuries and poor offensive production. He’s a defensive upgrade over the 35 year old Lowell, but had a rough 2009 and boasts merely mediocre hitting stats.
Beltre had a career year in 2004 at age 25. Now 30, he has failed to return to that form and has in fact declined in each of the past three seasons. His OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) over the past five seasons has ranged from a high of .802 in 2007 to a low of .683 last year- as a point of reference, .800 is sort of an unofficial minimum for good hitters (excluding middle infielders who don’t typically hit for power). From the third base position, teams definitely want a reliable offensive producer, and long-ball power wouldn’t hurt. Yet Beltre managed only 8 homers in 2009 and, aside from his aberrant 2004 season that featured 48 bombs, has never hit more than 26 in a season. Where those 48 came from I don’t know, but realistically Beltre is a 20-homer type of hitter, at best. In that department, he’s not much of an upgrade over Lowell.
Overall, he’s actually poorer than Lowell at the plate but does bring some youth, durability, and speed to the lineup. He can steal 10+ bags and should hit around .260 or so. Obviously the team was drawn to his defensive capabilities, but it was a significant price to pay for what may amount to a minimal upgrade. This, in my opinion, was one of the riskiest moves made by any team this off-season, and I won’t be surprised to see it backfire. Expect something like 70 runs, 20 homers, and 70 RBI.
(Is that really worth $10 million when you already have a Lowell/ Youkilis tandem?)
Many fans of the game want to declare David Ortiz a juicer, and his precipitous decline over the past couple of season certainly lends creedence to that assumption. But the truth is that Big Papi has suffered signficant knee and wrist issues since his days as a young Minnesota Twin, and being a big, heavy player with a power swing is tough on the joints. A decline was likely regardless of whether or not Papi ever used drugs. In the end, what matters to the team is that his production is way down.
This will probably be Papi’s farewell tour in Boston, meaning that if he wants to keep playing he’ll need to return to form in a big way. The Red Sox need that as much as Ortiz does personally, and fans can only hope to see a comeback of the big swing that once resulted in 30+ homers per year.
For a brief period, Ortiz was the best power hitter in baseball- the absolute last guy that any opposing pitcher wanted to face with the game on the line. His fall from that lofty status has been steep and sudden thanks to recurring wrist trouble, and he’ll have to stay healthy in 2010 if he wants to contribute in the way the teams needs him to. If he can stay in the lineup, he should have at least 80 runs, 25 homers, and 80 RBI. And who knows…we could see the Papi of old.
Speedster Jacoby Ellsbury (my personal favorite player, by the way) will be shifting from centerfield to left due to the team’s concerns over his defensive abilities. There’s no questioning his range, but Ellsbury’s instincts and lack of arm strength pushed the brain trust into making the switch. And with Jason Bay off to New York, there was a vacancy that needed to be filled.
Ellsbury’s primary weapon is speed, as evidenced by his 70 steals in 2009. Expect a similar total this year as the Sox may rely even more heavily on “small ball” tactics that include stolen bases. Ellsbury will once again bat leadoff, meaning that he needs to work on getting the OBP up a bit from last year’s .355 mark.
Taking over for Ellsbury will be the 38 year old veteran Mike Cameron, most recently a Milwaukee Brewer. Boston will be the seventh stop in Cameron’s soon to be 16-year career, and while he has long been a lead weight in terms of average, the guy can still cover ground in center. One of the best defensive outfielders of his generation, Cameron was brought on board primarily for his glove. He’ll be charged with mastering the quirky angles of Fenway Park where, ultimately, he should he a slight upgrade over Ellsbury.
At the dish, it’s a different story. While his power is still good, Cameron is at best a .250 hitter whose OBP will struggle to top .340. He’ll likely be pushed to the bottom part of the order, but the lack of on-base ability is still going to hurt the team’s production. Cameron’s upside includes 25-home run power and the ability to swipe a base as needed, though he doesn’t run much anymore. Expect something like 60 runs scored, 25 HR, and 60 RBI, along with the occasional day off. In those games, Ellsburywill rotate back to cover center or reserves Bill Hall or Josh Reddick will be worked in.
Ah, right field, home of the greatest unrealized potential on the team. J.D. Drew has always been viewed as an elite baseball talent who never quite managed to put things together. Injuries, lack of work ethic, and general disgruntled-ness have limited his effectiveness over the years, and suddenly the one-time uber prospect is 34 years old. The crazy thing is that as much as he’s struggled, Drew has had strong numbers over the years and, when healthy, is a formidable presence in the lineup. He routinely finishes with OBP numbers near or over .400, can belt 25+ home runs, and is good for 30+ doubles a year.
As always, the question regarding Drew is how much he’ll be able to play. If he can put in 500 at bats or more, he’ll have an 80/ 25/ 80 season, which the Red Sox desperately need following the departure of slugger Jason Bay. But if Drew is once again nagged by injuries, then right field is likely to be a revolving door.
Part of any right field platoon would be Jeremy Hermida, the Sox’s first acquisition of the 2009 off-season. The former Marlin has a lot of potential and is still only 26 years old. If he’s able to secure enough playing time, Hermida could post an OPS near .800. If he’s pressed into anything resembling full-time duty, 20 home runs wouldn’t be a stretch. He provides a quality glove and is an all-around solid backup in the outfield.
Joining Hermida on the bench is journeyman Bill Hall. The 30 year old has struggled to find his place over the past few seasons, posting ugly numbers in mop-up duty. But at one time, Hall flashed some major potential. In 2005 and 2006, he hit 52 home runs and posted OPS totals of .837 and .899. Not coincidentally, those two seasons were the only years he had anything close to a full-time role. His best year was 2006, which featured 101 runs, 35 homers, and 85 RBI. It’s unlikely he’d be able to resurrect that near-.900 OPS, but the Sox would certainly love it as a surprise. Hall’s true value is in his versatility- he can play nealry every position on the diamond and has at least some experience at second, short, third, and all three outfield positions.
The 23 year old Josh Reddick is another option for the Sox. In 2009 the rookie got 59 at bats with the team, and though he struggled overall he did show some ability. Boston will look to get him some at bats while possibly shuttling him between the majors and AAA Pawtucket.
To close out Part I, I’ll take a stab at outlining the batting order, but bear in mind that this could change daily depending on who’s in and who’s out.
1. Jacoby Ellsbury, LF/ CF
2. Dustin Pedroia, 2B
3. Victor Martinez, C/ 1B
4. Kevin Youkilis, 1B/3B
5. J.D. Drew, RF
6. David Ortiz, DH
7. Adrian Beltre, 3B
8. Mike Cameron, CF
9. Marco Scutaro, SS
Mike Lowell, 3B
Jason Varitek, C
Bill Hall, IF/LF/CF/RF
Jeremy Hermida, LF/RF
Josh Reddick, LF/CF
Part II of the Season Preview (pitching) will be up later in the week. Part III will provide some overall thoughts on the team’s likely fortunes in 2010. And for good measure, I’ll toss in a final installment with some fantasy advice. League drafts are approaching quickly, and managers everywhere need the inside scoop to build their teams.
As in any given year, the Red Sox should be in the thick of the playoff race. The organization is one of the best in MLB at evaluating and developing internal talent, and having one of the top payrolls never hurts either. Fans are excited as Spring Training gets under way and cheers of “Yankees Suck” are being practiced and perfected in basements throughout New England. Stay tuned…