Friday, March 28, 2008

A first month from hell

The Red Sox have never experienced a season opening series quite like that.
We don’t know very much new of interest about either team other than the following:
1. Daisuke’s still got the same maddeningly unpredictable concentration & control issues he had last year. He’s talented as hell, but he remains prone to those old Derek Lowe-style “what the hell are you doing out there” innings.
2. Brandon Moss might be an intriguing fifth outfielder to ponder as the year progresses.
3. Manny can still hit, no matter the month, continent or local language.
4. When he’s healthy, Rich Harden is flat out nasty.
5. Emil Brown can hit, but his base running skills leave a lot to be desired.
6. Red Sox Nation knows no international borders.

I thought I did a lot of traveling, but I’ve been home steadily since mid-February. I’m lucky. Here’s what the Red Sox players, coaches, staff, press, broadcasters and various other hangers-on will have logged between the end of spring training in Ft. Myers and the home opener on April 8 against Detroit (which, by the way, will be preceded by the Red Sox’ second World Series ring ceremony in three years):
· Ft. Myers, FL to Tokyo, Japan via Chicago. Playing two exhibition games against Japanese League teams, followed by two regular season games against the A’s.
· Tokyo to Los Angeles, CA. Playing three exhibition games against the Dodgers (two in Dodger Stadium, one in the LA Coliseum).
· LA to Oakland. Playing two more regular season games against the A’s.
· Oakland to Toronto. Three games against the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre.
· Toronto to Boston to host the Tigers and Yankees (!) at Fenway
Add it up. That’s a grand total of 16,105 air miles. It’s also the equivalent of flying more than halfway around the planet.

But wait! There’s more. Between the home opener on April 8 and Saturday, April 27, the Red Sox schedule looks like this:
· Three games at home against Detroit
· Two games at home against the Yankees
· Fly to Cleveland. Two games vs. the Indians at Jacobs Field.
· Fly to New York. Two games at Yankee Stadium.
· Back home. A four game Patriot’s Day weekend series with the Rangers (don’t forget to factor in an 11am start for that Monday game).
· Stay home to host Vlad Guerrero and the Angels for three games.
· Fly to Tampa Bay for a 3 game weekend series with the Rays.

That whole stretch takes place without a single day off, weather permitting. After a whirlwind trip of a little over 16,000 miles (and I have no idea how many time zones) starting in Florida, the Red Sox will play 19 consecutive games in four cities. Then they finally get a day off on April 28 before the Jays come to Fenway to end April and start the month of May.

If the Red Sox finish the month of April over .500, I’ll be stunned.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

2008 Red Sox Preview: Bullpen

Here’s where you might be a little concerned. The problem isn’t the closer. Jonathan Papelbon is as close to automatic as there is in the game. The problem is six months worth of how do you get to him. Of the starting rotation, only Josh Beckett (and to a lesser degree Tim Wakefield) is likely to be a real innings eating horse. The others have a tendency to throw a lot of pitches early in the game and therefore not last much past the 6th inning. So Terry Francona is going to need to depend on the bullpen crew to chew up somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 innings (3 innings a game, times 130 or so games). Most specifically, it’s the 5th/6th through the 8th. The best bet among the group is certainly Hideki Okajima. For the vast majority of 2007, he was money, plain and simple. After that, you’ve got a group that will include some combination of the following on any given day: Manny Delcarmen, Mike Timlin, Kyle Snyder, Javier Lopez, Julian Tavarez, David Aardsma, Craig Breslow, Bryan Corey, David Pauley and Craig Hansen.

This is going to be a big year for local kid Delcarmen, as the Sox will look to him to finally blossom into the 7th inning force and complement Okajima. If Manny Delcarmen produces as everyone hopes he will, this bullpen corps is going to be impregnable. What Terry Francona wants is simple: Delcarmen in the 7th, Okajima in the 8th, then Papelbon to shut the door in the 9th and finish the game. After Delcarmen, there remain smaller questions to be worked out. Mike Timlin just turned 42 a couple weeks ago. Hard to know how many innings he has left in him, but I’m guessing not a lot. On any given day, Julian Tavarez ranges from acceptable to abysmal. Kyle Snyder and Tavarez are going to be swingmen/spot starters who will need to settle into definable roles. The rest of the group will fill in the lefty specialist/key situational spot holes. Craig Hansen is running out of time. He needs to live up to the hype that’s been dogging him ever since he was drafted out of St. Johns in the spring of 2005. If he can’t satisfy, he’s going to be trade bait at the deadline. If Delcarmen doesn’t mature as expected, the load on everyone else increases.

When the Red Sox faltered and let the Yankees back into the race during the dog days of 2007, it was the bullpen that looked weak, tired and thin. Okajima was overworked. Delcarmen was uneven. Timlin was hurt. After the trade deadline, Eric Gagne was hideous This year, it may well be the Blue Jays that pose the bigger challenge to Boston down the stretch, but the six key questions remain:

  1. Will this be the end of the road for Mike Timlin? Yep. 17 years, a thousand appearances and 1150 innings exacts a cost, and the bell will toll for Timlin sooner than later.
  2. Will Julian Tavarez be serviceable? Probably not. Expect him to disappear.
  3. Will Jonathan Papelbon continue to be The Man throughout the year? He’d better be.
  4. Will Okajima and Delcarmen maintain a solid bridge between the starters and Papelbon? Most likely, but they can’t do it every single day.
  5. Will Theo Epstein still be hunting for bullpen help at the trading deadline? Absofreakinlutely.
  6. Is this bullpen good enough to get it done this year? Sure, but it’s going to need help from names that aren’t yet in the organization.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

2008 Red Sox Preview: Offense

  1. Dustin Pedroia
  2. Kevin Youkilis
  3. David Ortiz
  4. Manny Ramirez
  5. Mike Lowell
  6. Jason Varitek
  7. JD Drew
  8. Jacoby Ellsbury
  9. Julio Lugo

    The lineup will go through some massaging and various permutations, but in 2008 it’s probably going to look something like what you see here. JD Drew and Mike Lowell may flipflop, or Jason Varitek could fall to the 7th spot. Jacoby Ellsbury might hit second or even leadoff and Kevin Youkilis could hit lower in the order. But this is the starting nine, and this order is roughly how Terry Francona has it set up now.

    Until someone else challenges them, Ortiz and Ramirez remain the most fearsome 3-4 combination in the game, and rank as one of the best offensive double punches ever. They rank with Mays-McCovey, Aaron-Matthews, and yes, Ruth-Gehrig. Those aren’t my rankings. Reggie Jackson suggested the comparison last fall. With Big Papi and Manny anchoring your lineup, every starting pitcher in baseball will agree that they’d rather stick needles in their eyes than face Boston.

    After a slow start, Dustin Pedroia figured how to become a pesky, determined hitter. Although he has a huge swing, he’s established himself as the leadoff guy. Kevin Youkilis has at least a couple batting titles in his future. He’s a more emotional Wade Boggs, still in the maturing stage. He concentrates on each at bat as if the game is on the line, he takes a lot of pitches (The Greek God of Walks, as he was dubbed in the book Moneyball), and he’s learned how to spray the ball around. Mike Lowell remains a deadly force, with a perfect Fenway Park swing. Expect another 20 HR/100 RBI year from him.

    In my mind, the question marks are Jason Varitek and JD Drew. ‘Tek had a dreadful 2006, and rebounded with a barely average offensive 2007 (.255 average, 17 HR, 68 RBI, .367 OBP). My fear is that his offensive numbers will continue to degrade as he ages and the games pile up. There are often long stretches where ‘Tek becomes invisible offensively, and he’s prone to the dreadful at-bat where he waves feebly at high fastballs which can easily overpower him. Then, suddenly, he snaps out of it with clutch doubles and homers. The other big unknown is JD Drew. If you look at his career numbers, (lifetime, his typical year is .284 avg, 25 HR, 84 RBI, .390 OBP), April through August 2007 has to be seen as an aberration, and his performance in September through the postseason is more of what you’d expect. We forget how tough an environment Boston can be. Perhaps it simply took the majority of his first year to become acclimated. If Drew rebounds with a typical JD Drew year, the bottom of the Red Sox order gets much thornier for opposing pitching staffs. Julio Lugo was dreadful in 2007. Again, his typical numbers (.271, 12, 62, .333) suggest he should perform better in 2008.

    What I like the most is what comes off the bench. Alex Cora doesn’t give at bats away, and he is not just a smart hitter, but one of the best baserunners on the team. Also, you should love Sean Casey. His nickname is The Mayor, and he’s widely considered the single nicest guy in baseball, along with being a dependable contact hitter. He’ll spell Youk at first, either when Youkilis or Mike Lowell gets a day off. Casey was a good pickup, and I think he’ll shine in Boston.

    This is a good offense. Manny, Drew and Lugo all had sub-par years by their personal standards, and even though he had 35 homers and 117 RBI, David Ortiz was hurt last year. If they all just rebound to their expected norms and stay healthy (always the biggest unknown), this remains one of the American League’s toughest lineups top to bottom.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

2008 Red Sox Preview: Defense

After the starting rotation, the Red Sox infield defense is by far the team’s greatest strength. They shine defensively, and now boast three gold glove winners: Varitek, Lowell and Youkilis. Captain Jason Varitek still reigns as one of the best game handlers in the business, as every Red Sox pitcher since 1997 would attest. World Series MVP 3B Mike Lowell was routinely called “a pro’s pro” by all of his teammates, and had earned his contract extension long before his great October rolled around. 2007 AL 1B Gold Glove winner Kevin Youkilis was a decent third baseman until Mike Lowell came along. It stands to reason that he’s only going to get better at first, where he didn’t commit an error all year. In fact, with a little luck, this April Youkilis could break Steve Garvey’s all time record for consecutive errorless games at first. Julio Lugo was more than serviceable at short, and Rookie of the Year Dustin Pedroia was outstanding at second. This is a perfect combination of youth and experience. The backups are going to be Alex Cora at SS and 2B and Sean Casey at first. Defensively, Cora is steady, and can step in for long stretches if needed. Casey is a professional hitter, but although he’s not in Youkilis’ class defensively, he’s still a far better defensive first baseman than the likes of Kevin Millar or Brian Daubach (my nominee for the most overrated player in Red Sox history). In the entire American League, only the Blue Jays (with new 3B Scott Rolen) have an infield as good as Boston’s.

Right now, the outfield is Ramirez in left, Ellsbury and Crisp in center and JD Drew in right. That will change, of course, as Coco Crisp isn’t interested in playing second fiddle in center to Ellsbury. That’s his right, frankly. I think Coco Crisp is the best defensive center fielder the Red Sox have ever had, period. He flat out earned a Gold Glove award last year, but didn’t get it. Sorry, Gold Glove voters, but you fucked up. Crisp is fast, silky, positions himself perfectly, gets great jumps on balls hit at all angles, has a very good arm, and is a one-man highlight reel, to boot. But barring a catastrophic injury to Jacoby Ellsbury, Crisp is not going to be the Red Sox regular centerfielder in 2008. Look for him to be traded. Jacoby Ellsbury hasn’t yet established himself at the major league level as Crisp’s defensive equal, but he was the Red Sox minor league system’s defensive player of the year in 2007, so chances are he’s going to be pretty good. Most people are now likening him to Fred Lynn, who was a pretty fair player in his day. In left field we have Manny Ramirez. Ok, stop laughing. In Fenway Park, Manny actually does a decent job. He’s learned that he does best when he plays a shallow left at Fenway. His arm isn’t strong, but it’s reasonably accurate, and he’s got a very fast release. His problem is two-fold: he has terrible defensive instincts, and he gets bored on occasion, and stops paying attention to what’s going on in the game. On the road, especially in cavernous outfields such as Yankee Stadium and Comerica Field in Detroit, Manny’s a huge liability. Fortunately, he can hit a little bit. In right, JD Drew’s quite good, and this gives the Red Sox a decent outfield arrangement all around. Nobody’s got a Vladimir Guerrero or Ichiro-type gun, but great outfield arms are a rarity in today’s day and age. The era of the Roberto Clemente / Al Kaline / Willie Mays / Dwight Evans / Reggie Jackson arm is over. Today, there’s Vlad, Ichiro, Torii Hunter, and not much else. The Sox’ outfield is decent. Not the best in the league, but not certainly not awful, either.

As a whole defensively, the Red Sox probably won’t drop too much from last year’s mark as second in the American League. That’s good enough for me.