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.

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