Thursday, March 29, 2007

Red Sox 2007 Season Preview

Once again for the eighth straight season it seemed as if the Red Sox and the Yankees were going to battle each other for supremacy in the American League East. The Sox got off to a hot start, winning 15 of their first 19 games, and found themselves with a four-game margin over Toronto and New York on July 4. Boston spent more than half the season in first place, but on August 2 it relinquished the top spot. The Red Sox had a brutal August, going 9-21, including a five-game sweep at the hands of the Yankees in Fenway Park. This coincided with Manny being Manny, as the enigmatic slugger played sparingly for the rest of the season after the sweep. The Sox never recovered, and for the first time since 1997 the Red Sox and the Yankees didn't hold the top spots in the AL East.

The team suffered from a lack of pitching. Bronson Arroyo was traded for Wily Mo Pena, Jon Lester had his season cut short due to cancer treatment, David Wells couldn't stay on the mound, Matt Clement was never right before his season ended in June with right shoulder problems, Tim Wakefield missed nearly two months with a stress fracture near his ribs, and Josh Beckett struggled to adjust to the American League. The only bright spot was the emergence of Jonathan Papelbon, who became a lights out closer until his season was stopped after coming down with a right shoulder strain in early September. He became just the second pitcher (Dennis Eckersley) to save at least 30 games with an earned run average under 1.00 since the advent of the modern save.

With that, the Red Sox dished out more than $110 million to import the most sought after free agent pitcher on the market in Daisuke Matsuzaka. Julio Lugo, who became the Sox fifth shortstop since 2004, and J.D. Drew were both signed away from the Dodgers, and Boston did its best to revamp a suspect bullpen. The Manny Ramirez soap opera continued, as he once again asked to be traded and once again was not. And finally, how happy is Curt Schilling after he was told that he would have to play out the final year of his contract without an extension?

Below we take a capsule look at the 2007 edition of the Boston Red Sox, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:

2006 Finish (86-76) - Third Place (AL East)

KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: RP - Brendan Donnelly, OF - J.D. Drew, SS - Julio Lugo, SP - Daisuke Matsuzaka, RP - Hideki Okajima, RP - Joel Pineiro, RP - J.C. Romero

KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: RP - Keith Foulke, SS - Alex Gonzalez, 2B - Mark Loretta, RF - Trot Nixon

PROJECTED LINEUP: Julio Lugo (SS), Kevin Youkilis (1B), David Ortiz (DH), Manny Ramirez (LF), J.D. Drew (RF), Jason Varitek (C), Mike Lowell (3B), Coco Crisp (CF), Dustin Pedroia (2B)

PROJECTED ROTATION: Daisuke Matsuzaka (RHP), Curt Schilling (RHP), Josh Beckett (RHP), Tim Wakefield (RHP), Julian Tavarez (RHP)

PROJECTED CLOSER: Jonathan Papelbon (RHP)

MANAGER: Terry Francona



Jason Varitek, the captain of the club, had the worst season of his career, hitting .238 with 12 homers and 55 RBI. He caught only 103 games, his lowest since 2001, missing nearly a month after left knee surgery. He'll be 35 in April, and is chomping at the bit to prove that he's not too old to be productive.

Coco Crisp never hit his offensive stride during his first year in Beantown, and apparently Alex Gonzalez didn't bring enough offense to outweigh his fantastic defense. Therefore, Julio Lugo (.278, 12 HR, 37 RBI), who split time with Tampa Bay and the Dodgers, was brought in to lead off. His on-base percentage was 42 points higher than Gonzalez's (.341 to .299) and Lugo hardly strikes out (76). However, he doesn't walk much either (39). He can play anywhere in the infield, although he made 19 errors last season, and can also shift to the outfield if needed.

Kevin Youkilis (.279, 13 HR, 22 RBI) easily made the transition across the diamond from third to first and did everything the Sox needed, including getting on base 38 percent of the time, hitting .310 at home, and leading the team with 120 walks and a .325 average (with at least 100 at-bats) with runners in scoring position. He had an excellent first half of the season, posting a .297 average with 10 homers and 43 RBI but didn't fare as well after the All-Star break.

Mike Lowell (.284, 20 HR, 80 RBI) bounced back from a horrendous 2005. He's as solid as they get on the hot corner, having a better defensive campaign than the one that won him a Gold Glove in 2005. He made only six errors and increased his fielding percentage to a career-best .987. Lowell is in the walk year of his contract and will have to perform well to get one last hefty deal.

The Sox are so confident that Dustin Pedroia (.191, 2 HR, 7 RBI) can handle the big leagues that the second-round draft pick out of Arizona State in 2004 was given the starting second base job despite playing only 31 big league games. He was called up from Triple-A Pawtucket on August 22 and spent the rest of the campaign in Boston. Pedroia has blazed through the minors, hitting .308 with 21 homers, 133 RBI, 167 runs scored and a .392 on-base percentage in 270 games.


It was another unbelievable campaign for Ramirez, batting .321 with 35 homers, 102 RBI, a .619 slugging percentage, and tied for the league lead with a .413 on-base percentage. Manny is one of the premiere right-handed hitters, belting 30 homers and driving in at least 100 runs in 11 of the last 12 seasons. Ramirez was called into question by the media and the fans throughout the last month of the season after playing in only six games with a right knee problem. The thought was that maybe Ramirez didn't work as hard to get back on the field after the five-game sweep by the Yankees. It doesn't matter if he wants to stay or go since the rumors never materialize and his contract is reasonable at this point. Ramirez loves Fenway, posting a .355 average with 16 homers and 53 RBI. He needs 30 homers to join the 500-homer club.

The Red Sox made a big splash with the signing of right fielder Drew, who hit .283 with 20 homers and 100 RBI in career-high 146 contests with the Dodgers. The left-hander fits the mold of the club with an exceptional on-base percentage (.393). It's dangerous to fall behind Drew, who hit .351 with 12 home runs and 46 RBI when ahead in the count. The team reached a preliminary agreement with the slugger, but a balky shoulder held back the official signing. You've got to be thick-skinned to play at Fenway, and Drew will have to perform or the fans will get on him mercilessly. A career National Leaguer, Drew must avoid any early season struggles while getting used to the AL.

Crisp (.264, 8 HR, 36 RBI) never got comfortable in his first season in Boston. He started off hot but fractured a finger within the first two weeks of the season, and was never as consistent when he came back almost a month and a half later. Crisp had significant drop-offs in almost every offensive category, except he did steal a career-high 22 bases. His .317 on-base percentage wasn't good enough to hold on to the leadoff spot in the lineup, but there will be less pressure now that he'll be buried in the order. Crisp played tremendously in the outfield, tying Detroit's Curtis Granderson for the fewest errors (one) by an American League outfielder with at least 250 total chances.


David Ortiz (.287, 54 HR, 137 RBI) is simply one of the deadliest hitters in the game. It's just not fair to the rest of the league that he hits in front of Manny Ramirez. He set career-highs with homers, walks (119), on-base percentage (.413), and slugging percentage (.638). Ortiz led the AL in home runs, RBI, walks, total bases (355), and at-bats per home run (10.3). "Big Papi" finished third for the AL MVP award after breaking the franchise record for homers set by Jimmie Foxx (50). His 32 long balls on the road tied an AL record set by Babe Ruth. He was a monster with two outs, hitting at a .293 clip with 19 homers and 50 RBI, and belted 10 homers and knocked in 79 runs with runners in scoring position. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more clutch hitter in baseball.


Matsuzaka (17-5, 2.13 ERA for the Seibu Lions) was the prized free agent this season, and the Red Sox weren't going to let him slip through their fingers like Jose Contreras. Never has a Japanese player caused such a stir, warranting a $51.1 million posting fee. Boston was so enamored with the right- hander that it outbid every other team by at least $11 million. Matsuzaka, who threw 13 complete games, struck out 200 batters and had a WHIP of .92 last season, was brought in to be the ace of the staff and the face of the franchise. While he is known as a can't miss prospect, you never really know how a pitcher is going to adjust coming over from Japan. He's got a mid-90's four-seam fastball, a two-seamer, a forkball that seems like a changeup, and a devastating curveball (a.k.a. the gyroball). Does it really exist? No one knows, but Matsuzaka isn't spilling the beans as to whether he's got it in his repertoire. It's supposed to look like a slider but dart like a fastball. Either way Matsuzaka is ready to make his mark against the greatest hitters in the world.

Schilling (15-7, 3.97 ERA) came back strong after an injury-riddled 2005, throwing at least 200 innings for the fourth time in the last six years. Schilling was tops on the team and fifth in the AL with 183 strikeouts. Even though he's 40, Schilling is still a big game pitcher. However, the burly right-hander might have shown his age last season. Schilling was 10-3 before the All-Star break but just 5-4 after. He was dominant in Boston, going 9-1 with a 3.06 ERA in 14 starts. Schilling will assuredly be pitching to prove that he's worth another year or two to the Fenway Faithful.

Beckett (16-11, 5.01 ERA) didn't make quite the splash that was expected after coming over from the Marlins. He struggled with his command, giving up a career-high 74 walks, and really faltered in August and September, losing six of his last nine decisions. He notched career-bests and led the team in wins and innings pitched (204 2/3), but relied too much on his fastball against the tougher American League lineups. He'll have to perform better and adjust to the AL or the Red Sox will be kicking themselves for giving him a three-year contract extension in July. The bright side for Beckett was he managed to stay healthy, making 30-plus starts for the first time in his career. Beckett, who'll be 27 in May, should have a better season now that he'll be the third starter.

Wakefield (7-11, 4.63 ERA) is the senior member of the Red Sox, having spent the last 12 seasons in Boston, but the knuckleballer missed a significant amount of time with a fractured rib cage muscle and never got on track. Wakefield, who had his worst season since the 2000 campaign, logged only 23 starts and 140 innings, his least since matching that total in 1999. Wakefield is the second 40-year-old on the staff and that's playing with fire.

The experiment of moving Jonathan Papelbon to the rotation lasted less than five months and Julian Tavarez (5-4, 4.47 ERA, 1 save) will reap the benefits. For the first time since 2002 Tavarez will be a starting pitcher. Tavarez, who will be 34 in May, filled in towards the end of last season and went 3-0 with a 4.01 ERA and a complete game in six outings. Eighty-five of Tavarez's 700 career appearances have been as a starter, and he is 31-28 with a 5.04 ERA, 200 walks and 234 strikeouts in 460 2/3 frames. Tavarez isn't the ideal answer in the rotation, but Lester is expected to return by midseason and Boston should be able to patch it together until then.


It seemed like a bad idea when Papelbon (4-2, 0.92 ERA, 35 saves) announced after the 2006 season that he would come to camp as a starting pitcher. Papelbon gave up just seven earned runs and no other full-time closer gave up as few runs. He struck out 75 guys and walked 13 in 68 1/3 innings. If not for Mariano Rivera everyone would be talking about this young man being the best closer in baseball. However, he wasn't as effective in the second half of the season and was shut down in September, as the rigors of pitching one inning three or four times a week took a toll on his shoulder. After converting his first 20 save chances with a 0.31 ERA he blew six of his next 18 opportunities. The Sox had no other choice but to reinsert Papelbon as the closer after striking out on acquiring a replacement.

One year after setting a franchise record with 81 appearances, Mike Timlin (6-6, 4.36 ERA, 9 saves) made only 68 appearances and blew eight saves. He landed on the disabled list with a strained right shoulder, and his 2007 isn't off to a good start either. Timlin will begin the season on the disabled list with a strained left oblique muscle. During the second half of the season Timlin went 2-6 with a 6.06 ERA.

Brendan Donnelly (6-0, 3.94 ERA) will take the spot of Tavarez and be the seventh inning righty. He appeared in 62 games last season with the Angels, holding opponents scoreless in 21 of his last 23 outings. Donnelly is reliable, pitching in 60-plus games in three of his five seasons. He held right-handers to a .204 average with a fastball, slider, and split-finger.

The rest of the bullpen consists of J.C. Romero, Joel Pineiro and Japanese import Hideki Okajima. Romero (1-2, 6.70 ERA) has fantastic stuff if his head doesn't get in the way. He held lefties to a .202 average last year. Pineiro (8-13, 6.36 ERA, 1 save) will try to transition into a reliever since he's lost his effectiveness as a starter. Okajima (2-2, 2.14 ERA) is a 31-year-old lefty that pitched for the Nipppon Ham Fighters. Okajima, who relies on an average fastball and a good curve, limited left-handers to a .186 average last season. He was 34-32 with a 3.36 ERA and 41 saves in 13 seasons of professional ball in Japan. The battle for the final spot will be between Manny Delcarmen and Kyle Snyder. Delcarmen, a homegrown product from Roxbury, was 2-0 with a 5.06 ERA, while Snyder, who is out of options, went 4-5 with a 6.56 ERA in 17 games, including 11 starts.


Pena, Doug Mirabelli, Eric Hinske and Alex Cora make up a potent bench for the Red Sox. Pena (.301, 11 HR, 42 RBI), who can play all three outfield positions, missed nearly two months after left wrist surgery. Mirabelli (.191, 6 HR, 25 RBI) came back down to earth after a career year with the bat in 2005. The Sox thought they could live without Mirabelli, trading him to San Diego, but with no one to effectively catch Tim Wakefield the Sox reacquired him in May. Hinske (.271, 13 HR, 34 RBI) brings versatility by playing the corner positions in the outfield and infield and has got a little pop with the bat, while Cora (.238, 1 HR, 15 RBI) will backup Pedroia and Lugo.


Rest assured that when the 2006 season ended the Red Sox brass was incredibly unhappy with a third place finish. Another one and Terry Francona may lose his job. Boston played unbelievable defense last year and now they've got the pitching to match. Theo Epstein did a lot of work during the offseason, spending nearly $225 million. Drew will provide protection for Ramirez, not like he needs it, and Lugo is a great addition to the top of the lineup.

The collapse of the pitching staff and the injury bug caused the downfall last season, but the addition of Matsuzaka alone puts Boston in the conversation as having the best rotation in baseball. The biggest question mark with the Red Sox is the guys that will get the ball to Papelbon. Boston gave up 279 runs from the seventh inning or later last year, which was second-worst in the majors (Kansas City gave up 320), and that's why the bullpen has four new faces. As long as Papelbon can stay healthy this team will find itself back in the playoffs. The Red Sox have a fantastic offense, a very good rotation, and a dominant closer. Throw in a defense that led the majors in fielding percentage (.989), committed only 66 errors (14 better than the next closest team), and turned 174 double plays, which was tied for third in baseball, and the Red Sox have a team that's built for a long run in the postseason.

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