In honor of Truck Day, it’s time to look at the Red Sox in 2009!
2008 was a tough year for the Boston Red Sox. But those of us who count ourselves among their fans didn’t really notice, because we’d just won the World Series – again – the previous year, and because we actually seemed to feel pretty magnanimous toward the Tampa Bay Rays. “Cute kids,” we said to each other. “Best of luck to them.” And then we felt really annoyingly good about ourselves for being so darn generous.
But objectively speaking, 2008 should have been much more frustrating than it felt. First our 2007 World Series MVP Mike Lowell busted his hip and never really recovered. Then David Ortiz looked less like the Greatest Clutch Hitter in Red Sox History (really, they gave him a trophy, you can look it up!) and more like just another gimpy-kneed slugger on the wrong side of thirty. Terrifyingly, Josh Beckett also got hurt and — horreur! – actually allowed earned runs in the playoffs. Curt Schilling did more yakking than pitching. Manny Ramirez had a panic attack and quit the scene. Predictably, our old catcher got a little older. The one bright spot? Terry Francona finally took pity on Julio Lugo and mercifully arranged for his quadriceps to have an “accident.”
But even despite all of this, Boston had the division’s — and the league’s — best Pythagorean record. And they came within one game of heading back to the World Series.
So while their offseason agenda was not as ambitious as some — it didn’t have to be. Their main to-do’s were to fix their catching problem and to add depth. They accomplished the latter, but signing Varitek did not fix the former – it just kicked the can down the road. (Though admittedly, I would rather have them put off trading for a young catcher than have them make a terrible trade just to get something done.) From a management perspective, they played the Varitek situation perfectly – however, that does not resolve the still-pressing problem of finding a young catcher. No doubt Kelly Shoppach haunts Theo Epstein’s dreams to this day.
A trade for a young catcher seems inevitable at some point in the next year or two – though fortunately, Boston’s farm system is still flush, both at the upper levels, with talents like Lars Anderson, and at the lower levels, with their latest round of draft picks. Some scouts look at these younger guys and see too much risk – others look at them and see a ceiling higher than Reims cathedral’s. (It’s a half-full-half-empty kind of thing.) However, given that Boston does have the financial resources to buy a certain amount of talent, they arguably don’t need to draft and develop guys just to hold down a base.
Boston’s free agent strategy is to assign a monetary value to a free agent player and then to not exceed that value – no matter what. For this reason, they currently have no players making more than 15MM a year, and only one player making that much. Compare that with their rivals, the Yankees, who now have several players who make 20 million or more. Is going from a four-star player to a five-star player of worth nearly double the money? Not in Boston’s eyes. Seems to me that Boston is willing to shell out for a consistent, very good player – a JD Drew – and try to develop their excellent players from within – a Dustin Pedroia or a Kevin Youkilis. No, not all of Boston’s risky draft picks will pan out – but those that do will offer major rewards. The replacement and above-replacement talent? Let someone else do the work of developing it. Boston will buy it.
As the big contracts favored by Dan Duquette finally cleared the books, Theo and company’s strategy for the Boston Red Sox becomes more and more clear. Develop the farm system – scout talent internationally; go over slot to get the draft picks you want; be aggressive in the draft; develop players according to plan; don’t rush them; and augment a strong core of internally developed players with smart free-agent deals and low-risk, high-reward guys like Smoltz and Penny this year, or Colon and Schilling last year.
In fact, when it comes to roster building, they almost – almost – run the team like a fantasy team. Think about it: in a deep fantasy league, you want to have a certain number of guys who can play a variety of positions. Boston has a first baseman who can play third and left field, a rightfielder who can play center and a centerfielder who can play anywhere, and a backup outfielder who can also play first. Their shortstop for much of the second half last year can also play third and second base. And unlike a lot of teams, Boston actually does play these guys out of position – and also unlike on a lot of other teams, the players don’t seem to complain about it. Now, that is a management feat.
Will their moves be enough to recapture the AL East? In truth, it’s just too close to call. (Look, this isn’t the AL West.) But if we have to make an educated guess, I’d keep in mind three things we generally know:
- Teams that go worst-to-first generally have had a sophomore slump the following year. I’m tempted to brush this aside in Tampa’s case, because their talent is young and still on the upswing, but I am also mistrustful of that temptation. Tampa also beefed up their lineup considerably by adding Pat Burrell.
- Saying “it all depends on who can stay healthy” is a cop-out. Over the course of 162 games, the only person who stays healthy is Juan Pierre. Building a baseball team is not only about putting together a great starting lineup – it is about building a safety net. The Yankees are a mile wide and an inch deep, in my view. If everyone stays healthy, it will not be because of some amazing design of Brian Cashman and Hank Steinbrenner, but because of a pact with the devil luck.
- Sportswriters picking winners are overly influence by two things: who made the most noise in the offseason (easily the Yankees) and who won the division the previous year (Tampa). They’re also influenced by who has the sexier story (tossup here, depending on whether you like big budget action movies where the hero growls ‘Now, it’s personal’ or feel-good family flicks with talking animals and old guys in cool glasses who read Proust). So no one is picking Boston to win the division in 09, at least that I’ve seen. But don’t let that fool you. This team is good.
SP1 Josh Beckett
SP2 Jon Lester
SP3 Daisuke Matsuzaka
SP4 Tim Wakefield
CL: Jonathan Papelbon
CF: Jacoby Ellsbury
2B: Dustin Pedroia
DH: David Ortiz
1B: Kevin Youkilis
RF: JD Drew
LF: Jason Bay
3B: Mike Lowell
C: Jason Varitek
SS: Jed Lowrie
This isn’t so much because of Mark Teixeira – though I admit, they could’ve used him. This is really because of concerns about the catching situation. Boston really needs to get that resolved, long-term. Ideally, they would have signed Varitek, let him take a backseat role, and traded for a new catcher. I am, I admit, concerned about shortstop and third base. Julio Lugo is – annoyingly – still on the team. Mike Lowell is – unavoidably – still going to be an injury risk. Jed Lowrie at shortstop doesn’t worry me, but a left side made of Lowrie and Lugo does. If that ends up being the case, depending on how Lars does in AA, I wouldn’t mind seeing him in Boston come September, manning first, and having Youk slide over to third. I’m also worried about Josh Beckett and David Ortiz, and anxious to see what happens with Clay Buchholz. Though it’s true that last year’s injuries were likely to blame for failing to repeat as AL East champs and the failure to get to the World Series, the Rays themselves suffered their own raft of injuries, and actually had off-years from several key players. So while Boston made a lot of good moves this winter, this will be a 162 game playoff race with no room for error.