Five Questions: Boston Red Sox

The 2006 season was Boston’s worst since an injury-ridden 2001 campaign. While there are many teams in the majors who would be happy to go 86-76, for the Red Sox that record meant the end to several streaks.

First, it ended their three-year streak of reaching the playoffs. Boston had won the Wild Card in 2003, 2004 and 2005, becoming the first Red Sox team to go to the playoffs three years in a row. But they couldn’t extend that to a fourth season.

It also ended a four-year streak of winning at least 90 games. Before 2002-2005, Boston last won 90 or more games four years in a row way back in 1914-1917.

Finally, it was ended an eight-year run of finishing in second, as Toronto pushed the Red Sox into third place. Following a fourth-place, 78-84 season in 1997, the Red Sox were the runners-up to the Yankees each season until last year.

Boston responded to a disappointing season by going out and spending a ton of money. The Red Sox dropped $51 million for the right to negotiate with Daisuke Matsuzaka and then another $52 million to sign him. They also spent a total of $106 million to sign J.D. Drew and Julio Lugo.

Let’s take a look at five questions that will help determine whether that spending spree leads to a return to the playoffs.

1. How good is Dice-K?

Scouts and stat projections uniformly agree that Matsuzaka will be a good pitcher in the major leagues. What they don’t all agree on is whether he’ll be a top-three starter, or merely a top-25 or so starter.

For his career, Matsuzaka had a 2.95 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in Japan, and 2005 and 2006 were his two best seasons. Given the (admittedly small) sample of pitchers who have come to the majors from Japan before him, it seems likely that his ERA for the Red Sox will land somewhere around 3.75-4.00. That would have put him somewhere between ninth and 14th in the AL in ERA last season.

While Matsuzaka draws rave reviews for his intelligence and wide assortment of quality pitches, he’s still facing a very difficult transition both for his pitching and his personal life.

It would be silly to expect him to contend for the Cy Young award right away, but there’s no real reason to think he’ll struggle tremendously. There are just too many positive signs in his career history to not expect him to be above average at the very least.

2. Who is the closer?

Right now it sounds like Joel Pineiro is the favorite to win the job.

Pineiro’s ERA and WHIP have both gone up every year since 2001, from a 2.04 ERA and 0.95 WHIP in that impressive rookie season to a 6.36 ERA and 1.65 WHIP last season. He did pitch much better after moving to the bullpen last year, and the Red Sox took a $4 million gamble on him.

The odds seem to be against Pineiro really becoming an impressive reliever, and if he struggles early he likely will lose the job (if he even wins it in the first place).

The other players who seem to be in position to win the job out of Spring Training are veterans Mike Timlin, Julian Tavarez and Brendan Donnelly.

Timlin has had some good moments in Boston, but he’s now 41 years old and he posted a 4.36 ERA last season. He’s also struggled with a strained oblique in Spring Training, so he’s probably the least likely of the four pitchers being considered to actually win the job.

Tavarez has the ability to pitch well, but he’s also questionable emotionally—and that may be an understatement. Even when he was posting a 2.38 ERA for St. Louis in 2004, he was prone to the occasional meltdown.

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He may not be the best-equipped pitcher emotionally to close for the Red Sox, but if he can get back to what he did in 2004 and 2005 for the Cardinals, he might be the best option Boston has.

Donnelly was lights-out his first three years in the majors for the Angels, but he’s become merely a decent reliever the past two seasons. It seems pretty safe to expect a 3.50-4.00 ERA from him, but I wouldn’t bet on getting another sub-3.00 ERA season from him again.

The other factor for the Red Sox is that they have three young or unproven pitchers who could stake a claim to the job midseason if they’re pitching well and the closer out of Spring Training is struggling.

Hideki Okajima is Boston’s less-heralded Japanese import, and he was an excellent reliever last year for the Nippon Ham Fighters. A lefty with a quality curveball, he could definitely be Boston’s most effective reliever this year.

Manny Delcarmen and Craig Hansen are both talented young pitchers who struggled much of last season. Delcarmen finished with a 5.06 ERA, while Hansen was at 6.63. Both of them have the potential to be much better, and Hansen is a guy the Red Sox probably expect to have at closer at some point in his career.

And if you’re looking for real dark horses to take the job at some point in the season, Devern Hansack and Bryce Cox are two names to keep in mind. Neither is even a sure thing to start the season in the majors, but both are intriguing long-shot options.

My best guess is that Pineiro keeps a shaky hold on the job until July, at which point either Hansen is pitching well enough that the Red Sox decide to give him the job or Boston goes out and trades for an established closer.

3. How much will Drew and Lugo help?

Drew is the easier one to figure out, because even though he might not be worth all the money he’s getting from Boston, there’s no question that he’s a big upgrade over Trot Nixon.

Just taking a quick look at their career numbers, Drew has a .905 career OPS (133 OPS+) while Nixon’s at .844 (117 OPS+) for his career.

What’s more, Drew has been very productive each of the last four seasons (when healthy), including an .891 OPS (125 OPS+) last year. Nixon, meanwhile, managed just a .767 OPS (98 OPS+) last season.

The big problem for Drew has been staying on the field, but that’s been almost as big a problem for Nixon throughout the years. Once establishing themselves in the major leagues, Nixon and Drew have averaged 121 and 118 games per season, respectively.

Last year, Nixon only played in 114 games while Drew was able to stay in the lineup for a career-high 146 games (the second time in the last three years he’s played at least 145 games).

Throw in the fact that Drew is a better defender right now than Nixon, and it’s likely that Drew will be a two- or three-win improvement over Nixon, if not more.

The difference between Lugo and Alex Gonzalez is a little more difficult to figure out because while Gonzalez is not a good hitter at all, he does have a good defensive reputation.

Lugo was playing very well for Tampa Bay last year before he got traded to the Dodgers and struggled the rest of the season. He finished with a .762 OPS and 94 OPS+, pretty similar to what he did in 2003 and 2004.

Even that drop from his 2005 numbers (105 OPS+) was significantly better than what Gonzalez gave the Red Sox offensively. Gonzalez managed just a .696 OPS, good for an OPS+ of 77.

Defensively, Gonzalez has a much better reputation than Lugo, but they’re actually probably closer than most people realize. So even if Lugo only performs as well as he did last year, he’s still probably worth a win or two over Gonzalez. If he performs the way he did in 2005, it could be an even bigger boost.

4. Will Jason Varitek and Coco Crisp be closer to their 2005 versions or their 2006 versions?

The correct answer is most likely one of each.

Crisp had a solid season in 2004 before improving even more to an .810 OPS and a 119 OPS+ in 145 games in 2005, his last season in Cleveland.

In his first season in Boston, he missed 42 games with an early-season hand injury and struggled with a couple other injuries after he returned. He never got a chance to play fully healthy and managed just a .702 OPS (80 OPS+).

Crisp is still only 27 years old, and if he’s fully healthy this year there’s no reason he shouldn’t get back to the nice progression he made in Cleveland. He could have a career year in 2007, but at the very least he should be able to post an OPS in the vicinity of .800.

Varitek, on the other hand, is a catcher who is going to turn 35 early this season.

In 2005, he had his third straight season of playing at least 130 games while posting an OPS of at least .850 and an OPS+ of at least 120.

Last year, however, he was only able to play in 103 games, and he struggled to post a .725 OPS (85 OPS+).

He could very well bounce right back and throw up another .850 OPS this season (or at least above .800), but it’s probably more likely that more than 1,000 games of squatting behind the plate are starting to take their toll on him.

Assuming he doesn’t suffer another injury (like the knee injury that cost him all of August last year and probably contributed to his struggles in September), Varitek should improve on his 2006 numbers. But he’s probably reached the stage of his career where you should expect him to be in the .750-.800 OPS range, not the .850+ range.

5. How big an uncertainty is the rotation?

For a rotation that has all five starters pretty much set in stone, the Red Sox have about as much uncertainty as possible.

We’ve already discussed Matsuzaka, who is facing the difficult transition from Japan to the majors while dealing with tremendous media attention and the pressure of costing $103 million to acquire.

Curt Schilling rebounded from an injury-plagued 2005 season to post a solid 3.97 ERA in 204 innings last year, but he’s now 40 years old and there’s really no telling when a pitcher that old is suddenly going to lose the ability to pitch well.

Jonathan Papelbon was dominant as a closer last season, but his season ended prematurely because of a shoulder injury. He’s now moved into the starting rotation in an attempt to alleviate some of the stress on his shoulder.

There are two problems with projecting Papelbon this season. The first is that we don’t know how healthy he’s going to be. The second is that we don’t know how much of last year’s dominance he’ll retain when he has to pace himself to throw 100 pitches and he’s seeing batters two or three times a game.

Josh Beckett looked like a future ace his last three years in Florida, where his biggest problem was just staying healthy. He was healthy enough to make 33 starts for Boston last year, but he struggled to a 5.01 ERA.

Was it just a one-year struggle while adjusting to a new league? Was he pitching less effectively because he was trying to avoid the blisters that plagued him in Florida? Was much of his success in Florida just an illusion created by playing in a pitcher’s park in a non-DH league?

Those questions and more are the reason nobody really knows whether Beckett will rebound with a sub-4.00 ERA or hurt the Red Sox with another 5.00-plus ERA.

The only starting pitcher who doesn’t have much uncertainty for the Red Sox is Tim Wakefield. He’s had an ERA+ between 100 and 116 in nine of his past 11 seasons. Despite the fact that the knuckleballer is 40 now, there’s no reason he shouldn’t land in that range again.

Ultimately, though, Boston’s rotation could be a huge strength or a tremendous weakness. The best-case scenario is that the Red Sox have four No. 1 or No. 2 type pitchers, and Wakefield is the best fifth starter in the majors. The worst-case scenario is that Wakefield is Boston’s best pitcher, and Matsuzaka, Schilling, Papelbon and Beckett all struggle with injuries, ineffectiveness or both.

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