Tuesday, March 31, 2009

2009 Sawx Preview - "Are you ready for a war?!?!"

So it's finally upon us... the 2009 Red Sox season is less than a week away and it's time to begin the battle for the AL East.

With the Yanks having spent gazillions on a new pitching staff and Mark Teixeira, and the Rays maturing (and adding a potent bat in Pat Burrell), it's pretty clear that this season will be one of the most challenging - and most exciting - in recent memory for the Sawx.

The Sawx, who rightly believe that their team was not that far from championship caliber last season, spent their offseason tweaking the roster around the edges, adding some high-risk/high-reward types to the rotation (Brad Penny & John Smoltz), the bullpen (Takashi Saito) and the positional roster (Rocco Baldelli) while making sure they locked their younger core players - Dustin Pedroia, KevinYoukilis, Jon Lester - into long-term, team-friendly contracts.

Was that strategy prudent? Will the new guys, balanced with some other fresh faces from within (George Kottaras, Jed Lowrie) and without (Ramon Ramirez), be enough to match the dazzling free agents and emerging super-duper-stars of the Yanks & Rays? Well... that's why we play the games!

So, with Tony Massarotti offering his preview on the Sawx today, I thought I'd spend a little time giving my two cents on the Sawx position players and line-up. Tomorrow I'll do the rotation and bullpen... And around the diamond we go!

Catcher - Jason Varitek, George Kottaras
You get the feeling that this position is a work in progress, because there's no way that the Sawx make it through the entire season with this tandem. Varitek has done it all for the Sawx - who can forget his dust-up with A-Rod, big homer in last year's ALCS vs. the Rays, or the way he calmly guided young studs Jon Lester and Clay Bucholz through their no-hitters - but the window isn't just closing on him; it's just about shut. A .220 batting average last year and declining OPS (career-high .872 in 2004 to last year's .672) don't bode well for the Captain's future with the Sawx. Kottaras, a rookie this season and will be the designated Wakefield catcher to start, has just five major league ABs and seems to have gotten the job because he's cheaper and younger than Josh Bard, who was supposed to have been Wake's caddy this season. Don't be surprised if the Sawx make a move for a better catching prospect (Miguel Montero, Taylor Teagrden, Jarrod Saltalamachia) come mid-season.

First Base - Kevin Youkilis, Chris Carter/Mark Kotsay (injured)
What was once a bit of black hole for the Sawx (Kevin Millar, where have you gone? Toronto, that's where) has become a position of considerable strength thanks to the sterling glovework of Kevin Youkilis and the emrgence of Chris Carter. Youkilis, who has become - arguably - one of the premier firstbasemen in the A.L., emerged last season as a legit MVP candidate with his .312/29/115 campaign at the plate and a Gold Glove in the field. A slight drop-off is probably expected this season as pitcher get smart to how to get him out (down & in or get him to chase), but .300/20-25/95-105 would seem reachable, especially if he has good protection from Drew/Bay/Lowell in the line-up. As for Carter, he has been raking (.359, 6 HRs) in spring training, but may have a short-lived stay on the big club when Kotsay comes off the DL. Either way, this is a definite position of strength.

Second Base - Dustin Pedroia, Nick Green
What other superlatives can you bestow on Pedroia that haven't already been given to him? Video game coverboy... Reigning MVP... WBC leader for Team USA... and in the meantime, serious ball-buster and "iron worker" in the offseason. Teh guy once thought of as too small and with a swing too big is considered to be the best at his position in all of baseball. It'll be tough to top last year's scintillating MVP campaign (.327/17/83/20 SBs, .869 OPS), but it seems likely that Pedroia might be putting up those numbers here for a while. And, having already stated his desire to play every day, it's unlikely Nick Green will ever see significant playing time, which is too bad, because Green has been terrific this spring (.345, 2 HRs, great defense), but his great versatility will be a plus for the Sawx in the early part of the season.

Shortstop - Jed Lowrie, Green/Julio Lugo (injured)
Ah, yes... the NEW black hole of the Sawx. Ever since Nomah's departure in July 2004, the Sox shortstop carousel has seen the likes of Orlando Cabrera, Alex Gonzalez, Edgar Renteria, Tony Graffanino, Alex Cora, Royce Clayton, Lugo, and now Lowrie trotting out to the "6." Now, with Lugo on the DL and Lowrie having proven himself in the crucible of a pennant race, it looks like the Sox will break camp with the steady Lowrie at short, and Green backing him up until Lugo comes off the DL in mid-April. Chances are, Lugo will then get the bulk of the ABs at short because of his salary, but Lowrie may be back in the lineup full-time by mid-season if Lugo reverts to form. Stay tuned...

Third Base - Mike Lowell, Jed Lowrie (Youkilis)
One of the bigger question marks of spring training has been Lowell's status coming back from offseason hip surgery. The prognosis is good, but Lowell is 35 and plays a position where bending, twisting and diving occur on a regular basis, which means that his hip - repaired or not - will be under stress all season. If he stays healthy, he's a line-drive machine who has seen his doubles stroke pay off well in Fenway (he peppers the Green Monstah) and is good for .280/17-20/85-95 easy. If he's hurt, we'll see Youk slide over to 3B with Lowrie/Green taking the occasional spot start. Either way, this is an ongoing area of concern for the Sawx - I for one hope Lowell makes it thru, because when right he is a prime asset for this team in the field, at the plate and in the clubhouse.

Left Field - Jason Bay, Rocco Baldelli
The late July trade that sent Manny packing and brough Jason Bay to town turned out to be the best thing that could have happened for the Sawx. Adding a pro like Bay to the lineup was a great addition, made even more important when Mike Lowell went down in the playoffs and Bay's right-handed power helped keep the linup balanced. Bay, who finished with a .286/31/101 line last season (.293/9/43 with the Sawx), should see similar production with his fly-ball swing and the protection he'll have in the Sawx lineup. Plus he's proven himself to be a great leftfielder in Fenway (no easy task) and has fit right in to the clubhouse. Expect .285-.290, 30 HRs, 100 RBI and a .900+ OPS. As for Baldelli, he remains a bit of an enigma. He hasn't been the same since being diagnosed with chanelothapy, and his production this spring (.194, 2 HRs, .694 OPS) hasn't looked so good. Still, he can provide pop off the bench, is a more than capable fielder with plus skills, and could prove valuable as a spot-starter. Any more than a couple of starts a week would be dicey, tho.

Center Field - Jacoby Ellsbury, Baldelli
With the trade of Coco Crisp for Ramon Ramirez in the winter, the Sawx have basically ceded the center field job to Ellsbury, and he seems poised and ready to take it. Despite wearing down at points in the season (and being benched, ironically, for Crisp in the playoffs), The Kid managed a .280/9/47 stat line for 2008, with 98 runs and 50 SBs; however, a .336 OBP as a lead-off hitter isn't gonna cut it. Ellsbury, who can fall into fly-ball ruts and gets pull-happy at the plate, combined with his well-publicized trouble with the inside fastball, needs to up that number to help make the Sawx offense go. In the field, his stellar defense and instincts mean no drop-off from Crisp, and his speed on the basepaths has really changed the Sawx offense. He is a key player for this team, seemingly poised for a breakout season if he rediscovers his 2007 late-season magic.

Right Field - J.D. Drew, Baldelli
On a lesser team without the support (cover) the Sawx line-up offers, Drew's two season in Boston thus far would be called a disaster. He followed a .270/11/64/.796 OPS 2007 with a .280/19/64/.927 line in 2008, largely inflated by a .337/12/27/1.310 OPS (!) month of June where he carried the Sawx while Big Papi dealt with his wrist. Both seasons featured flashes of brilliance combined with extended visits to the DL. Drew, who once seemed like the ideal power/OBP/fielding candidate the Sawx covet, can still be the player Theo Epstein believes he is. But extended production for a whole seaosn seems unlikely; as ESPN.com puts it, be "highly skeptical [that] Drew will ever see the high side of 500 at-bats ever again" which doesn't bode well for the Sawx. If Drew misses significant time, it could mean more ABs for Baldelli (a risk, considering his health) or a mid-season acquisition - Matt Holliday? - that could see one of the Sawx prize prospects leave in a trade. A question mark that will be answered, one way or the other.

Designated Hitter - David Ortiz, any number of other candidates
I guess theoretically, any one could DH on any given day for the Sawx, but let's be honest: If Big Papi isn't in there for 150+ games and 500+ ABs, this team is in trouble. Simply put, he is maybe the most indispensable part of the lineup. They can make do for a little while if he goes down, but Pedroia loses his protection, Youkilis loses his, and the whole line-up has to be adjusted. Papi, who missed time last season with a wrist injury, is no longer considered a lock for .300/35-40/120. If healthy, it's not unreasonable to suggest .290-.300/30/100 out of Papi, with significant numbers for walks and runs scored. And a monster chip on his shoulder, given how many people seem to be doubting him. I, for one, believe Papi can be productive for this season and return to his familair dominant position in the Sawx lineup.

Projected Opening Day Lineup
CF Ellsbury
2B Pedroia
DH Ortiz
1B Youkilis
RF Drew
LF Bay
3B Lowell
C Varitek
SS Lowrie

TOMORROW - Pitchers!

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