Red Sox Gain Pitching Depth And New Potential All-Star Talent.
Well, I say potential, since while I really like the additions to the roster, nearly all of them are injury-prone or recovering from injury. Still, I love the transactions the Red Sox have made in this off season.
They made the most controversial transaction first, back in November, when they traded CF Coco Crisp to the Royals for set-up-man Ramon Ramirez. Giving-up a leadoff hitter with base-stealing speed is not a casual decision to make. But the Red Sox seem to think that they have other guys who can steal bases. More on that below.
Then the Red Sox worked on securing the best of their bullpen. They re-signed left-handed reliever, Javier Lopez. Knowing that Lopez is a solid sidearm reliever who can go one full inning, I see him as either a situational lefty, or a potential set-up man to compliment Hideki Okajima, Justin Masterson, and Ramon Ramirez. There is no debate who gets the ball in the 9th inning. But I think the Red Sox will experiment with these four guys to see who can work the 8th. Maybe the 8th inning will be a shared role between Okajima and Masterson, with Lopez and Ramirez as backup. Of those four, Masterson has the most stamina, and can go more than one inning, making him a potential long reliever. So the Red Sox have options in late-inning relief.
In January, the Sox traded young reliever David Aardsma to the Seattle Mariners for long-shot lefty prospect, Fabian Williamson. The Red Sox also acquired 28 year-old right-hander Fernando Cabrera, who will begin 2009 in Pawtucket. And the Red Sox acquired veteran reliever Takashi Saito from the Dodgers. Having spent the latter half of last season on the DL, Saito considered elbow surgery, but has decided to try to work his way back to full strength. He might start the season in Pawtucket as well. Saito is noted for giving-up 15 home runs to Hideki Matsui when they were rivals in the NPB.
Manny Delcarmen, Clay Buchholz, and Devern Hansack also return to the bullpen, along with young minor leagers such as Hunter Jones, Wes Littleton, and a possible future starter, Michael Bowden. The Boston bullpen is going to be a very interesting place in 2009. Given the team's decision to continue to look inward and support their growing farm system (7 minor league teams if you count the Wilmington Blue Rocks), I think there are a ton of storylines for a Red Sox fan to follow this season.
Next, the Sox rebuilt their starting rotation for 2009. Veteran swing man Julian Tavarez is gone. The Red Sox would love to lock young pitchers to be the backbone of their starting rotation for years. But that's the one part of the player's market that is locked-up and in short supply. Young aces are all locked-down, including those with the Red Sox. Sure, I dream of a starting five of Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Scott Kazmir, Ubaldo Jimenez, and another young righty. But you sometimes have to buy veteran talent to take advantage of their experience and minimize risk by signing them to 1-year deals. And that's what the Sox did. At relatively low prices, they acquired veteran right-handers Brad Penny and John Smoltz, aged 30 and 41, respectively.
Brad Penny proved himself in the 2003 World Series, when he earned a victory against the Yankees alongside teammate Josh Beckett (who got 2 victories). He was a solid Cy Young candidate for a few seasons, but his time with the Dodgers had mixed results, marked by injuries. While he earned 16 victories in both 2006 and 2007, he had a losing, injury-shortened season with the Dodgers in 2008. When the Dodgers declined to give him a 6th year, the Red Sox acquired him for the base salary of $5 Million, well under his 2008 salary of $9M. John Smoltz, of course, had been with the Atlanta Braves since 1988. I wish I followed the National League in the 90s as closely as I follow it today. If I had, I would appreciate Smoltz and his accomplishments even more. In contemporary baseball, he has one of the longest tenures as a starting pitcher ever recorded (along with Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, and fellow Braves teammate, Greg Maddux). He's been starting games for over half the lifetimes of most active players.
Depending on how flexible Smoltz agrees to be, he could start games in the second half of the season, or provide long relief in the bullpen. But it appears that he won't be starting games in April.
I would think that at this point in his career, Tim Wakefield would be open to moving back to the bullpen. But he is still in pursuit of the all-time wins record for the franchise (the record is 192, Wakefield has 164...years to go, I'm afraid). However, the Red Sox could give both Wakefield and Daisuke Matsuzaka extra rest by switching to a 6-man rotation. The 6-man rotation would be:
It's a long-shot, given Buchholz's need to develop further, and the chance of injury to any of those guys. Also, some believe that Buchholz may be traded in July. If Smoltz is ready to start in the second half of the season, then perhaps the Sox can go with a 6-man rotation when he's ready. I like unorthodox managing sometimes, and a less-exhausting workload during August and September can be a viable strategy if the team is leading the division, if no one is injured, and if the star pitchers are OK with fewer win opportunities. That's a few if's.
This is speculation, but assuming the Sox can go with a 5-man rotation (the list above, minus Buchholz), then perhaps a swing man can back-up Wakefield. If Wakefield can go 5 innings, and either Buchholz or Smoltz can go 3 innings, then the Sox would effectively have a tandem in the # 4 spot in the rotation. And while 5 innings of work only leads to a win with adequate run support and a solid bullpen, Wakefield has no chance of matching the franchise win record if he's a reliever. Wakefield is the last active player who was added to the roster by Lou Gorman (Wakefield joined the Sox in 1993). We're pulling for him. And it seems he is guaranteed at least one more milestone: he is just 4 strikeouts away from passing Pedro Martinez for the second-highest strikeout total in franchise history.
Boston has six infielders on the 40-man roster, with possible movement this season. It all depends on how Mike Lowell feels and plays. The Red Sox want Lowell to have one last productive year with the team. But if he gets injured again, or simply can't play every day, then the Third Base job might go to Kevin Youkilis a little earlier than planned. I totally see Youkilis at Third beginning in 2010, with one of several players competing for the spot at First.
The Red Sox have wisely prepared for the eventual departure of Mike Lowell. Succession Planning is something that usually doesn't happen smoothly in the corporate or sports world, but the Sox are trying to do it for the 1B, 3B and C positions. They have an exciting, power-hitting prospect at First by the name of Lars Anderson. And with Sean Casey retired, they acquired utility man Brad Wilkerson to share First Base duties with Youkilis.
At Shortstop, there are two players competing for the role - Julio Lugo and Jed Lowrie. The Red Sox have had a revolving door at SS since Nomar Garciaparra left the team in 2004. And that trend will continue, it seems. Just a couple of weeks ago, Lugo seemed to be the favorite to earn the role of primary Shortstop. But since Spring Training began, the pundits have been giving Lowerie another look. He put-up very respectable numbers in his rookie season. In baseball fantasy land, my wish is for the Sox to find a 25 year-old infield magician, like Garciaparra was, and the National League's Kahlil Greene could still become (Greene still looks like a young Sean Penn - it's freaky!). Jed Lowrie is 25 years old. Depending on how this season goes, he could develop into a full-time Shortstop, or become very marketable to smaller teams.
The job at Second is taken, and hopefully taken for years to come. Dustin Pedroia is becoming one of the best in the game at 2B. When I think about my current favorite infielders, I think of names like Ian Kinsler, Hank Blalock, Chase Utley, and Ronny Cedeno (yes, I still believe in Ronny). Dustin could be at the top of that list by the end of this season. He's that good.
Another favorite player of mine is Rocco Baldelli. I like him for being an impact player, a hard worker, and for his very good OBP. Unfortunately, he has been limited by injuries and health issues in his 6 years in the majors. Despite making some big plays in the 2008 postseason, the Devil Rays released him. Just two seasons ago, he was their leadoff hitter. I hope Baldelli can earn the role of Right Fielder for the Sox. He's a local kid, from Woonsocket, Rhode Island. With Jason Bay in left, Jacoby Ellsbury in center, and Rocco Baldelli in Right, the Red Sox would have a solid outfield with plenty of hitting potential. Add J.D. Drew, and you have the ability to give Ellsbury and Baldelli breaks if they are sore or go on a hitless streak (especially true for Ellsbury, who needs to further develop his concentration and swing).
Just for the record, my current dream outfield is Jason Bay, Shane Victorino, and Carlos Quentin. But I think Bay-Ellsbury-Baldelli is pretty damn good.
Leadoff Hitting / Baserunning
So who will be the leadoff hitter for the Red Sox? In my opinion, there are three candidates - Pedrioia, Baldelli, and Ellsbury. But the odds are that Ellsbury will be that guy, and he will be fighting for that top spot. I should point out that all three players mentioned have base-stealing speed, as the ideal leadoff man should. Last season, Pedroia stole 20 bases for the first time in his career (and he did it in 21 attempts!). Rocco Baldelli stole 27 bases in his rookie year (2003). And Ellsbury was the first Boston player to steal 50 bases in 35 years. He is the best hope in generations to break Tommy Harper's 1973 record of 54 steals.
Under the National League management style of Terry Francona, the Red Sox steal bases more than ever before. Ellsbury and Pedroia can be the fast runners at the top of the order, and Baldelli and Lugo can be the fast guys towards the bottom. I still see some Red Sox fans hoping for an all-star year from Julio Lugo. I never thought too highly of him, except that I liked him a lot better than Alex Cora. Maybe we can all agree that the 2009 Red Sox have the potential of being the fastest ever, despite losing the speedy Coco Crisp.
And that's my brief analysis of the current Red Sox 40-man roster. There are just under 7 weeks until Opening Day.