2011 pre-season preview: AL East – Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox prospects for the 2011 season are so bright, Adrian Gonzalez has got to wear shades.

Boston Red Sox (2010 record: 89-73)

The 2010 edition of the Boston Red Sox was very good. Entering last season, it appeared they would have an extraordinary pitching staff but a questionable offense. As it turned out, the regular season did not follow the script – the offense produced the second-most runs in baseball while the pitching staff was slightly worse than league-average.

It was a case of “what might have been.” The club managed to win 89 games despite being decimated by injuries to several of its star players, receiving sub-par efforts from two of its top starters (Josh Beckett and John Lackey), and enduring another what-can-we-expect season from the enigmatic Daisuke Matsuzaka.

But this is a new season, with new dreams and energized expectations. The front office enters the new campaign expecting the team will enjoy healthy years from stars Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis. While a return to health from those players would likely have vaulted the team to 95 wins, the front office wasn’t satisfied. Not nearly.

Enter Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, who will be the new 3-4 hitters in an already-potent lineup. And for good measure, the front office added Bobby Jenks, Dennys Reyes and Dan Wheeler as part of a major overhaul of the bullpen. Assuming better health in 2011, the Red Sox are the best team in baseball.

Notable additions: LF Carl Crawford, 1B Adrian Gonzalez, RHP Bobby Jenks, RHP Dan Wheeler

Notable subtractions: 3B Adrian Beltre, UT Bill Hall, C Victor Martinez

The offense:

Catcher: Jarrod Saltalamacchia

Infield: Adrian Gonzalez (1B), Dustin Pedroia (2B), Marco Scutaro (SS) and Kevin Youkilis (3B)

Outfield: Carl Crawford (LF), Jacoby Ellsbury (CF) and JD Drew (RF)

Designated Hitter: David Ortiz

It is arguable the Red Sox have the best offense in baseball. While New York Yankees fans will take exception to the suggestion, ultimately, the debate will be decided on the baseball diamond. Suffice it to say the lineups are very similar in terms of potential, with the biggest disparity residing in left field, where newly-acquired Carl Crawford is much better than Brett Gardner.

Many pundits view Saltalamacchia as a lost cause – a player with great potential who just never lived up to the hype. But it is important to remember that he’s just 25 years old and was once viewed with such high regard that he was one of the key pieces in the trade that sent Mark Teixeira from Texas to Atlanta back in ’07 (along with Neftali Feliz and Elvis Andrus). Last year, he suffered from a variety of physical ailments and a mental block that made it difficult for him to throw the ball back to the mound. It was, in many respects, a lost season. In the pre-season analysis I posted in January, I wrote spring training would be critical to predicting what he might do in 2011 – well, he hit .405 and drove in 10 runs. This could be the year he finally starts to live up to the accolades that were laid at his feet when he was still just a “prospect.”

In spite of playing half of his games in spacious Petco Park, and batting in the middle of a weak offensive lineup, A-Gon hit 30+ HR and driven in 99+ runs in each of the last four years in San Diego. Now he will enjoy “the friendly confines” of Fenway Park, where the Green Monster will help make him even more prolific. His notable weakness entering last season was his struggle against left-handers, but he was a far more effective hitter against southpaws (.337) than against righties (.278) in 2010 (that said, his BA vLHP was driven by a 38% hit rate against LHPs that is likely unsustainable, especially in consideration of the quality of southpaws he’ll face in the eastern division). Still, his penchant for going to left field will play well in Fenway Park, where his string of 30 HR / 99 RBI seasons will continue uninterrupted, assuming good health.

Dustin Pedroia was the AL Rookie-of-the-Year in 2007 and AL MVP in 2008. He took a small step back in 2009, but was in the midst of an outstanding season last year when he broke his foot after just 75 games played. He posted an extraordinary contact rate (92+%) in each of his first three campaigns, but last year traded some of that contact rate for extra power (12 HR in 302 AB, 87% contact rate) prior to the injury. Entering spring training, there were questions as to whether there would be any lingering effects from his broken foot. He put those doubts to rest by swinging a good bat and playing the field with his typical abandon. He was the only player in the major leagues to hit 15+ home runs, knock in 70+ runs, score 115+ runs and steal 20+ bases in both 2008 and 2009, and he was well on his way to reaching each of those threshold last year when he broke his foot. It will be interesting to see whether he picks up where he left off in 2011.

Youkilis was on pace to have the best offensive year of his career last year when a thumb injury sidelined him after 100 games. In spite of his abbreviated campaign, he posted an OPS+ of 157 and a RAR of 19.1 in 362 AB, extending a three-year run of elite offensive production. His peripherals are scary-consistent. His power metric over the last three years has been 166, 160 and 164.

After a career year in 2009, Scutaro put together a decent follow-up campaign in 2010. He makes contact at an elite rate (88%), registers a solid hit rate (30%) and demonstrates solid plate discipline (8% BB-rate). He is a good ballplayer, but the Sox brass loves Jed Lowrie, so while Scutaro will start the season as the starter, he may lose significant at-bats to Lowrie.

Crawford is coming off a career year, and many pundits believe he may not have peaked yet. Last year he posted the second-best batting average of his career, while setting career highs in HR, RBI and R, although he still fails to draw as many walks as you’d like (7%). CC had an uncharacteristically high BABIP (.342) last year, while his other peripherals were largely right at their career norms – suggesting his success was due, in part, to good fortune. He is one of the elite left fielders in the game and will enjoy heightened RBI and runs-scoring opportunities hitting third in the Red Sox lineup.

After stealing 120 bases and scoring 192 runs in 08-09, Ellsbury suffered rib injuries last spring and was out of the lineup almost all season. He was healthy in spring training and gave every indication he’ll pick up right where he left off at the end of 2009. He makes outstanding contact (88% ct-rate) and has elite speed. He routinely out-performs his xBA, largely because he keeps the ball on the ground and uses his speed to get on base. While he’ll never hit many home runs, his on-base skills and speed should continue to provide lots of stolen-base opportunities.

Drew is entering the last year of the 5-year, $70 million deal he signed with the Red Sox in 2006. He has been pretty consistent during his tenure in Boston, but it seems likely he will lose playing time to a platoon with Mike Cameron this year. It will be his last year in Beantown, with Ryan Kalish waiting in the wings to take over in 2012. Pencil in .275, 20 HR and 75 RBI (combined stats for Drew and Cameron) and hope for a little more in the expectation that the platoon brings out the best in both hitters.

Ortiz had his best seasons in 2006 and 2007, then struggled in both 2008 and 2009. The entire baseball world knows that he got off to brutal starts in each of the last two years, yet he still hit 60 HR and drove in 201 runs (combined). He retains elite power, though last year’s hr/f (19%) was on the high side. His contact rate has fallen from 82% to 72% over the last couple of years and he has had increasing difficulty with southpaws, but it is likely he’ll platoon with Mike Cameron when tough lefties are on the hill. The reduced exposure to lefties will help sustain his BA and home run rate, but it will result in fewer chances for run production.

The pitching staff:

The club’s fortunes in 2011 will revolve around the success of the pitching staff.

The front end of the rotation is solid, but the back end is full of question marks. Lester, Buchholz and Lackey can be penciled in for 50 wins, but who knows what the club can expect from Beckett and Matsuzaka. Beckett was terrible in spring training until his last start, while Dice-K started poorly and then pitched brilliantly after making a change in his between-game routine.

Beyond the back end of the rotation, there are serious concerns about the back end of the bullpen. Papelbon has struggled throughout the spring, and if he doesn’t rebound he will likely give way to Jenks (as I think the front office wants to give Bard more time before throwing him into the fire).

Rotation: LHP Jon Lester, RHP Clay Buchholz, RHP John Lackey, RHP Josh Beckett and RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka

Closer: RHP Jonathan Papelbon

Prior to last year, Lester had a tendency to get off to a slow start but heat up as the year progressed. Last season was different: he posted a 2.76 ERA before the all-star game and a 3.83 ERA afterwards. His command (2.7), dominance (9.7) and strand rate (74%) predict continued growth. He has increased his ability to induce ground balls, and I have yet to see a ground ball home run. In the last four years, he posted ground ball rates of 34%, 47%, 48% and 54%. If he can hold onto last year’s GB-rate, he could win a Cy Young Award in 2011.

Buchholz had an outstanding season in 2010, but it seems highly unlikely he will be able to repeat that performance this season. His 17-7 record and 2.33 ERA look impressive on the surface, but there are signals that suggest his performance was not as outstanding as it appeared. His xERA (3.75) was nearly a run-and-a-half higher than his ERA. His control, dominance and command all slipped… his hit rate was unsustainably low (26%) and his strand rate was unsustainably high (82%). He also gave back some of the gains he made in his ground ball rate (it decreased from 54% to 51%). That said, he has great stuff – as good as anyone in baseball, in my opinion – and I expect he will win 17 games and post an ERA in the neighborhood of 3.00 … and that is still pretty darned good!

Lackey regularly posted decent numbers with the Los Angeles Angels from 2005-09, but his career in Boston got off to a rough start last year. He showed up for spring training in less-than-ideal physical condition and struggled against the heightened competition in the eastern division throughout the first half of last season. But whether a result of improved conditioning or a successful adjustment to the division, he turned things around after the all-star break. He reduced his WHIP (to 1.29), increased his strikeout-to-walk ratio (from 1.7 to 2.8), and posted an xERA of just 3.54. This year he arrived in Fort Myers in great shape, leading me to believe he will get off to a much better start this spring.

Beckett suffered with back problems for most of last season, an injury that kept him out of action for more than two months and hampered his effectiveness throughout the year. When he pitched, the physical issues cost him speed and the location on his pitches and that, in turn, caused him to have a greater reliance on his cutter. He suffered from a less-than-desirable hit rate (35%) and extremely poor strand rate (65%). But, in spite of his physical woes and related performance issues, he had flashes of brilliance. His strikeout rate (8.2 K / 9 IP) K-BB ratio (2.6-to-1) showed he can still be dominant. In spite of his struggles in spring training, don’t be surprised if he wins 15 games and posts an ERA in the vicinity of 3.75 (+/-).

In January, I wrote it is becoming increasingly obvious that Matsuzaka will never live up to the hype that accompanied him when he came to the United States … and that there has always been a reason (excuse) offered as to why he has not perform up to expectations. And when Daisuke struggled early in March, new pitching coach Curt Young talked at length about the need to adjust his between-game routine. I immediately decried the talk as more of the same coddling the team has engaged in throughout the pitcher’s tenure in Boston. But three weeks later, it appears I may have been wrong. The enigmatic righty has been routinely outstanding since making the proffered changes, and it now seems possible that he could develop into the third best pitcher on the team. Wishful thinking? Maybe. But he has the innate talent to be one of the best pitchers in the league if he ever gets his head screwed on straight … and maybe, just maybe, Young was precisely what the doctor ordered.

Papelbon is coming off the worst season of his career, but the metrics suggest that he has retained his “stuff,” as his strikeout rate remained above 10K / 9IP (10.2) and his average fastball nuzzled 95 mph (94.9 mph). But while his strikeout rate was still elite, his metrics were far from “elite.” He had difficulty finding the strike zone and locating pitches within the strike zone when managed to find it. He threw fewer strikes, and, as a result, opposing hitters became more patient and made more consistent contact. His walk rate came close to reaching 4.00 (3.8 / 9IP). According to the raw data at fangraphs.com, he threw fewer fastballs (69.5%) than he ever had, replacing those fastballs with split-fingered pitches. It is impossible to know whether his pitch-selection was the result of the change in catcher (Victor Martinez vs Jason Varitek) or whether it is the result of having less confidence in his fastball, but whatever the reasons, there appears to have been a correlation between his pitch selection, his ability to throw strikes and the ability of his opponents to hit him hard.

Prediction for 2011: 1st place (96-66)

The Red Sox success in 2011 is not assured, but it seems very likely – assuming better health than they had last year. It’s crucial they receive improved performances from Beckett and Matsuzaka – which they will almost-certainly get (they really can’t be worse than they were last year). It’s important to remember that in spite of all of the injuries and sub-par efforts they endured last year, this is a team that still won 89 games.

Is it too much to expect that Crawford and Gonzalez and full seasons from Ellsbury, Pedroia and Youkilis will add seven wins to last year’s outcome? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it’s more likely they win 100 games than 89 games this year. It says here the Sox season will end in an October matchup with the Phillies in the World Series and the club’s third world championship in eight years.


Top prospect Anthony Ranaudo

Top Five Prospects:

1. Anthony Ranaudo, RHP
2. Jose Iglesias, SS
3. Drake Britton, LHP
4. Felix Doubront, LHP
5. Josh Reddick, OF

I’ve said it before and I will say it again – the 6’7” Ranaudo is THE reason the Sox felt they could deal Casey Kelly to San Diego in the deal that brought Adrian Gonzalez to Boston.

The LSU grad was the top-rated college pitcher heading into the 2010 college season, but he came down with an elbow injury after his first start and missed a significant portion of the campaign. When he returned to action he struggled with his mechanics and command, and the slid to the Red Sox in the supplemental portion of the first round of the draft (39th overall selection). He viewed himself as a Top Five caliber talent and expected to be paid accordingly, in spite of his elbow injury and his poor performance. The Red Sox watched him throughout the Cape Cod League season, where he didn’t allow a run in 30 IP against the best college talent in the country. The club signed him for a little more than $2.5 million at the August 16th deadline.

He has a mid-90s fastball that he throws for strikes to both sides of the plate, down in the strike zone. It rates at least a “60” on the scouts 20-80 scale and has the potential to be even better. He has a plus curveball and a solid major-league-average change up. When all is said and done, he will be even better than Kelly and next year at this time could be one of the two or three best pitching prospects in all of baseball.

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