THE RED SOX buildfrom a baseball blueprint that they believe lends itself to sustainedexcellence, rather than the typical boom-and-bust cycles common to most teams.Despite playing in a hitter-friendly ballpark, they've resisted the temptationto emphasize power beyond the molten core of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz.They rely on winning the small battles of individual at bats--see as manypitches as necessary to get on base--and even more on run prevention than onrun production. Coupled with the team's resources, it's a plan Boston believeslends itself to perennial contention in the AL East, which means winning 90 ormore games annually.
If, to thatfoundation, you add a third baseman who had a career year at age 33 (MikeLowell), and good fortune (the top five starters missed only 22 starts lastyear, and in one of those rookie Clay Buchholz stepped in and pitched ano-hitter), you get the best-case scenario: a second world championship in fourseasons.
There is only onemission more difficult than having a dream season like that: to do it again.Four of the past six defending world champs didn't even make the playoffs, andthe other two went three games and out. To reverse that trend Boston will rollout virtually the same roster, the major exceptions being Jacoby Ellsburytaking centerfield from Coco Crisp and Buchholz replacing the injured CurtSchilling in the rotation.
By playing thesame hand, the risks for the Red Sox are injury and age, especially with morethan half its lineup 32 and older. That group includes Lowell, 34, who fits theBoston paradigm (excellent glove, superlative situational hitter) so well thatthe club ignored its old bias toward dumping veterans too early rather than toolate (see Martinez, Pedro; Damon, Johnny). After Lowell hit 44 points betterthan his lifetime .280 average, the Red Sox re-signed him to a three-year,$37.5¬†million contract.
March 30, 2008
Boston's ownnumber crunchers don't expect Lowell to duplicate his career year, but theystill believe the Red Sox will match or slightly improve their run production.Why? Ellsbury should create more runs than Crisp, and J.D. Drew, who salvaged amiserable year by hitting .342 after August, can't be much worse.
It's instructivethat Boston has hit fewer home runs in four consecutive seasons for the firsttime in franchise history, yet has won two championships during that span. TheRed Sox' .362 OBP last year was the team's best in more than half a century."They never swung at a ball, no matter how close it was [to the strikezone]," says Rockies righthander Ubaldo Jimenez, referring to Boston'sWorld Series sweep of Colorado. "Amazing."
The Red Sox'attention to pitching and defense has been even more critical. Last year Bostonallowed 168 fewer runs than it did in 2006, but the front office believes thereis still room for improvement, starting with Daisuke Matsuzaka, who contributedmore than 200 innings with a better-than-average ERA in his first big leagueseason but wore down in the second half. "We'd like to see more in terms ofattacking hitters," pitching coach John Farrell says, "especially theuse of his pitches in to righthanders."
Farrell hastweaked Matsuzaka's changeup, a pitch the Red Sox thought would be his bestweapon because of its drastic movement. Matsuzaka, however, threw the changewith such a pronounced wrist turn that "hitters saw it early and they tookit," Farrell says. So he toned down the wrist pronation, sacrificingmovement for deception.
If Matsuzakaimproves and Buchholz, who will be limited to about 180 innings, emerges as theNo. 2 starter behind ace Josh Beckett, Boston is a lock to again lead theleague in run prevention. The offense, while it might not outscore the Yankeesor the Tigers, is relentlessly good. The question isn't so much whether the RedSox are as good as they were last year (they are), it's whether they are ashealthy.
CONSIDER THIS amodest proposal ...
The Red Sox areunderstandably excited about Jacoby¬†Ellsbury, but they should not be soquick to relegate Coco Crisp (left) to fourth-outfielder status. Crisp, aswitch-hitter, will get the bulk of the playing time against lefthandedpitchers, but he has a case for playing against righthanders too. PECOTAprojects Ellsbury for a .296/.362/.429 batting line (batting average/on-basepercentage/slugging percentage) against righties, which is worth an additional8.5 runs per 100 games when compared with Crisp's .278/.339/.402 projection.However, according to PECOTA, Crisp will save 6.9 more runs per 100 games inthe field than Ellsbury. In other words Crisp's defense is almost enough tooutweigh Ellsbury's hitting advantage. Working out something closer to a 50-50split of playing time would allow Ellsbury time to develop and would enhanceCrisp's trade value.
35 Home runs hitby David Ortiz last season, his lowest total since 2003. However, his battingaverage (.332), doubles (52) and OBP (.445) were all career bests. And hisOPS+, which measures a player's on-base plus slugging percentages against theleague average for that year (with 100 being average), was a career-high 171,or 10 points higher than in '06, when he had 19 more homers than he had lastyear.
[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
PROJECTED ROSTERWITH 2007 STATISTICS
MANAGER TERRYFRANCONA FIFTH SEASON WITH BOSTON
|JACOBY ELLSBURY (R)||CF|
|RH||Clay Buchholz (R)||116||3||1||8.7||1.06||1.59|
WHIP: Walks plushits per inning pitched
PVR: Player ValueRanking (explanation on page 62)
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DEC. 6, 2004
VIRGINIA MUISE, 111, and Fred Hale, 113, smiled. BothVirginia, who kept a Red Sox cap beside her nightstand in New Hampshire, andFred, who lived in Maine until moving to Syracuse at 109, were Sox fans who,curse be damned, were born before Babe Ruth himself. Virginia was the oldestperson in New England. Fred was the oldest man in the world. Within three weeksafter they had watched the Sox win the Series, both of them passed away. Theydied happy. --Tom Verducci
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