BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 28: Jon Lester #31 of the Boston Red Sox pitches to a Baltimore Orioles batter during the fifth inning at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on September 28, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
The Boston Red Sox and the surrounding circus will not be dull. But will they be a playoff team?
There's no reason for me to rehash what happened to the Boston Red Sox last year. You don't need to read it again. The Red Sox dominated the American League, winning 105 games, and they beat the Phillies in one of the greatest World Series ever. Also, I stopped following baseball around May of last year. But I got the gist of it, I think.
But this team isn't the unstoppable juggernaut that it was last year when I stopped paying attention. There are some legitimate questions about the Red Sox rotation, even if they can still slug with any team in baseball. This brings up my Two Things To Remember About the Red Sox in 2012™:
1. There are some legitimate questions about the Red Sox rotation
Josh Beckett is already injured. Clay Buchholz missed most of last season with a stress fracture in his back, and he's going to turn 28 before his first 200-inning season (which might never come at all). Daniel Bard was moved to the bullpen because of his stunningly erratic control, and his spring performance didn't do anything to quell those fears. Felix Doubront was a perfectly average pitcher in the International League last year, which suggests that he has a good chance of being worse in the majors.
Jon Lester is kind of a badass. Let's not go nuts here.
Of course, I picked out the very worst aspects of each one to suggest a worst-case scenario. If Beckett and Buchholz are healthy, the Red Sox will have a good, well-balanced rotation. Every team in baseball has to deal with "ifs." If Matt Moore isn't ready for the majors, the Rays' rotation doesn't look quite as good. If Michael Pineda's shoulder problems linger, the Yankees don't look quite as impressive. If the Orioles hang around after every National Anthem, they'll play up to 162 games. It's more than a little disingenuous to suggest that the Red Sox are the only team with some ambiguity.
But it's reasonable to be somewhat skeptical. Josh Beckett was fantastic last year, but even if he's healthy, it's probably safe to assume that he isn't going to be quite that good again. FanGraphs and ZiPS project the Red Sox rotation as the ninth-best rotation in the American League, with the chance to be "an elite rotation" if Bard makes a successful transition. That's about right. It's easy to giggle and guffaw when you think about the Red Sox supposedly considering a Sept. 30 trade for Bruce Chen, but it's not an apocalyptically bad rotation in 2012. If everyone stays healthy, it's probably a pretty good rotation.
The fears are being blown out of proportion right now, but there are legitimate questions that prevent the Sox from being the favorites they were to start last year. Which did them a lot of good. So maybe they should be happy about that. The Red Sox rotation is somewhere between the staffs of the 2001 Rangers and the 2011 Rangers, then. Could be closer to the latter if they can get 28-30 starts apiece out of Beckett and Buchholz. And that kind of pitching would be plenty, considering that …
2. They can still slug with any team in baseball
Kind of. If the problems with the rotation are overblown, then it's possible that their lineup isn't quite that infallible. Breaking it down into the expect-to-bes:
Expect to be better than last year
Before you freak about about the hitters I'm expecting to decline, look at the middle column. Unless something unexpected happens, Gonzalez, Youkilis, and Pedroia should hit like they did last year. And that's an advantage that's hard to overstate. Those are three of the best hitters at their positions in baseball, and the Red Sox can plunk all three right down in the middle of their lineup. That's why the Red Sox can still contend in baseball's best division.
And Carl Crawford has to be better, right? His wrist injury is a huge concern, and he's always been a volatile player. But he's bounced back from seasons like that in the past:
If they can rebuild him -- they have the technology -- he can be something much, much better than the replacement-level player he was last year. Much better. Like, there were literally seven seasons in which Neifi Perez was more valuable to his team than Crawford was for the Red Sox last year. Crawford just can't be that bad again. He just can't.
On to the players I don't think will be as good. David Ortiz had his best season since 2007. That's great! He's also 36 (though surprisingly healthy over the last three years), so it isn't an insult to expect him to drop to his 2010 level.
Jacoby Ellsbury was transcendent last year, and it's always a good rule to expect players like that to regress, even if just a little. There have been 200 players in baseball history to get more than 1500 plate appearances and hit 20 home runs or fewer before they turned 27. Only nine of them ever hit more than 20 in a season. Ellsbury is the only one to hit more than 30. Maybe he's really Rickey Henderson, circa 1990, now. Hey, could be. I'd give him another season to do it again, though, before we start expecting it.
Aviles' career OBP is .318, and Saltalamacchia's strikeout-to-walk ratio was awful last season, suggesting that he was lucky to make enough contact to slug .450, so I expect less production out of shortstop and catcher.
It's still a fantastic offense. Just not as fantastic as last year.
The Red Sox were probably a little unlucky last year -- their Pythagorean record last year had them as a 94-win team instead of 90. I'd guess they're closer to a true 90-win team this year, and that would have been good enough last year to make the playoffs under the new format. Between the Yankees, Rays, Angels, Rangers, and Red Sox, just one of those teams isn't going to play past the 162nd game. If I had to choose one to miss ... I'd go with the Red Sox, mostly because of the strengths of the other teams.
But that the Sox are even in the same tier as those other teams is testament to the dark secret of baseball heading into the 2012 season: The Boston Red Sox are still pretty danged good. I'd be less surprised by them winning 105 games than I would by them having a bad season.
Coulda Shoulda Woulda (Move they didn't make)
Oh, let's see, maybe the rotation. Roy Oswalt made too much sense, but he was kind of a weenie about the whole thing. Edwin Jackson would have been a great pickup on a one-year deal. A trade for Wandy Rodriguez probably wouldn't have been prohibitive in terms of prospects. But after sifting through a cavalcade of minor-league contacts like Aaron Cook and Vicente Padilla, the Sox went with two in-house guys after all. Just one more starting pitcher would have changed the outlook for the entire season in the minds of many.
I've been intentionally ignoring bullpens for this series -- imagine 30 versions of "So this closer gets a lot of strikeouts, and the setup guy's pretty good, but after that, I don't have the slightest ******* idea how they'll do this year because bullpens are weird." But it's worth a mention for the Red Sox because they'll lose one of the most valuable closers in the game (for the first 161 games, at least) and their top setup man. They traded for Andrew Bailey, who's something like the Nick Johnson of closers, and that's already worked out like you'd expect. It's all on Mark Melancon now.
But, again, bullpens. You hadn't even heard of Mark Melancon last year at this time, and now you're pretty sure he's good. Stop trying to predict bullpens.
Bobby Valentine grows out his fingernails to a length that makes it impossible not to stare at. I don't know. You pick something that you expect him to do. Could be anything. Dude's weird.
I'll predict that the team pitching still comes up with an ERA that's above the league average, if only slightly. And Cody Ross will have a big(ish) year -- something like his 2008 and 2009 with the Marlins, when he hit .266/.319/.477, except those Miami numbers will be Fenwayfied and look much better.
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