Kamis, 08 Maret 2012

Season Previews, Part 23: Boston Red Sox

Courtesy of our friend Monsterdance on the boards:

Boston Red Sox
2011 Record: 90-72
Pythag Record: 94-68
Games Out of First: 7.0
Games Out of Wildcard: 1.0

2011 Recap...

Coming into 2011, the Red Sox were considered by many to be a huge favorite and a very obvious top dog. They've consistently had one of the strongest teams for nearly a decade now, and they were set to add multiple *huge* pieces to their lineup. In December 2010, they went out and made a blockbuster trade with the San Diego Padres to acquire coveted big bopper Adrian Gonzalez (22.4 WAR in five seasons with the Padres). Just a couple of days after this headline-grabber, they threw their weight around and signed mega-speedster Carl Crawford (409 stolen bases in nine seasons before signing with Boston) right out from under dangerous divisional rivals the Tampa Bay Rays. In addition to this, they would be getting five-tool player and center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury back after a severe rib injury early in the 2010 season limited him to a mere 18 games (84 plate appearances).

With all of these expectations and the fan and media pressure that went with them, the beginning of the Red Sox' season was nothing short of embarrassing. To open the season, they were swept by the reigning American League Champion Texas Rangers and then by the Cleveland Indians who surprised the baseball world by starting the season quite strong. They were 0-6 heading into a series at home against the Yankees. The Red Sox managed to win two of these games, perhaps signaling a turnaround, but they then went on to lose their next three, including a two-game sweep at the hands of the Rays. On April 15th, they sat at 2-10.

Then things actually did turn around. They went on to win eight of their next nine, finishing fairly strong in April. They really picked things up in May, managing to go 19-10, and then 16-9 in June, and then a VERY hot 20-6 in July, actually leading the highly competitive American League East for large portions of the season. They did stumble a little bit in August, but were still heading into September with a very pleasing 83-53 record.

Then things just completely and totally fell apart. The Red Sox started losing big while the Rays started winning big. It was the perfect storm for one of the most intriguing wildcard races of all time...but also what turned out to be one of the worst late-season collapses in sports history and what would trigger a huge turn of events in Boston, including highly publicized accusations of excessive alcohol use in the clubhouse, disengaged managing by a skipper who felt that he had worn out his welcome with Red Sox brass, and players just flat-out giving up. The Red Sox' free-fall and the Rays' surge culminated in the very last day of the season when the two teams were tied in the wildcard standings despite the fact that the Rays had actually been as far behind the Red Sox as 9.0 games as late into the season as September 4th.

The Red Sox were dealing with an Orioles team who had been out of the races for a while and were playing spoiler (14-8 to end the season, including taking two of three from the Rays once and the Red Sox twice), while the Rays were at home against a Yankees team that had already clinched the division. The Orioles defeated the demoralized Red Sox by one run and then just a few moments later, the Yankees very clearly threw the game to the Rays, thus finalizing the Red Sox' historic collapse.

Top five position players by WAR...

Jacoby Ellsbury (7.2)
Adrian Gonzalez (6.9)
Dustin Pedroia (6.8)
Kevin Youkilis (4.3)
David Ortiz (3.8)

Top five pitchers by WAR...

Josh Beckett (6.2)
Jon Lester (4.8)
Alfredo Aceves (2.9)
Clay Buchholz (2.2)
Jon Papelbon (2.0)

Offseason Overview...

On the field, the Red Sox made a few noticeable changes but still have the majority of the main cast intact. The biggest change will come from the bullpen, as coveted closer Jon Papelbon signed a multi-year deal with the National League powerhouse Philadelphia Phillies and will no longer be shipping up to Boston. To replace him, the Red Sox dealt Josh Reddick to the rebuilding A's for closer Andrew Bailey and landed potential right field starter Ryan Sweeney as an extra piece.

They had some depth at shortstop in a combination of Jed Lowrie and Marco Scutaro, but traded them both away in minor deals (with the Houston Astros and Colorado Rockies, respectively) over the winter, to both bolster their bullpen and perhaps make room for defensive-minded prospect Jose Iglesias.

Both Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield decided to hang up the cleats this winter after many years of being fan favorites in Boston, but they had both gotten to a point in their career where they really wouldn't have been able to contribute much.

Off the field, the Red Sox underwent sweeping changes. Theo Epstein, the general manager who assembled the Red Sox' 2004 and 2007 championship teams, is said to have felt undermined in some baseball operations by team owners John W. Henry and Larry Lucchino. It appears that he had his fill, as he decided to take over for the Chicago Cubs and will be tasked with ending THEIR decades-long championship drought. He is being replaced by Ben Cherington.

Some have placed the blame of the Red Sox' 2011 collapse on manager Terry Francona and his very lax clubhouse culture. Whatever the case may be, the Red Sox declined to exercise his 2012 option and for now it appears that he has retired from managing and is now a commentator for ESPN. He is being replaced by Bobby Valentine.

Notable Additions...

CL Andrew Bailey
OF Ryan Sweeney
OF Cody Ross
INF Nick Punto
C Kelly Shoppach
BP Mark Melancon
BP Clayton Mortensen

Notable Subtractions...

OF Josh Reddick
CL Jon Papelbon
C Jason Varitek
SS Jed Lowrie
SS Marco Scutaro
SP Erik Bedard
SP Tim Wakefield

Projected Lineup...

1. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF (L)
2. Dustin Pedroia, 2B (R)
3. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B (L)
4. David Ortiz, DH (L)
5. Kevin Youkilis, 3B (R)
6. Ryan Sweeney, RF (L)
7. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C (S)
8. Mike Aviles, SS (R)
9. Carl Crawford, LF (L)

This lineup is straight-up DANGEROUS. Ellsbury, Pedroia, Gonzalez, Ortiz, Youkilis, and Crawford have all been 6.0-WAR-or-better players at least once in their careers. If Ellsbury doesn't regress, there are no major injuries like there were last season, and this team sticks together like they didn't do last season, this could very well be the best lineup in baseball, and I'm very excited to see what it can do.

Projected Rotation...

1. Jon Lester
2. Josh Beckett
3. Clay Buchholz
4. Daniel Bard
5. Alfredo Aceves

This is a big sticking point for the success of the 2012 Boston Red Sox. If Lester, Beckett, and Buchholz all perform at normal levels for them, this could actually be a very dominnant starting rotation. If any of those same three get hurt, this could be a very long season for Red Sox fans. This team also has John Lackey, but he's out for the year with Tommy John surgery. After some of his antics last season, a few fans might very well prefer it that way. This man has most certainly not endeared himself to Red Sox Nation.

Significant Relievers/Reserve Players...

CL Andrew Bailey
BP Mark Melancon
OF Cody Ross
INF Nick Punto
SS Jose Iglesias

Roster Strengths...

A highly potent lineup which is two thirds full of legitimate superstars. The Red Sox will be entering the 2012 season with THREE position players who produced a 6.8 WAR or better (Ellsbury with 7.2, Gonzalez with 6.9, and Pedroia with 6.8) in 2011. And then in addition to that, they will look for major contributions from Red Sox Nation darling Big Papi, Kevin Youkilis who in 2011 posted a .373 OBP and knocked out 17 homeruns but only played in 120 games, and Carl Crawford who will be looking to bounce back in every way after sadly underperforming in his first year on a huge contract with the Red Sox.

Roster Weaknesses...

In my opinion, it's lack of rotation depth behind their top three guys. John Lackey will miss all of 2012, and I feel like there is going to be a revolving door of starters after Beckett, Lester and Buchholz. Things could really get ugly if any of those three go down. I think they should have pushed harder for Gio...they had the prospects to get it done.

Potential Breakout Player...

It's hard to pick a breakout player when two thirds of the team is already stars. I guess Ryan Sweeney...he just turned 27 about three weeks ago, and I actually didn't realize that he was that young. He's never been very highly touted, but he's going to be surrounded by an incredible lineup and will be playing in Fenway, so he could see an increase in walks and power numbers. If that happens over the course of a full season then he could be considered a major contributor for the 2012 Red Sox.

Potential Bust...

Carl Crawford: I'd like to think that 2011 was just a down year for a guy getting used to his new surroundings, and that he might come into this season with something to prove...but I don't know if I see it. I wonder if there are more injury issues than we're aware of. I hope I'm wrong, and that he starts playing like he did in Tampa Bay, but we'll see.

Prospects who could contribute in 2012...

Jose Iglesias: This shortstop won't be known for his bat, but rather, the fact that he is expected to be a total defensive wizard. He's 22 and he did get to come up for a short stint in 2011, so if the Red Sox aren't happy with what they see out of Aviles, Iglesias should get to play a little bit. Expect a show when he puts his fielding glove on.

Lars Anderson: I consider Anderson to have a ton of pop, but he has faded a little bit in the last couple years and now he's also blocked by Gonzalez. If anything happens to Adrian and the Red Sox decide to keep Youk at third, Anderson could get some playing time. Another thing about Anderson -- he'll be turning 25 in September and has been used as tradebait in the past. I could definitely see him being dealt at some point this season.


Projected Record: 95-67
Projected Finish: 2nd place
Projected MVP: Adrian Gonzalez (7.0 WAR)

2012 Outlook...

This is a very different Red Sox team. On the field, the team is still largely intact and still full of the superstars that define it, but with a new general manager making the deals and a new manager running a much tighter ship, it's a very different culture in Boston. Hopefully one that won't allow such a monumental free-fall at the end of the season. Was Ellsbury's 2011 a fluke or a breakout? Will Carl Crawford start playing like he did in Tampa Bay? Will Andrew Bailey live up to the pressure of closing out games in Boston? Can the Red Sox coax another terrific season out of Big Papi? What type of manager will Bobby Valentine be this time around, and can he control the clubhouse? Can he make a champion out of what he's been given in Boston? Whatever the answers to those questions end up being, I think the Red Sox are going to be a very fun team this year.

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