For a team that was in first place at the All-Star break, and remained there through the July 31 trade deadline, this season was one of great frustration, and regret, for the Red Sox.
The Sox finished the 2006 campaign with a disappointing 86-76 record. It was the first time in five years the team failed to win at least 90 games, after having done so in six of the last eight. They also finished the year in third place, after having finished second to the Yankees for eight consecutive seasons. Most importantly, the Sox failed to make the postseason for the first time in four years.
The reasons for such a fall off were manifold; injuries, a lack of depth, and underachieving players.
The Red Sox had the fifth-worst team ERA (4.83) in all of baseball this season, and the sixth-worst opponent’s batting average (.278). Only six teams in the American League allowed more home runs. Injuries certainly played a part, as the Sox started 14 different pitchers this season.
The Sox single biggest offseason acquisition didn't quite live up to the hype, or the expectations. While Josh Beckett led the team with 16 wins, he also tied Tim Wakefield for the most losses with 11. Will Beckett develop into a frontline starter? Among the 40 qualifying pitchers for the American League ERA title, Beckett ranked 36th. Among the 83 qualifying pitchers in the majors, Beckett ranked 75th. The powerful righty has to develop more pitches in his repertoire, other than his fastball, and needs to be able to change speeds and locations at will to reach his true potential in the challenging A.L.
The Red Sox hit .269 for the season, which was third worst in the American League. After three straight seasons of leading the majors in runs, they finished sixth in that category. The falloff in production was particularly stark after the All Star break; the Sox ranked last in the league in batting average, 10th in on-base percentage, last in slugging, and ahead of only the Devil Rays in runs. Injuries certainly took their toll, but that doesn't tell the whole story: During the second half, Kevin Youkilis had just three home runs and slugged .379; Mike Lowell hit .252 and slugged .411; Coco Crisp had an on-base percentage of .312; Eric Hinske hit only one home run. All of them are under contract for next season.
David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez accounted for 30 percent of the team's RBIs and 45 percent of its home runs. Papi and Manny became the first pair of teammates to average 40 home runs a season over four seasons. In that span, Ramirez belted 160 homers while Ortiz smashed 173 long balls. While very impressive, it reveals the lack of balance in the team's offense. Other players have got to produce runs. The Sox are lacking a potent, and consistent, number five hitter. They clearly need two more reliable hitters who can produce runs in at least the 25 HR, 90 RBI range.
Changes are a-coming, just as in the last two off-seasons.
After returning from a month-long stint on the disabled list on Sept. 3, Jason Varitek proceeded to strike out 29 times in 61 at-bats, the most K's he's had in any month in his career. Varitek batted a career-low .238 in 103 games this season, 34 points below his previous career average of .272. The Sox captain turns 35 April 11, and there have been questions about the physical toll on his body and his ability to be effective in the final two years of his contract.
With that in mind, and because they have no solid catching prospects in their system, the Red Sox acquired lefthanded-hitting catcher George Kottaras from the Padres in exchange for David Wells. Whether or not Kottaras is ready to jump to the big league level remains to be seen, but the Sox will have high hopes come Spring Training. One way or another, the Sox need a solid and dependable backup up to spell Varitek next year and beyond. Doug Mirabelli is no longer that player.
Kevin Youkilis showed a knack for getting on base, as evidenced by his .381 OBP (Johnny Damon had a .359 OBP), and played solid - sometimes stellar - defense in his inaugural year at first base. It would be nice if the club could count on Youkilis for at least 20 homers, and consistent production in the second half. Another second half fizzle won't work. Look for Youk to make adjustments.
Once again, as it has been for so many years, second base remains in a state of flux and is in question for next season. The middle infield spot has unfortunately been without consistency for entirely too long. Mark Loretta, Mark Belhorn, Todd Walker, Rey Sanchez, Jose Offerman, Mike Benjamin, Jeff Frye, and Luis Alicea have all played the position in succession. Offerman was the last to hold the position for at least three consecutive seasons ('99-'01), and you have to go all the way back to Jody Reed to find a player who held the position longer ('89-'92).
Loretta would like to return, but will be seeking a multi-year deal in the millions of dollars. Meanwhile, heir apparent Dustin Pedroia is as inexpensive as he is inexperienced. The rookie hit just .191 in 31 games, and hardly won the confidence of anyone. Another year of Loretta manning second, with Pedroia as his understudy, would be ideal.
Alex Gonzalez may have earned himself his first, and much-deserved, Gold Glove award. The defensive wizard wowed Boston fans with his splendid glove work but was streaky at the plate, finishing the year with a .255 average and a .299 OBP. The organizational fascination with Julio Lugo is kind of hard to figure (.278, .341 OBP, 12 HR 37 RBI), but the team may make a run at him in the free agent market. If Pedroia gets the nod over Loretta, the Sox may elect to go with a more potent offensive shortstop than Gonzalez, despite his jaw-dropping defensive skills.
Mike Lowell rebounded nicely after an off year in 2005. Lowell made every play at third look routine, and batted .284 with 20 homers, 80 RBI, and 47 doubles. His $9 million salary next year would make him difficult to move, but the Sox should be pleased enough with his performance to gladly bring him back for one more go-around. Lowell proved himself to be a quiet, durable leader who won the respect of the fans, his teammates, and management.
Odds are that the Sox will have a new right fielder next year. Old friend Trot Nixon has likely played his last game in Sox uniform. Nixon's injury woes persisted as his plate performances continued to dwindle. Nixon routinely played great defense in Fenway's tricky right field and possesses a strong arm. That, coupled with his gritty "Dirt Dog" demeanor endeared him to Sox fans throughout the Nation, but expect a new face in his spot next season.
Wily Mo Pena, with his defensive liabilities, hardly seems like the ideal candidate. But if the Sox can acquire the highly coveted Andruw Jones via trade, they may well move Crisp over to right. That is, if they don't trade Crisp first. But knowing that a serious finger injury hindered Crisp's ability to properly grip the bat and hit, the Sox may decide to let the young speedster continue his development in Boston.
The Manny Ramirez saga will continue. With only two years remaining on Ramirez's deal, it's hard for the Sox to claim that they need to "get out from under the contract," for "financial flexibility". With Ramirez's stellar and amazingly consistent production, he earns his every dollar. Replacing Manny in the order will be next to impossible. The Sox should continue to tolerate Manny's eccentricity knowing that we are witnessing a Hall of Fame career before our very eyes. Present day Sox fans will speak of Manny's on-field exploits for generations to come.
David Murphy will probably be given a chance at the big league level over Gabe Kapler, and either George Kottaras, or another veteran, will replace the ineffective Doug Mirabelli (.191, 6 HR, 25 RBI) as Varitek's backup. Alex Cora, who could start elsewhere, will have to be persuaded to come back as the league's best utility player. His ability at a number of positions, his baseball smarts, and his awareness of everything around him, have won the confidence of the Sox brass. Cora rarely makes mental mistakes.
Rebuilding the beleaguered bullpen will require the work of an alchemist, as the task has continually frustrated Theo Epstein and company. The free agent market is thin, but with Jonathan Papelbon slated for the rotation, some big shoes need to be filled. Keith Foulke, for lack of better opportunities, will trigger his option and return. What the Red Sox will get in return is anybody's guess. The Sox may take a flyer on often-injured, but once-brilliant, closer Eric Gagne. Mike Timlin would like to return as a set-up man, but his best years are well behind him now. Craig Hansen and Manny Delcarmen are still green and, out of necessity, were promoted too soon. One thing's for sure -- the pen needs help badly.
Finally, the starting rotation needs another marquee pitcher, and the bidding will be steep for both lefty Barry Zito, and righty flame thrower Jason Schmidt. There will be many suitors, many dollars, and both cream-of-the-crop pitchers will have no shortage of intriguing choices. But the Sox will be seeking someone to anchor the staff not only for next year, but for the next few years as well, long after Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield are retired.
For a team that has been almost entirely remade and reconfigured since the 2004 World Series Championship, just two short years ago, the 2007 edition of the Red Sox will likely seem much different once again. It's a continuing trend that all of us must get used to. Hopefully, it will be for the best.
Changes are coming, so be prepared. Things are about to get interesting.
Copyright © 2006 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.