With just 83 wins this season, the St. louis Cardinals have the distinction of having the worst regular-season record of any World Series winner in history.
By way of comparison, the Red Sox won 86 games and didn't even qualify for the playoffs. Which goes to show that in baseball anything can happen, and outcomes are often quite unpredictable.
One prediction is fairly certain -- the highly competitive American League will be even more so next year.
Three teams -- New York, Minnesota and Detroit -- won at least 95 games. A fourth team, Oakland, won 93 games and a fifth, Chicago, won 90 games.
That's five teams with 90 or more wins, and two others came close -- Los Angeles (89) and Toronto (87). That means, including the Red Sox, eight teams finished the season with 86 or more victories.
And the Red Sox should be concerned; all of their competitors will likely be just as good next season, if not better.
As Sox skipper Terry Francona said at season's end: “We have to have an open, honest assessment of where we are. There are some teams in our league that have gotten pretty good and they’re probably not going to go away. We have to find a way to get deeper. It’s not going to be easy because there are some teams out there that can do some spending.”
The Sox will not only have to contend with free spending competitors, but with many of their own issues as well. There are plenty of holes to fill for 2007. Aside from the starting rotation and bullpen questions, of which there are many, the Sox currently have vacancies at shortstop, second base, and right field -- meaning that one third of their starting lineup may be replaced. And if the club accommodates Manny Ramirez's trade request, that would mean nearly half of their nine starters could be in transition.
Without a doubt, any of the moves that Sox GM Theo Epstein makes this season will be under great scrutiny. The honeymoon period from the 2004 World Series Championship is long since over. In retrospect, many of Epstein's decisions since that time were clearly in error.
The trade of Josh Bard and Cla Merrideth is one Epstein would surely like to have back. Both players shined in San Diego while Doug Mirabelli bombed in his return to Boston. Mirabelli didn't even bat his weight.
And after After successive minor-league seasons of .334, .318 and .341 batting averages, Epstein traded Freddie Sanchez to the Pirates in 2003 for the mediocre Jeff Suppan, who was abused by A.L. hitters and didn't even make the Sox playoff roster that year. Meanwhile, Sanchez won the N.L. batting title this season with a .344 average and made his first All Star team.
Derek Lowe, whom Epstein deemed expendable after helping the team win the World Series in 2004, went 16-9 for the Dodgers this season, and finished ninth in the N.L. with a 3.63 ERA, after posting a 3.61 ERA in 2005. Lowe wanted a hefty long-term contract (4 years, $36 million), but instead Epstein gave Matt Clement similar money for three, instead of four, years. Meanwhile, Lowe threw 222 innings for the Dodgers in 2005 and 218 this season. And Matt Clement... well we all know the story by now.
And then there was the trade of the rubber-armed Bronson Arroyo, who at 29 was young, inexpensive, and reliable. Arroyo won 14 games for the Reds this season and finished the year with a 3.29 ERA, fourth best in the N.L. He also led the league in innings pitched.
There were also the regrettable acts of not signing Orlando Cabrera, in favor of Edgar Renteria -- whom the Sox are still paying (in part) to play in Atlanta -- and letting Johnny Damon leave for the Yankees, with whom he had yet another highly productive season. In Damon's case, it was simply the result of a below-market bid. Damon's replacement, Coco Crisp, though injured much of the season, did play in 105 games with 413 at bats, and had a 293 on-base average as a leadoff hitter -- the lowest among American League leadoff men.
The trade of Hanley Ramirez (a Rookie of the Year candidate) and Anibal Sanchez (who threw a no hitter, and went 10-3 with a 2.83 ERA in the weaker NL) to the Marlins can, and will, be debated for quite some time. Mike Lowell had a productive year for the Sox, though he faded in the second half. Meanwhile, Josh Beckett led the Sox with 16 wins, though he also tied Tim Wakefield with the most losses at 11. And 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. For some, the jury is still out on the trade. For others the ruling is in; mistake.
Finally, as of this moment, Craig Hansen, Manny Delcarmen and Dustin Pedroia do not appear to be future stars in the making. Of course it's still quite early in their careers and all could blossom, but none looked as good as the league's other brilliant rookies this year.
The question is, are the Red Sox a team that is reloading for another World Series run in 2007, or are they a team in the process of rebuilding? Once again, they will send two forty-something pitchers (Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield) to the mound every fifth day. Jason Varitek looked like he suddenly turned 40 himself this year, and he has no proven backup as of right now. Who knows which Mike Lowell will return to Boston next spring -- the one who was red hot in the first half, or the one who managed only one extra base hit in August, highlighting a disappointing second half? Will Coco Crisp ever be the player the Sox envisioned when they traded for him and gave him a three year extension? Will Wily Mo Pena ever be more than a project in development? Will Jon Lester ever return, and if he does, will he return to the promise he showed this season? Where will the Sox find the pieces to fix their beleaguered bullpen, especially since every other team will looking for the same fixes?
In essence, there are many, many questions, and very few answers at this moment. In fact, we may not have all the answers until well into next season. But if the St. Louis Cardinals proved anything on Friday night, it's that anything is possible in baseball.
Copyright © 2006 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.