Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Sunday, December 02, 2007

SANTANA TICKET VERY EXPENSIVE

Minnesota's asking price for Johan Santana is absurd. The Twins want a king's ransom for what is undoubtedly an outstanding pitcher, but the combination of Coco Crisp and Jon Lester should be enough to get the deal done.

Asking for Jed Lowrie, Justin Masterson and/or Michael Bowden is asking way too much. Unless the Twins are willing to include Joe Nathan, the Red Sox should just walk away now -- and quickly.

The Red Sox are returning their entire pitching staff – the one that just won the World Series -- complete and intact. And they will be adding Clay Buchholz to that rotation. What more do they need?

Buccholz is more than just a top prospect. The kid already has a no-hitter under his belt and is no longer the best kept secret in the Red Sox farm system. Everyone in the game now knows just how good this kid is.

On top of that, Lester will be entering his first full season in the Majors in 2008. Lester didn't pitch in his first game this year until July 23 and made just 11 starts. Next year he figures to make as many as 30 starts. Lester went 4-0 in 2007 and is 11-2 in his brief career. He is a budding young lefty, and perhaps a rising star. The Red Sox have thought so since they selected him in the second round of the 2002 draft. Yes, he needs to work on his control and lower his walk total; perhaps that would also help lower the 4.68 ERA he has amassed over parts of the past two seasons.

Most importantly, over the better part of the next decade Lester and Buchholz -- combined -- won’t cost the Red Sox the $25 million annual salary that Santana and his agent expect to command.

Indeed, Santana is a bona fide #1 starter. Most informed observers consider him to be among the top five pitchers in the game today. Many argue that he is among the top three, and others contend that he is the very best.

Check out this career stat line: 7.3H/9 - 9.5K/9 - 3.8K:BB - 2.5BB/9 - 1.0HR/9

Impressive stuff, no doubt.

The power pitching lefty is a career 93-44 with a 3.22 ERA. By the age of 27 he had won two Cy Young Awards, and will be just 29 on Opening Day. He has been dependable and injury-free to this point, but there are concerns.

Though he has thrown a relatively limited 1308 2/3 innings during his brief Major League career, most of them have come in the past four seasons, when he became a full-time starter. In that span, Santana has pitched 912 1/3 innings, an average of 228 innings each year. Some think that workload is catching up to him.

Over the last three years, Santana’s base runners per nine innings, HR allowed, and BB/K ratio have all been trending upward. And his innings per start have been in decline in that span, down from 7 in 20005 to 6.6 this season. What’s more, this year he allowed an AL-high 33 home runs, and his 1.073 WHIP was his highest since '03.

Santana has won 20 games just once. And he is just 1-3 in five post-season starts, with a 3.97 ERA -- three-quarters of a run higher than his regular season average.

All that aside, there is a reasonable concern about giving $25 million annually to a player who starts just once every five days. And how would this affect Josh Beckett, the team’s #1 starter, and undeniable stud, who is signed to a relatively modest long-term contract? Beckett is arguably the best playoff pitcher of his generation and he would be earning about half of Santana’s annual salary.

Over the past few seasons, the Red Sox and Yankees have competed fiercely over free agent pitchers like Jose Contreras, Javier Vazquez, and Carl Pavano. The Yankees won these battles but ultimately lost the war because of them. In fact, the Yanks haven’t had much success after successfully obtaining other highly-coveted pitchers as well; Jeff Weaver, Randy Johnson, and Jared Wright are fine examples.

The Red Sox may be simply bidding up the price on Santana so that the Yankees are forced to buy high. The Sox would love to see the Yankees part with Joba Chamberlain or Phillip Hughes. It would continue their past trend of giving up on young, homegrown talent in lieu of expensive free agents. It hasn’t worked so far and has only lead to repeated frustration and a bloated payroll – the largest in pro sports.

There is no denying Santana’s greatness, or that he is currently in his prime. Even though his 2007 campaign was considered an “off year” by many -- due to his 15-13 record and 3.33 ERA, his highest since 2001 – Santana was still quite good. He led the league in WHIP, was 3rd in H/9, 3rd in K/9, 2nd in K.

The hard-throwing lefty would represent an immediate upgrade to the Sox rotation. He would certainly be superior to Lester or Buchholz in 2008. But beyond that, who knows? And it would come at an enormous cost – reportedly $120-$150 million over six years.

The Red Sox will need to replace both Curt Schilling and Tim Wakefield after next season, and are perfectly poised to do so right now with Buchholz and Lester. And they have Masterson, Bowden and Daniel Bard coming down the pike as well. The pipeline is deep and poised to replenish the rotation over the next few years. These young, homegrown players will give the Red Sox payroll flexibility and allow them to address other needs throughout the lineup and bullpen.

The Sox and Yanks could both call each other’s bluff and hope that Santana is still available on the free agent market at this time next year. According to Ken Rosenthal, major-league sources have indicated that Santana has informed the Twins that he will not waive his no-trade clause during the season, eliminating the possibility of a July 31 non-waiver deadline deal.

The end result would cost some bidder an enormous contract, but without the added cost of prized young players to boot. But such Loto-sized, long-term pacts are certainly risky. Just consider Barry Zito’s $126 million, seven-year deal. Think the Giants would like to take a Mulligan on that one?

Theo Epstein and his staff are constantly trying to negotiate the difficult challenge of playing for this year while planning for the future. Santana would help in the near-term, but his acquisition would create other holes that would need to be filled.

Jed Lowrie is supposed to supplant Julio Lugo in the next year or so, and starting pitching is not an area of need within the organization. There are other needs to address, such as finding a young back-up catcher who can become Jason Varitek’s successor.

Jacoby Ellsbury is the most exciting Sox outfield prospect since Fred Lynn and Jim Rice. No one seems to doubt that he will be an offensive improvement over the disappointing Coco Crisp. Red Sox Nation has already fallen in love with Ellsbury following his brief but exciting late-season appearance and timely playoff success.

Lastly, it is important to consider, as the Red Sox surely are, that in four career games at Fenway Park (three starts), Santana is 1-3 with an eye-popping 6.89 ERA. That’s got to raise eyebrows as well as concerns. In those games he gave up 21 hits and 8 walks in just 15 2/3 innings.

The Twins have a highly coveted star pitcher which puts them in the diver’s seat. But that sense can lead to hubris, as is the case right now. GM Bill Smith is just playing the Red Sox and Yankees against each other in an attempt to drive up the price. But the Yankees have reportedly set a Monday deadline for a deal to take place. The Yanks are said to have offered Melky Cabrerra and Phillip Hughes and plan to stand firm on the offer.

The Red Sox are said to be taking a similar hardline stance, reportedly offering Jacoby Ellsbury in a package. But the caveat is that such a package would exclude Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz.

The GM meetings are now open for business. As the old saying goes, to the victor goes the spoils. But in such intense and high-stakes negotiations, the Red Sox need to guard against getting a spoiled, rotten deal.

Play for today, plan for tomorrow. A tough balance indeed.

Copyright © 2007 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

PITCHING THEN & NOW

They don't make 'em like they used to.....

Cleveland Indians pitcher C.C. Sabathia won the 2007 A.L. Cy Young Award last week. His biggest edge over his next closest competitor, Josh Beckett, was innings pitched. Sabathia led the Majors with 241 innings.

Gaylord Perry was the last Cleveland Indian to win the Cy Young Award, in 1972. Perry started 40 games (these days most pitchers aspire to 30), had 29 complete games (these days most are lucky to have one or two), went 24-16 with a 1.92 ERA (that's almost unheard of today), and pitched 342 innings (these days most shoot for 200). Perry’s offseason conditioning program consisted of riding a tractor.

What's become of the modern day pitcher? They use sophisticated offseason conditioning programs and yet still need huge, expensive bullpen relief cores behind them. That’s because the majority of them can only pitch six or seven innings on most starts – if they’re lucky. These guys don't even come close to the workloads of their predecessors, such as Gaylord Perry.

Roy Halladay led the Majors with seven complete games this season, while Sabathia and Brandon Webb were tied for second at four apiece.

In fact, no pitcher has reached double digits in complete-games since Scott Erickson had 11 for Baltimore in 1998.

From the 1920's through the mid-‘80's, 20-30 complete games a season were commonplace in baseball. No longer.

Most recently - in 1985 - Bert Blyleven had 24 complete games for Cleveland and Minnesota. And in 1986 Fernando Valenzuela had 20 for the Dodgers. But no pitcher has reached 20 complete games since then, and it's likely that no one ever will again.

But it’s not just complete games that are lacking in today’s game; it’s the number of starts as well.

In the old days teams went with a four-man rotation. The new, five-man rotations lessen the opportunities for each pitcher. But many wonder why modern pitchers can only last five or six innings before giving way to a reliever. The answer, in part, may be that teams see their young pitchers as fragile investments and treat them as such.

Dontrelle Willis was the only pitcher who made 35 starts in 2007, the first time in a non-strike season that multiple pitchers did not make at least 35 starts. And Sabathia’s 241 innings were an enormous workload by today’s standards.

But a generation ago, such workloads were routine. Bert Blyleven, who pitched from 1970-1992, exceeded 35 starts in a season nine times and threw 241 innings or more 12 times — yet led the league in innings just twice and in starts only once. In 1973, Blyleven threw an astounding 325 innings.

Take a look at some Red Sox history. The Sox greats of past generations customarily finished most of the games they started. That is now the rare exception, rather than the rule. The complete game is almost a relic of the past.

They don't make 'em like they used to.....

PITCHER -- STARTS -- COMPLETE GAMES

Cy Young: 297 / 275
Bill Dinneen: 174 / 156
George Winter: 176 / 141
Smokey Joe Wood: 157 / 121
Lefty Grove: 190 / 119
Mel Parnell: 232 / 113
Luis Tiant: 238 / 113
Babe Ruth: 144 / 105

Now compare these “modern” Sox pitchers to those old timers:

Roger Clemens: 382 / 100
Bruce Hurst: 217 / 54
Oil Can Boyd: 145 / 39
Pedro Martinez: 201 / 22
Tim Wakefield: 328 / 22

Part of the blame has to lie with the emphasis on throwing heat. Fastball pitchers who can reach the high 90’s are coveted, and many -- like the Tiger’s Joel Zumaya -- end up throwing their arms out. Shoulder and elbow injuries -- and the subsequent surgeries -- have become commonplace.

The art of pitching seems to have been lost, as young pitchers have been encouraged to try to blow hitters away with the heater.

On the other hand, Greg Maddux has always believed in the value of movement and location above velocity. Maddux has often taken the unorthodox approach of throwing softer when in a jam instead of harder. And it has served him quite well in terms of longevity and effectiveness.

Maddux has thrown at least 200 innings in every season from 1988 through 2006, with the exception of 2002 when he threw 199 1/3. This year he threw 198. Who would argue with the future Hall of Famer?

Throwing softer and truly pitching - instead of hurling - can extend the life of a pitcher. Maddux and fellow forty-something Tom Glavine are prime examples. They're older, but still getting it done.

Both Glavine and Maddux will be back in 2008, fooling batters once again.

Glavine got an $8 million, one-year deal from Atlanta, where he spent the first 16 years of his illustrious career. He declined a one-year, $13 million contract option with the Mets to return to the Braves. Apparently, for Glavine, it's not all about the money. Meanwhile, Maddux signed a $10 million, one-year deal with San Diego.

The interesting note; both will be 42 on, or near, Opening Day and both are 300-game winners.

Glavine, who turns 42 on March 25, went 13-8 with a 4.45 ERA in 200 1/3 innings for the Mets last season. Maddux, who turns 42 on April 14, went 14-11 with a 4.14 ERA last season, his first with San Diego.

Glavine is a five-time 20-game winner, a two-time Cy Young Award winner, and one of just five lefthanders in Major League history to earn 300 career wins.

His counterpart, Maddux, is also among the 23 pitchers to have won at least 300 games. Maddux is currently ninth on the all-time wins list with 347 victories. His list of accomplishments is even more amazing: the first pitcher in Major League history to win the Cy Young Award for four consecutive years (1992-1995); the only pitcher in the Major Leagues to have 20 consecutive seasons with at least 10 wins; the only pitcher in MLB history to win 15 games in 17 consecutive seasons; the winningest pitcher in both the 1990's and 2000's; just the thirteenth member of the 3000 strikeout club and only the ninth pitcher with both 300 wins and 3,000 strikeouts.

Pitching coaches at the Little League, high school and college levels, as well as management at the big league level should take notice. They should use Glavine and Maddux examples of longevity and success. This season, Glavine threw 200 1/3 innings at the age of 41, while Maddux threw 198 innings at the same age.

Due to expansion, there are 30 teams today – more than ever before. That means there are also more pitchers than ever before, many of whom wouldn’t have been able to make it to the Big Leagues in decades past. This has weakened the talent pool substantially. With 30 teams having five-man rotations, that means there were at least 150 starting pitchers in the Majors this year – and obviously there were more due to injuries and call ups. Despite this, only 38 pitchers managed to throw at least 200 innings in 2007. This is shameful.

Young pitchers need to forget the heat. They need to work on the craft of pitching. They should learn to use multiple pitches and learn to locate the ball to all four corners of the plate. This will extend careers, extend innings pitched, and diminish the workload on, and necessity of, expensive -- and often useless -- bullpens around the Big Leagues.

Copyright © 2007 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

WHEN LESS IS MORE

WE LIKE MIKE AND MIKE LIKES BOSTON. ACCEPTING THE SOX OFFER SHOULD BE A NO-BRAINER FOR LOWELL.

Everyone loves Mike Lowell. We all do; Red Sox Nation, his teammates, Red Sox management, the media -- everyone loves this guy. Even opposing players like and respect him. Why wouldn't they? And other GM's admire him so much that he will be one of the most highly sought after free agents this off-season.

Lowell is a team guy who took the young players -- like Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury -- under his wing and showed them the Big League way. Lowell is a leader in the clubhouse, in the dugout, and on the field. And he is a winner, owning two World Series rings. He is steady, reliable, and a consummate gentleman. He is everything you want in a ballplayer playing on your team.

But he also a free agent who can now lend his services to the highest bidder. And it is important during a multi-million dollar business negotiation -- which this most certainly is -- not to let emotions get in the way and blind one from making good, sound decisions. That's the position the Red Sox must take, and surely are taking.

Lowell had a career year in 2007 with his .324 average, .378 OBP, and 120 RBI. But he will be 34 on Opening Day, and chances are he will never approach numbers like these ever again.

Now, I'm not implying that Lowell will begin a freefall or a precipitous drop-off in production, but I am suggesting that you've seen the best of him and that he will not approach those prodigious numbers again.

Even Sox' stat guru Bill James foresees a drop-off for Lowell next season that would be more more in line with his career numbers -- .282, 17 HR, 81 RBI.

The Sox have offered Lowell a three-year contract of between $12-$15 million annually, which puts the total package at between $36-$45 million.

But what if some other team -- or teams -- offers a guaranteed fourth year, pushing the contract to somewhere between $48-$60 million?

What should the Red Sox do then? Should they lose their minds and match that offer? Or should good sense and judgment prevail, meaning that the Sox would have to look elsewhere for Lowell's replacement?

Who that successor would be in such a scenario is unclear, but there are many suggestions floating around in the Hot Stove rumor mill.

Miguel Cabrerra is continually mentioned, with the stipulation that the Sox would move Kevin Youkilis back to his original third base position. But Cabrerra won't come cheaply in terms of trade compensation or contract demands. Word is that the Nationals asked for both Jacoby Ellsbury and Clay Buccholz in return. Yeah, right. Like that's gonna happen.

And there's also the possibility of the Sox continuing their in-house youth movement. Chris Carter, the left-handed hitting Pawtucket first baseman who came to the Sox in the Wily Mo Pena deal, is intriguing. Carter is just 25 and hit 19 home runs with 97 RBI in 136 games for Arizona’s Triple-A Tucson team this season. He appears ready for prime time.

Either move would necessitate shifting Youkilis back to third. But where is the wisdom in moving a 28-year-old who just won his first Gold Glove award to another position?

Joe Crede could be had, but that would represent a downgrade. And it's been rumored that Washington's Ryan Zimmerman could be available, but that would be an expensive move. Zimmerman is a rising star and acquiring him would also cost the Sox someone like Jon Lester or Buccholz in a trade.

Whatever the case may be, the Sox likely won't budge much on their offer to Lowell. They have a history of setting a value on a player and not going over it. That's an example of not letting emotions get in the way of sound judgment, and it's served them well in the cases of Pedro Martinez and Johnny Damon.

If Lowell were to take a lesser offer from the Red Sox, and forgo a larger offer from another team that made a strong push for him, it would reveal just how much he loves Boston, the Red Sox, and their fans. No agent -- who gets a percentage of his client's contract -- would encourage his client to take a lesser offer. Such a decision would be all about Lowell, his priorities and his wishes.

Players like to say that "it's not about the money," when it's almost always about the money. But how much of a difference would a few million dollars make to a guy who is already a multi-millionaire? It won't change the car he drives, the size of the house he lives in, its location, or the type of yacht he cruises around on during the off-season.

Community must count for something. Liking where you live has to factor into the equation, as do the happiness and wishes of a wife and child. Lowell seems to love Boston, and Boston surely loves him. Playing on a reigning World Series champion and perennial contender has to count too.

Making millions of dollars annually, living in Boston, and playing for the Red Sox isn't such a bad deal. There are worse possibilities, aren't there?

And the truth is, Lowell was paid generously -- $9 million, in fact -- for what he did this season. Contracts should be forward looking, not based on what a player did in the past, during his prime. Lowell is not entering his prime. He is either peaking or has done so already. And there is a history of such declines with other great third basemen.

George Brett's production dropped considerably after the age of 36. The same was true of Eddie Mathews, Brooks Robinson and Robin Ventura. Players trail off in their late 30s and the final two years of Lowell's deal have to be of concern.

Let's hope that sanity prevails and that Lowell accepts the Red Sox' generous three-year offer. This is one of those situations that seems to be good for everyone involved.

Yes, this will be the last long-term deal that Lowell will sign, but he has been compensated quite generously in his career and this contract amounts to a considerable pay raise. He and the Red Sox are a perfect fit, and it's likely that greener pastures are not to be found elsewhere.

The Sox are an excellent team with an ideal blend of veterans and youth. They have an excellent management team and farm system, and should contend for the foreseeable future.

This should be a no-brainer for Lowell. A fourth year somewhere else won't amount to a better deal. Staying with the Red Sox is the classic example of less being more.


Copyright © 2007 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

STAY AWAY FROM "THE COOLER"

Signing A-Rod Makes No Sense

Adding Alex Rodriguez to the mix makes no sense for the Red Sox.

Firstly, A-Rod is "The Cooler." Wherever he goes, his teams under-perform. And when he leaves they usually get better.

Case in point; in 2000, his final year with Seattle, the Mariners went 91-71 and finished 2nd in the AL West. The following year, after A-Rod had exited as a free agent, the Mariners had the best record in baseball and won a record-tying 116 games without him.

From A-Rod's rookie season in 1996 -- covering five full years -- the Mariners reached the playoffs twice. They won the AL West in 1997 but were defeated by Baltimore in the ALDS, 3 games to 1. Then they won the Wild Card in 2000, but lost to the Yankees in six games in the ALCS.

During that off-season, A-Rod signed his record-setting free agent contract with the Texas Rangers, joining a team that had finished 4th in the AL West with an inverse 71-91 record to the Mariners 91-71.

With the addition of their high-priced superstar in 2001, Texas improved by a mere two games, going 73-89, once again finishing 4th in the AL West. In 2002, the Rangers again finished in 4th place, going 72-90. And finally, in 2003, the Rangers yet again finished in 4th place, at 71-91.

It should be noted that there are only four teams in the AL West. So, for three consecutive years with A-Rod, the Rangers finished in last place -- exactly where they finished before he joined them in 2000.

Then A-Rod went to the Yankees via trade. And what happened to Texas? They improved by 18 wins that year, going 89-73 -- their first winning campaign in six seasons. And of course, the Yankees never made it to the World Series with A-Rod, despite their rather massive investment.

So how was A-Rod worth a 10-year, $252 million dollar contract? Quite simply, he wasn't. So how does Scott Boras possibly think that his star third baseman is worth even more now? Only he knows. If the uber-agent really is seeking a $350 million contract for his client, there's a good chance that neither the Red Sox, nor anyone else, will enter into serious negotiations with him.

Most teams don't like Boras. And most people don't like A-Rod. The man is a chemistry killer, and chemistry is what helped the Red Sox win each of their last two Championships. There have long been rumors that A-Rod rubs his teammates the wrong way. Derek Jeter tired of his act very quickly in New York, and none of his teammates ever truly rallied to support him when the heat was on. At the least, A-Rod's teammates have to be envious of his enormous contract. What has he done to deserve it? The playoffs are money time and his track record in those critical situations is rather lackluster; 39 games, .279 average, 7 homers, 17 RBI, 38 strike outs.

My bet is that Boras and A-Rod will surprised by the lack of interest at their asking price. They'll have to come down on either the years or the money. The stark reality for "Team A-Rod/Boras" is that only a handful of teams could possibly afford such an exorbitant contract. And it makes you wonder if either the player or agent ever asked himself why anyone of them would eat up such an enormous amount of payroll on one player?

A-Rod is 32. The Red Sox don't want him -- or any other player -- under contract for 10 or 12 years. Who does? For any deal to work out, A-Rod and Boras would have to come down substantially on the contract length, and thereby its overall cost. Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal suggested that perhaps the Red Sox can persuade A-Rod to take a shorter deal that would allow him to re-enter the free-agent market just as he is closing in on Barry Bonds' home-run record. Five years, $150 million, plus option years and voidable years might be workable to both sides.

Boras can come with all his charts, graphs and statistics, but one thing is for certain; the Red Sox's revenues can't go much higher by adding A-Rod. There are no more seats to sell. Subscriptions to NESN aren't likely to increase and neither are ratings. If anything, A-Rod will only drain resources and make it that much more difficult to address other needs as they arise.

The Red Sox won two World Series without A-Rod over the last four years, while the Yankees won none with him. Even if his contract demands are dropped considerably, who really wants "The Cooler" on their team?

Copyright © 2007 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

LET THE HOT STOVE BEGIN!!

IT'S TIME TO LOOK AHEAD. AN OFF-SEASON PREVIEW

As good as the 2007 Red Sox were, changes will be made. Some players are past their prime (Curt Schilling), some youngsters cannot be ignored (Jacoby Ellsbury), and some free agents may be too expensive, or require too long of a commitment (Mike Lowell).

Let’s start with Schilling.

Perhaps Schilling saw the writing on the wall at the end of the regular season when he told the Providence Journal that his house in Medfield would be on the market. That signaled he was pretty sure his days in Boston were numbered.

That was a good assumption. These days, Schilling is a five or six inning pitcher – at best. He wants a one-year deal at $13 million, the same figure he made this season. Sure, there is a thin free agent market this year, but despite this Schilling is no longer worth that kind of money.

Over the last three seasons he's 31-23 - an average of 10-8 each year. In that span his ERA is 4.54. He is clearly in decline, and Clay Buchholz will get his spot in the rotation next year.

Schilling knows this, and that’s why he said goodbye to his teammates after the World Series. He'll be elsewhere next season, and that's why his house is for sale.

For what it's worth, Schilling would like to finish his career with the team that drafted him and says the window for negotiating with the Red Sox will be the first 15 days after the World Series. Apparently, he's already begun initial discussions with three teams.

Given the limited free agent pitching options available, (Freddy Garcia, Tom Glavine, Bartolo Colon, Livan Hernandez, Steve Trachsel), Schilling will certainly draw interest. He brings a great resume and has presence on the mound, as well as in the dugout. He could help instill confidence and pitching smarts in a staff of young, inexperienced pitchers. Perhaps he could even help a veteran team.

The question is how much he has left in the tank. His last six regular season starts resulted a 2-3 record. But his 2.79 ERA over that span, combined with strong October performances, virtually guarantees that he'll have suitors.

The soon-to-be 41-year-old righty is 11-2 lifetime in 19 postseason starts, with a 2.23 ERA. He's been a World Series MVP. He's started a Game 7 in the World Series. He's won elimination games and series clinchers. He will forever be remembered for the bloody sock and, especially to Sox fans, for helping to defeat the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS and then the Cardinals in the World Series for the team's first Championship in 86 years. For that, all of Red Sox Nation thanks you, Curt, and will be forever grateful.

And then there's the matter of Mike Lowell, one of the most popular players on the team.

Not only was Lowell the World Series MVP, but he was arguably the team's 2007 MVP as well. After career highs in average (.324), on-base percentage (.378) hits (191), and RBI (120), the third baseman is expecting a significant raise.

Lowell will be 34 on opening day and will likely be signing his last long-term deal. He'll be looking for at least a three-year deal and if anyone -- such as the Yankees -- offers four, he may bite.

A fantastic fielder and team leader who speaks both English and Spanish, Lowell will surely attract interest on the open market. However, the Red Sox are hesitant to enter into contract with players past the age of 35.

One possibility; the Sox could offer Lowell a two-year deal with a third year option that automatically vests if certain performance incentives are reached.

For example, if Lowell hits at least .300, has at least 90 RBI, or at least 20 home runs in the second year, the third year is guaranteed. This could make sense for both sides. The Sox aren't concerned so much with having 36-year-old under contract as they in having a declining player under contract. And if Lowell is confident in his abilities, his love for the Red Sox and Fenway Park may keep him in town. Lowell was tailored made for Fenway, hitting 97 points higher, and with twice as many homers, at home as on the road.

Dark horse scenario; Kevin Youkilis moves back to third and Pawtucket first baseman Chris Carter assumes first base. Carter came over in the Wily Mo Pena deal and was in the top five in batting average and top 10 in homers in the Pacific Coast League as a member of the Diamondbacks Triple A affiliate this year. He looks like the real deal.

Expect a new face in center next season. Jacoby Ellsbury batted .360 during the playoffs, third highest on the team. Meanwhile, incumbent center fielder Coco Crisp batted just .188, lowest on the team.

Crisp, who turned 28 on Thursday, had another disappointing year at the plate, batting just .268 with a .330 OBP. During his four years with Cleveland his average improved every year, culminating with a .300 average in his final year – 2005.

Though never a power hitter, his home run total has been halved since joining the Red Sox. And he had a career high in strikeouts this year. All of this points to the obvious; Crisp has been in decline offensively for two consecutive years.

Meanwhile, the scouting reports on Ellsbury have been excellent since he was drafted. He is going to be a star. That means that Coco's days are numbered. The question is this; do the Sox trade him this winter, or at the break next season?

The fact that he hasn't hit a lick in two straight seasons will hurt Crisp’s trade value. However, his stellar defense should earn him a Gold Glove (if there's any justice), and that should fetch a decent return in any trade. Scheduled to make an average of $5.25 million over the next two seasons, Crisp should be viewed as a value by most teams.

Like many teams, the Red Sox also need to address the position of catcher. This is an area of weakness across the minor leagues and internationally.

The Sox need to find someone who can help ease the burden on an aging Jason Varitek in order to help extend the Captain's career, and his effectiveness at season's end. Varitek will be 36 in April and is entering the final year of the four-year contract he signed following the 2004 season.

The 37-year-old Doug Mirabelli is not the answer. Though he effectively catches Tim Wakefield's elusive knuckleball, Mirabelli is older than Varitek and is an offensive liability, hitting just .202 this year -- well below his weight.

The soon-to-be-30-year-old Kevin Cash is younger, but he too is an ineffective hitter. In 176 at-bats in Pawtucket this season, he hit just .176, and then in 12 games with Red Sox just .111.

Knowing this was an area that needed to be addressed, the Sox traded David Wells to San Diego for Triple A catcher George Kottaras in 2006. But the 24-year-old Canadian hit just .241 in nearly 300 at bats and is not a power threat. Clearly he needs more time to develop and doesn't appear to part of the solution for 2008. The Sox will have to look elsewhere for help.

The position of shortstop has been a bit of a merry-go-round for the Red Sox these last few years, going from Nomar, to O-Cab, to Gonzo, to Lugo. Makes you wish the Sox had simply re-signed Orlando Cabrerra after the 2004 season, doesn't it?

Last winter, the Red Sox let shortstop Alex Gozalez walk without even making him a contract offer. After watching him play for just one year, the Sox decided that they wanted to go in a different direction -- namely one that would provide them more offense. So the defensive wizard signed with the Reds and the Sox signed Julio Lugo in his stead.

But things didn't turn out as planned. Lugo largely fizzled at the plate in Boston while Gonzalez thrived in Cincinnati.

Playing in just 110 games, with less than 400 plate appearances, Gonzalez hit 16 homers and 55 RBI, while hitting .272 with a .325 OBP. However, never the speedster, Gonzalez had no stolen bases.

Meanwhile, back in Boston, Lugo was a bit of a mixed bag, hitting just .237 with 8 homers. But he also drove in 73 RBI (more than a certain shortstop who plays for the Yankees) and stole 33 bases, which lead the team.

Lugo was steady and fairly reliable in the field, playing in 147 games and making 19 errors. But the normally sure-handed Gonzalez made 16 errors in far fewer games for the Reds.

Though his contract is hard to figure, or justify, Lugo is merely a stopgap. The Red Sox are grooming one of their top prospects to assume the shortstop position in the not-so-distant future.

Jed Lowrie hit .300 in 160 at-bats for Pawtucket this season, with a .356 OBP. Expect to see him at mid-season or, at the latest, as a September call-up. Lugo is scheduled to make $9 million annually over the next three seasons and will eventually be moved to make room for Lowrie. It's only a matter of when.

Eric Hinske is no longer under contract. Though a versatile fielder, after hitting just .204 this year in limited at-bats, and being a career .255 hitter who's been in decline since winning Rookie of the Year in 2002, it's a safe bet he won't be back.

Bobby Kielty, on the other hand, is a switch hitter who made a name for himself in Boston with his critical home run in Game 4 of the World Series. He could be the fourth outfielder in 2008.

Despite his Grand Slam in Game 6 of the ALCS, many fans would still like to bid farewell to JD Drew and his $14 million per year contract. Don't count on it. Drew's offensive struggles are no secret and there's no market for such an overpaid, underachieving player. Drew had never done anything to warrant such a massive long-term deal in the first place, and this season only diminished his value. The Red Sox would likely have to eat half his salary in any deal -- an unsavory choice. So expect him back next year and hope for something better.

Here's a sobering thought; does anyone doubt that either Jacoby Ellsbury, David Murphy or Brandon Moss couldn’t have matched Drew's 11 home runs, 64 RBI and .270 average this past year? One way or another, it would have come at a far lesser expense.

Tim Wakefield will be back for yet another go-around as the Sox elder statesman. Wakefield will still be pitching when Jon Lester retires someday. Julian Tavarez will also be back. Tavarez is very versatile and is a complete team player. Whatever it takes to win, he'll do it. By all accounts, he is a great and selfless teammate. Mike Timlin, if healthy, can still pitch. He'll be 42 on opening day, but is only called upon to pitch one inning at a time. His sinker still sinks and he is a leader with four World Series rings. The head of the bullpen core will back for one more year.

And finally, as for Alex Rodriguez finally coming to Boston…. don’t hold your breath. My bet is that the market for A-Rod will be thin at Scott Boras’ absurd asking price, and he may be left without a suitor. That price could be as high as $300 million, another all-time high for A-Rod and Boras.

But here’s the problem; seven major league franchises are worth less than $300 million, according to April's Forbes. No player is worth that much – especially one with A-Rod’s playoff resume.

Rodriguez may end up going back to the Yanks and groveling for a contract. Who cares about his MVPs when he's the LVP in the playoffs -- when it really matters. Don’t lose sleep over this one, Sox fans.

So there you have it – some changes that will, and won’t, take place this off-season.

The GM Meetings begin this weekend in Orlando. The Hot Stove is just starting to heat up.

Copyright © 2007 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Monday, October 29, 2007

SOX WIN!!

I went to bed last night feeling Rocky Mountain high. And I woke up this morning feeling the same way. Many thanks to the Red Sox.

No, this wasn't the awe and euphoria of 2004 -- nothing will ever match that again. My father had never seen a Red Sox World Series Championship until then, and neither had my maternal grandfather. My paternal grandfather was just five in 1918 -- the last time the Sox had won -- and was since deceased. I don't know if he even remembered it as an adult.

With all that in mind, the 2004 Championship was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The bad mojo was gone, and with it the sense of pessimism, anguish and despair were also gone. Coming back from being down three-games-to-none to the dreaded Yankees in the ALCS, and then sweeping he Cardinals in the World Series, made all things seem possible forever more. Hope lived.

The Red Sox swept the Rockies for their second World Series in four years and captured their seventh World Championship in franchise history -- the third most all-time. Including their 2004 triumph, the Red Sox have now won eight straight World Series games, a new club record.

After trailing Cleveland 3 games to 1, the Sox reeled off seven straight wins and looked like an unstoppable force in doing so. Yes, 2004 makes everything seem possible for now.

The Sox hit .333 in the World Series - second best in Series history. In fact, every Red Sox regular in the lineup hit over .300 in the Series except Manny Ramirez. That's just plain weird. The Sox also finished with 18 doubles, one shy of the Series record. Throughout the lineup, hitters responded with key hits in crucial situations. And they didn't do it with bases-clearing bleacher rockets either.

The club with a history as a power-hitting goliath hit just three homers in the four-game Series, two in the clinching finale. They earned their runs by getting on base and then moving runners with steals, bunts, sacrifice flys, and timely hitting. And they often did it with two strikes, and even two outs.

The Sox outscored their opponents 99-46 in the post-season, the largest run differential in playoff history. And they absolutely drubbed the Rockies in just about every imaginable way during the Fall Classic; they outscored them 29-10, out-hit them 47-29, and had 21 extra bases to the Rockies mere 10.

These weren't the "Idiots" of 2004 but, just the same, this team was able to "Cowboy Up", or man up, or just plain step up when it counted in the post-season. Like their predecessor, this team had heart, mettle, and conviction. They had an unshakable faith in themselves and a burning desire to win and live up to all the expectations placed upon them.

Those expectations were created by ownership, management. media, a rabid fanbase, and the players themselves. Management made it clear during Spring Training; nothing short of a World Series title would do.

The biggest difference between this club and the 2004 Red Sox is that this version is youthful. Key components will be around for a years to come.

Get used to names like Beckett (27), Matsuzaka (27), Lester (23), Papelbon (27), Pedroia (24), Youkilis (28) and Ellsbury (24); they are young and they are the heart of a burgeoning dynasty. And Clay Buccholz (23) wasn't even on the playoff roster this year. It just gets better, doesn't it? Yes, they are the future -- as well as the present -- and they are going to be around for quite some time.

Of that group, only Youkilis was a member of the 2004 team, and he wasn't on the post-season roster that year. This is a new band of merry men. It is younger and has a future the other never had. It is a very different, but still very professional, team.

No doubt, the youth movement was on parade in this World Series. Jon Lester became just the third pitcher to win a World Series clincher in his first post-season start. And the world witnessed Jacoby Ellsbury, who began the year in Double-A, become a star-in-the-making before our very eyes. Note to Sox fans; this is your starting center fielder for the next decade, or so. Enjoy, folks.

The Red Sox had the best record in the game for the first time since 1946, and won the AL East for the first time in 12 years. They led the AL East nearly wire to wire, from April 18 to season's end. They were the picture of consistency in 2007, never losing more than four straight games or winning more than five straight. And they were led by just the right man to return them to the promised land.

Manager Terry Francona is now 8-0 in World Series play, and became the first manager ever to win his first eight World Series games. The unflappable and steady skipper has the perfect temperament to effectively manage his perfect blend of veterans and youth; he never panics, he never over-reacts, and he always remains positive. Francona has consistently displayed faith in his team, as well as an unyielding loyalty to each of his players -- no matter how much they've struggled.

And the front office did its part too -- signing key free agents, trading for players like Coco Crisp, Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell, acquiring role players like Bobby Kielty on waivers, and drafting quite well. This last element is especially important to the team's long-term success; it's allowed them to build from within, assuring enough young, homegrown talent to be competitive for years to come.

And for all of this, Red Sox fans have rewarded management with 388 consecutive regular season sell-outs. And it won't stop there; on the 68th homegame of next season, the Red Sox and their fans will break the Cleveland Indians consecutive sellout record of 455 games, established between 1995-2001. That's brand loyalty, and the surest sign that your customers like your product.

The Sox brass decided to take a step back after 2004 to take a giant leap ahead this year. An aged, out of shape David Wells and Matt Clement - together - weren't enough to replace Pedro Martinez. But patience and perseverance prevailed.

The Red Sox had to break up the 2004 team, to the disappointment of many Sox fans. It was time to bid farewell to players in decline -- such as Pedro Martinez, Johnny Damon, Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, and Trot Nixon -- as well as those who were never that good to begin with, such as Mark Belhorn and Mike Meyers. We are forever grateful for their contributions, but it was time to move on.

New, younger, better talent had to be infused with key veterans such as Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield, Mike Timlin, Jason Varitek, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz -- the heart of the team.

The Red Sox are in better shape as organization than they were in 2004. And yes, we could be witnessing the birth of a dynasty; two World Series titles in four years, with only seven players remaining from the 2004 team, make that evident.

This is a great time to be a Red Sox fan, isn't it? We are truly living in a Golden Era.

But be forewarned, Red Sox Nation; enjoy this while it lasts. Like all good things, it will eventually come to an end. At some point, every dynasty crumbles.

In the meantime, bask in the glory of this high. And let's hope it lasts a while. A few more years would be nice, wouldn't it?

Copyright © 2007 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

SCHILLING'S START HAS IMPORTANT RAMIFICATIONS

The Red Sox made it look so easy last night. Why? Two reasons; 1.) Josh Beckett 2.) Every batter in the starting lineup had at least one hit, and every one of them -- with the exception of Mike Lowell -- had at least one RBI. In fact, the Red Sox scored more runs than any team in the first game of a World Series. In short, it was a complete team effort.

Firing on all cylinders, the Red Sox derailed the Rockies playoff juggernaut. Colorado had been undefeated in the playoffs, sweeping two consecutive series. Seven games, seven wins. Only the '76 Reds had ever started the post-season with such a streak.

But how good are the Rockies? They won 90 games this season -- most in team history -- yet squeaked into the playoffs simply because the Padres lost their final two games of the season. San Diego choked. Colorado got a second chance. And they capitalized on it. The Rocks beat San Diego in the 13th inning of a one-game playoff -- on a bad call at the plate -- to win the Wild Card. And let's not forget that with two weeks left in the season, they were in fourth place in the wild-card race.

Sure, coming into Game 1 the Rockies had won 21 of their last 22 games. They had won 10 in row overall, and had lost just once since September 16. Like all successful playoff teams, they got hot -- really hot -- at the right time. And clearly luck had been on their side. But luck and ridiculous winning streaks always run out eventually. No one envisioned the Rockies being in the World Series this year -- probably not even the Rockies themselves. They were an after-thought.

So the Red Sox once again turn to Curt Schilling tonight, for the fourth time this post-season, hoping for more of that old October magic.

"I've spent almost 15 years putting together a résumé in October, and that's become one of the things I've become known by. That's on the line again," Schilling said at the start of the playoffs.

But these days, a Schilling start is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're gonna get. His season had as many ups and downs as a roller coaster. There was the opening day shellacking he took in Kansas City to the lowly Royals. That immediately raised a red flag; all was not well. But he returned to form and came within one out of a no-hitter in Oakland on June 7. Then came his next start, against the Rockies.

Colorado went 2-1 against the Red Sox this season, outscoring them 20-5 in a June series at Fenway Park. Schilling pitched against them on June 13 and took the loss in a 12-2 beatdown. He lasted just five-plus innings, giving up six runs (five earned) on nine hits. The joy and euphoria of the one-hitter in Oakland was quickly washed away. And it got worse. The 40-year-old righty's next start, on June 18 in Atlanta, was a disaster in which he was roughed up yet again. Even the Braves' hitters knew something was wrong. They weren't facing the dominating Curt Schilling they were used to.

The next day he was on the DL, his season in tatters, his career in jeopardy. Diagnosed with shoulder tendinitis, Schilling remained on the DL from June 19 to August 6. At that point his season appeared over. It was nearly impossible to imagine him pitching in October -- if ever again. Perhaps his illustrious career had finally, unceremoniously, reached its end. How many 40-year-old pitchers bounce back from an injury to their pitching shoulder?

But he managed to return, and finished the season with a less than impressive 9-8 record in 24 starts. Yet he had a very respectable 3.87 ERA. What kind of pitcher was he at this point? Sure the fastball had lost much of its zing, but he could still command his pitches, issuing just 23 walks to his 101 strikeouts this year.

If we've learned anything about Schilling it's this; no one should ever doubt his competitive fire. He is driven to succeed, and to prove himself over and over again -- especially in the post-season.

"I've always been a guy, October wasn't enough. I always had to add a little piece to it," said Schilling. ""I look at October as a way to enhance everything you've ever done."

October is where he's earned his salary, and his reputation as a big game pitcher. Since 1993 he's been consistently great. But now he's nearing 41, and his starts can be erratic. In Game 2 of the ALCS against Cleveland, he was lit up for five runs on nine hits in just 4 2/3 innings. It was ugly.

This is an important game for the Red Sox, as it is for the Rockies. If the Sox win, they can go into Colorado knowing they can close it out at Coors Field. Even if they win just one of three games there, they'll be in the driver's seat and will have to win just one of the final two games at Fenway. Schilling can set up an eventual World Series title with another big performance tonight.

Schilling's start is also important because Daisuke Matsuzaka, who will be going for the Sox in Game 3, has a 7.62 ERA in September and October. He, too, is unpredictable. But if you had to place a bet, at this point you wouldn't count on him to be solid or reliable.

And then there's the fact that Tim Wakefield was left off the World Series roster due to an ailing shoulder. He's been dealing with the problem since the end of the season and was also kept off the roster for the first-round series against the Angels. But one has to wonder if the shoulder is really the issue, or if it's related to the fact that the knuckleball probably won't fare well in the cold, thin, October air at Denver's mile-high altitude? Wakefield had a 4.76 ERA this season. That could be crippling in Denver. And he's only pitched once since September 29, when he allowed five runs in 4 2/3 innings against the Indians in Game 4 of the ALCS.

As a result, the Red Sox have yet to announce their Game 4 starter. However, Jon Lester threw four simulated innings on Tuesday, likely in anticipation of making that start in Colorado. But you can't help but wonder if the Sox would start Beckett on three days rest in Game 4. It likely depends on how the first three games go. Even if Matsuzaka and Lester were to lose their starts in Colorado, Beckett would be slated to go in Game 5. That would set up Schilling to pitch yet another series-clinching game, this time at Fenway.

All of this illustrates why Schilling's start tonight is so important to the Red Sox. And, of course, this could be his final start in a Boston uniform. If it is, going out with a bang in front of the Fenway faithful, who've lionized him since he arrived four years ago, would be a fitting farewell. And a strong performance would only further cement his legend as one of the game's all-time greatest post-season pitchers.

One way or the other, the Red Sox are the superior team -- with the tougher schedule, in the tougher league, with the tougher lineups -- and should win this Series in six games.

Copyright © 2007 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

IT'S THE BIG TIME NOW

JOSH BECKETT STEPPED UP. CURT SCHILLING STEPPED UP. EVEN JD DREW STEPPED UP. NOW IT'S TIME FOR DICE-K TO DO THE SAME.

For a $70 million player to be benched in Games 1 and 5 of the ALCS -- in favor of a reserve player who'd been unconditionally released by the lowly Oakland A's late in the season -- was an indication of just how far JD Drew had fallen. Whatever meager shine was left on Drew's star had, by that point, completely faded. Simply put, the move indicated that Terry Francona had more faith in Bobby Kielty than in JD Drew.

To leave Drew sitting during two ever-so-crucial games made quite a statement. Francona had been Drew's biggest supporter all year long, standing by his right fielder through the worst of times, continuing to bat him fifth when everyone else knew that Mike Lowell was better suited for that role.

Drew was brought to Boston last winter -- along with other high-priced free agents Daisuke Matsuzaka and Julio Lugo -- not to finally supplant the Yankees and win the AL East, or even win the American League Championship Series, but to help the Red Sox win their seventh World Series in franchise history. Management had made it clear during Spring Training; nothing else would do.

But Drew struggled at the plate all year long and his dreadful season had seeped into the post-season. If not for the equally uninspired play of Coco Crisp, it may have cost him his place in the lineup for Game 6. But rookie sensation Jacoby Ellsbury took the place of Crisp instead, leaving Drew an opportunity for heroics. And with one swing of the bat Saturday night, in front of the fans who had desperately looked for a reason to love him all year long, Drew found redemption.

A homer would have been nice. A couple a RBI would have been nice. Anything to show that he had some grit, some desire, some passion -- that he had a pulse -- would have been great. But JD Drew went beyond all possible expectations and hit just the third Grand Slam in Red Sox post-season history.

Terry Francona's belief, encouragement, and patient support had finally paid off.

The grand moment gave Drew some respite from the heat and scrutiny he'd been facing all year long. And it also allowed him a moment of joy and recognition from the Fenway faithful; his first curtain call of the season.

Drew's emergence couldn't have come at a more opportune time for the Red Sox. He now has a five-game hitting streak in the post-season, and Saturday's 3-for-5 effort raised his average to .381 in the playoffs. The Red Sox will be better for it if his hot streak continues on Sunday night.

In Major League history, 65 teams have trailed a best-of-seven series three games to one; only ten have come back to win. The last was the 2004 Boston Red Sox. The 2007 Red Sox are hoping to become the 11th team to accomplish this improbable feat.

The Sox are vying for another World Series berth largely on the merits of Josh Beckett. Coming into Saturday night,, no other Sox starter had made it out of the fifth inning in the ALCS.

But Curt Schilling put an end to that with yet another masterful post-season performance that can be added to his illustrious resume. There is no better big-game pitcher in the modern era. Perhaps none ever. Schilling is now 10-2 in the post-season, and 4-0 in elimination games. In those do-or-die contests, the unflappable veteran has a paltry 1.37 ERA. When it's all on the line, Schilling performs as if he has ice water flowing through his veins. He should been nicknamed the "Iceman" long ago.

But pitching wasn't the Sox' only problem in the ALCS; other than the 2-5 hitters, no one else was producing and someone needed to step up. Drew responded by driving in five runs and scoring two himself. But he wasn't the only previously hibernating bottom of the order hitter to answer the call. Julio Lugo had two RBI and scored a run, and Jacoby Ellsbury also had an RBI and a run scored. The Sox desperately needed those contributions and got them in a critical game.

After hitting into three double plays in Game 2, the Red Sox hit into three more in Game 3. Things were so bad that the Sox had hit into a total of seven double plays in the first three games, the most ever by any team in the first three games of an LCS. And JD Drew had been part of that incompetence. But by the time they had rolled into an LCS-record 11th double play in Game 6, Drew had already put a dagger into the heart of the Indians and such a statistic became a footnote in history made irrelevant by victory.

So now the Red Sox put their fortunes in the hands of Daisuke Matsuzaka, which should raise some concern. In his last 10 starts, including two in the postseason, Matsuzaka is just 2-5 with a 7.07 ERA.

But Matsuzaka now has his own chance at redemption. Though his inaugural season in Boston went better than Drew's, it was still a mixed bag. His problem has been an inability to consistently throw strikes, which has lead to high pitch counts early in his starts.

Case in point; Matsuzaka lasted just 4 2/3 innings in his Game 3 start at Cleveland, yet threw 101 pitches. It was not an isolated event but, rather, part of a trend. The Japanese rookie threw an average of 108.8 pithes per start this season, the most in the Majors.

But throwing strikes shouldn't be too much to expect from a pitcher who had 201 strikeouts in 204 2/3 innings this year. Matsuzaka needs to discover a sense of economy now. He needs to command his pitches and control the strike zone. He cannot issue walks and allow the speedy Cleveland hitters additional opportunities to get on base and potentially score.

Moments like this -- Game 7 of the ALCS -- are exactly why the Red Sox outbid every other Major League team for Matsuzaka's services. He is a high school legend in his native Japan. He's pitched in the Olympics. And he also pitched the clinching game of the World Baseball Classic, where he earned the MVP.

But this is the big time, arguably the biggest game he has ever pitched in. Yes, this is indeed the biggest game of his young life. The heat is on, and it is time for Matsuzaka to rise to the occasion, just as Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling, and now even JD Drew, have done before him.

And with that burden rides the Red Sox 2007 season. Their fate isn't entirely in one man's hands, however. The hitters must hit. The big guns always seem to show up, but the 6-9 hitters must continue to contribute tonight as they did in Game 6. And the fielders must play flawless defense in support of Matsuzaka.

That, in fact, may be the key to the game. Matsuzkaka needs to trust his defense and just throw strikes. Pound the strike zone and have faith that it will pay off with a trip to the World Series, Dice-K. That would silence your critics and be a fine way to conclude your first season in Boston, your first season in the Majors, your first season in the big time.

Good luck. We'll all be watching, and hoping, and rooting for you.


Copyright © 2007 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Monday, October 15, 2007

MATSUZAKA'S MELTDOWN

Just as he did in his ALDS start against Anaheim (in which gave up three runs on seven hits and three walks), Daisuke Matsuzaka once again lasted just 4 2/3 innings in a playoff start. This time, the Japanese righty allowed eight base runners (six hits and two walks) against the Indians, resulting in four earned runs.

This season Matsuzaka threw an average of 108.7 pitches per start -- the most in baseball. And on Monday night, a high pitch count did him in once again. Though he struck out six batters, Dice-K threw 101 pitches and only 59 were strikes. On numerous occasions he fell behind Cleveland hitters and had three-ball counts too often to be successful. That pushed up his pitch count and lead to his early exit.

Dice-K has a tendency to nibble at the corners too much and look for help from the umpire. He doesn't seem to trust his defense enough to simply throw strikes. Instead, he tries to get big league hitters to chase pitches outside the strike zone. That may have worked early in the season when batters were unfamiliar with him and there was a sense of awe surrounding the Japanese legend. That sense of awe is now gone as hitters have figured him out. Teams have scouting reports on Matsuzaka and know his tendencies. Rather than chase pitches and take the bait on the corners, batters now dare him to throw strikes. And too often he doesn't, or can't.

On the other hand, the overlooked, under-appreciated Jake Westbrook threw a nasty sinkerball for nearly seven innings and stymied the Red Sox. Westbrook got 14 of his 19 outs on groundballs and induced three double plays on soft infield rollers. Before exiting he'd allowed two runs on seven hits and three walks.

Considering the Red Sox' $103 million investment, Matsuzaka was no bargain this year and certainly failed to live up to the enormous hype that preceded his arrival. Perhaps it was inevitable. Before he threw a single pitch in the majors, the recently turned 27-year-old was billed as the "next big thing" -- another Pedro in the making. That's yet to be determined, but the early returns aren't great.

His 15 wins, while impressive for a rookie, were matched by 12 losses. And then there is the real concern; his 4.40 ERA. His season was marked by a series of contrasts, positives and negatives. On the one hand, he struck out 201 batters in 204 2/3 innings. On the other, he allowed 191 hits and 80 walks; that amounts to a staggering 271 baserunners in those 204 2/3 innings. No matter how you slice it, that's not good. It's a problem that needs fixin'.

Last year, Josh Beckett, now the bona fide staff ace, had a similarly disappointing season. In his first season in the AL, Beckett went 16-11 with a 5.01 ERA. Other than the bloated ERA, another concern was the 36 homers he allowed. But this year Beckett more than halved that number, while dropping his ERA to an impressive 3.27. As a further indication of his evolution as an elite AL pitcher, Beckett also cut his walks nearly in half from 74 to 40, and increased his strike out total from 158 to 194.

The moral of the story is that one season is too small a sample to gauge a young pitcher, especially one like Matsuzaka who is not just coming from another league, but another nation with a vastly different culture. Perhaps Dice-K can reinvent himself in the same way that Josh Beckett did this year.

But it would be nice if he found a way to do it before next season. The Red Sox don't have that long to wait. Now down two games to one to the Indians, the Sox need help fast and they need it now.

Matsuzaka may not be done yet. If the Sox are able to find a way to come back and beat Cleveland, it will take better pitching. And it will also mean another playoff start -- in fact a World Series start -- for Dice-K on an even bigger stage. But that's what he was brought to Boston for in the first place; he had a big game resume that said he could be counted on in the big games.

That's a lot of ifs and maybes, but Dice-K still has a chance to play the hero, earn his millions, and live up to all that ridiculous hype before the 2007 season is in the record books.

Copyright © 2007 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

PREDICTION: SOX IN SIX

Well, I was wrong and I admit it. In fact, I was wrong on two counts.

First, I said the Red Sox would beat the Angels in four games. Second, I said the Yankees were the best team in the American League. I'm especially glad to have been wrong abut this last proclamation.

Now the Sox and Indians will vie for the AL Pennant, the distinction as the league's best team, and the privilege of playing for a World Series title.

What do the Red Sox have going for them as the ALCS begins? Their big guns are all firing at the same time; Josh Becket, Curt Schilling, Jonathan Papelbon, Manny Ramirez, and David Ortiz all look as fearsome as they do fearless. What's more, the Sox will be be more rested than the Indians. Beckett will have had eight days of rest by the time the AL championship series opens on Friday night.

But let's discuss Schilling for a moment, shall we?

This man has been written off numerous times over the last three seasons -- and for good reason. Since 2005, he has a record of 31-23 -- an average of 10-8 each year -- and a 4.54 ERA during that span.

This season he went a lackluster 9-8, but had a respectable 3.87 ERA. Of greater concern were the 165 hits and 23 walks he allowed in just 151 innings, amounting to a WHIP of 1.25. That's not Schilling-esque. Of equal concern; he only struck out 101 batters in those 165 innings. That's not Schilling-esque either. His Opening Day meltdown was an omen of the struggles he would endure throughout the regular season. And for most of 2007 he clearly looked like a pitcher in decline, one whose best days were long behind him.

Yet, one month shy of his 41st birthday, during the pressure-packed environment of the playoffs, Schilling has once again risen to the occasion, reinventing himself from an imposing power pitcher into a craftsman.

The veteran righty is no longer able to consistently hit 97 mph on the radar gun. Whereas, by his own admission, he once had a fastball that "had seven or eight more miles an hour" on it, he now must paint the corners. And on Sunday, he painted with precision, throwing seven shutout innings in a masterpiece.

Schilling threw 100 pitches, 76 for strikes. Now I'm no mathematician, but I do know that adds up to 76%. The former flamethrower now finds success not by blowing hitters away, but by picking his spots and consistently hitting them. Schilling says he has a "recognition of what I have," meaning he also recognizes what he no longer has. In essence, the diminished velocity may have made him a smarter pitcher.

With Sunday's win, Schilling's postseason record now stands at 9-2 -- the highest winning percentage in playoff history. And his ERA is a mind-blowing 1.93. That's big-time. That's money.

His performance was so good that he will get the Game 2 start in Round 2 with five days of rest. Simply put, he was better than Daisuke Matsuzaka and gives the Red Sox a better chance to win when matched up against the inexperienced Fausto Carmona.

The Sox pitchers held the Angels to just four runs in the ALDS. As unbelievable as it may seem, the Angels scored in just two of the 27 innings. And due to Beckett's complete-game and Schilling's seven strong innings, the bullpen will be well-rested in the ALCS. In fact, the entire team should be well-rested, having four full days off by the time they take the field at Fenway on Friday night.

A perfect example is Papelbon, who's thrown just 1 1/3 innings this postseason. The 26-year-old closer had another outstanding season and is the first Sox reliever to have back-to-back seasons of 28 or more saves. He finished 2006 with 35 saves and had 37 this year. Mentally tough and possessing a composure beyond his years, Papelbon strikes fear in opposing hitters. No batter wants to see Papelbon's fierce scowl looking back at him from atop the mound just sixty feet, six inches away.

Then there's Boston's Dynamic Duo of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, who have clicked at just the right time. The pair accounted for four of the five series homers (Kevin Youkilis had the other).

In the three-game ALDS, Ortiz walked six times while hitting .714 (5-for-7) with two home runs and three RBIs. Ramirez hit .375 (3-for-8), with 2 homers, 3 runs, four RBI, and five walks.

Ortiz now has 10 postseason homers, the most in Red Sox history. Ramirez's 22 postseason home runs put him in a tie with Bernie Williams for the most in Major League history. These two are white hot right now. In fact, to opposing pitchers they're lethal.

Ramirez loves to hit against his former team. Since leaving after the 2000 season, Ramirez has hit .357 against Cleveland, with 15 home runs in 49 regular-season games. This year he hit .417 (10-for-24) with three homers. This will be his first playoff matchup against the Tribe. One thing I was right about; I said he'd get hot in the playoffs and I'm glad to say I was right about that part.

A perfect mix of seasoned veterans and spirited young players, the Red Sox appear highly determined and focused on their mission; winning another World Series title. Timing is everything in baseball, and the Sox have gotten hot at the right time. Fueled by great pitching and solid hitting, the Sox outscored the Indians 19-4 in the ALDS. In simple terms, this team looks scary good right now.

The Sox and Indians shared the league's best record of 96-66, but the Sox won the regular-season series 5-2. This will be the first time they've met in an ALCS.

The Red Sox took the AL East lead on April 18 and never relinquished it, winning their first division title since 1995. They were the picture of consistency in 2007, never losing more than four straight games or winning more than five in a row. That consistency, driven by a steady veteran presence and leadership, will lead them into the World Series for the second time in four years.

Prediction; Sox in six against the Indians.

Copyright © 2007 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

PICK THE SOX IN FOUR

The Red Sox will prevail in their five-game series against the Angels in the ALDS. Here's why:

The Angels were just 2-5 at Fenway this year. The Angels' best hitter, Chone Figgins (.330), ended the season 0-for-22 and may be dealing with a recurring wrist injury. Vladimir Guerrero is ailing from an elbow problem, and Gary Matthews has been left off the postseason roster due to an injured knee.

If that's not enough, Game 1 starter John Lackey's career numbers against the Red Sox should encourage Red Sox fans — 1-6 with a 6.24 ERA. This year he was 0-2 with an 8.38 ERA.

The 2007 regular season contests between the two teams broke down this way:

Reds Sox: 6 wins; 6.4 runs per game; .290 team batting average; 9 home runs.
Angels: 4 wins; 4.2 runs per game; .260 team batting average; 7 home runs.

The Angels are a strong hitting team, ranking fourth best in baseball. Only three teams struck out less than the Halos, and they also swiped the third most bases in the majors. And while the Angels scored the sixth-most runs in baseball, they were 28th (out of 30 teams) in homers.

The Sox and Angels were second and third in strikeouts-per-nine-innings. But while the Sox pen had the second best ERA in baseball at 3.14, the Angels pen ranked 20th in the majors at 4.22.

That's just one reason why the Red Sox are a better team than the Angels, who won 94 games.

Tying Cleveland for the best record in the majors, the Red Sox won 96 games en route to their 10th straight winning season. They were fourth in runs, sixth in batting, 15th in stolen bases and 18th in home runs.

Having the AL's best record gives the Sox home field advantage through the ALCS, should they advance that far. That should benefit them to some degree. The Angles were just 2-5 at Fenway this year. On the other hand, the Sox were 1-2 in Anaheim. However, throughout the history of baseball, the home team has won roughly 54 percent of the time, and it's been essentially the same in the playoffs.

Some key players to the Sox postseason success:

Mike Lowell had a career year. His career-best 120 RBI led the team. He also hit .324 and had 21 home runs. As usual, he was steady in the field and made difficult plays look routine. However, he did have a career-high 15 errors after finishing with just six last season.

Dustin Pedroia finished the season with 165 hits, including 39 doubles, and scored 86 runs. But perhaps most impressive was his .3173 batting average -- the highest average ever for a qualifying rookie second baseman. Pedroia just edged Pittsburgh's Jim Viox, who hit .3171 in 1913.

David Ortiz finished with career highs in batting average (.332), on-base percentage (a major-league best .446), doubles (52), and hits (182). He also hit 35 home runs and scored 116 runs.

Manny Ramirez will rise to the occasion in the postseason. Count on it. And if JD Drew and Coco Crisp make even decent contributions, the offense will flourish.

As for pitching, Josh Beckett and Jonathan Papelbon will inspire confidence in their teammates and frustrate opposing hitters. But they cannot do it alone. They will need help from Daisuke Matsuzaka, veteran Curt Schilling, the surprising Hideki Okajima, and a resurgence from Eric Gagne. Since his meltdown in Toronto on September 18th, the former All Star closer has pitched 3 2/3 innings of shutout relief, with six strikeouts and just two walks and three hits.

There is, however, one other important x-factor in the pen.

Manny Delcarmen was scored upon in just three of his last 26 appearances dating to July 31, and ended the season with 10 consecutive scoreless appearances. He held batters to a .179 average in that span, striking out 21 in 24 innings while allowing 10 walks and 15 hits. Of the 12 runners he inherited, just three scored. In his last nine appearances, spanning 8 1/3 innings, Delcarmen walked just one while striking out eight. If he rises to the occasion, and lives up to all the potential the Red Sox have been banking on, the Red Sox pen will be overwhelming.

The Angels had a grinding September, playing 28 games in 30 days and finishing the month at 14-14.

The Sox, on the other hand, played 27 games and went 16-11.

When it comes to momentum, offense, rotation, bullpen, and playing in Fenway, the Red Sox have the edge over the Angles and should prevail in four games.

Copyright © 2007 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD....

.... IS COMING TO AN END.

None of the past week’s events should come as a surprise. If you didn’t know it before, you know it now; the Boston Red Sox just aren’t a great team. Yes, they’re good, but they’re not great. They’re not the best team in the American League. In fact, they’re not even the best team in their division. That distinction goes to the hated, and once again dreaded, New York Yankees.

Over the past few weeks, and even months, many key Red Sox personnel suddenly look tired, as if the grind of a month-long spring training and a six month season have finally caught up to them.

Clay Buchholz is just a rookie with no playoff experience. He won’t be the hero this year. Hideki Okajima? Ouch. Eric Gagne. Help! Bryan Corey? Javier Lopez? Mike Timlin? Anyone? Anyone?

Kevin Youkilis has suffered his second consecutive second-half fizzle. Before the All-Star break, Youkilis was hitting .328 with 40 strikeouts. Since the break, it’s .234 with 60 whiffs.

By the end of every season, the 230-pound Jason Varitek always looks burdened by consistently crouching down under his own weight. A career .267 hitter, Varitek is hitting just .252 this year.

JD Drew is a well-documented disaster. Coco Crisp, while a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder, has never found his stroke since coming to Boston. Julio Lugo, despite his contributions with stolen bases and RBI, hasn’t been able to hit his way out of a season-long slump. And Alex Cora, Doug Mirabelli, and Eric Hinske, while all fine role players, simply cannot hit.

And that has been the Achilles heel of this Red Sox team all year long; poor hitting and a lack of offense in critical situations. How many times have the Sox left men on base in scoring position to end an inning? Mike Lowell, David Ortiz, and Dustin Pedroia have carried the team almost all year long, making up for the inefficiencies of their teammates.

When the Yankees swept three straight games from the Sox at Yankee Stadium in late August, the writing was on the wall; the Yankees were a superior team. And when the Yankees took two out of three at Fenway last week, that writing became larger, clearer, and even more glaring.

The Sox supposed strength, pitching, hasn’t made a difference against the Yankees, who took the season series 10-8. But here’s the shocker; the Sox outscored the Yanks in the season series 99-93. I’m as surprised as you are. Yet the Bombers are baseball’s number one offense, outscoring the Red Sox by 81 runs this season. The Sox are fourth in runs scored.

The Red Sox stormed out of the gate, going 16-8 in April and 20-8 in May. Meanwhile, the Yankees staggered out of spring training, going 9-14 in April and 13-15 in May. The hobbled and wounded New Yorkers used multiple starting pitchers and didn’t resemble the team that had won 11 AL East titles in 13 years, including the last nine, and four World Series titles in five years.

But how the Yanks turned things around in the second half, going 14-6 in July and 18-11 in August, closing the gap on the Red Sox all the while. And the Yankees have never let up, going 13-4 so far in September.

A couple hundred miles to the northeast, the Red Sox were also winning -- just not nearly as often. The Sox went 15-12 in July, 16-13 in August, and 10-8 so far in September.

The point is this; it’s not how fast you start, it’s how strong you finish that counts. The Yankees are finishing stronger than the Red Sox and have been the better team in head-to-head competition.

Winning the division is relevant only for bragging rights and home-field advantage in the playoffs. The home field advantage is obviously the more important of the two. The Sox are 5-4 against the Yankees at Fenway this year. They are 3-6 in the Bronx.

So winning the division may matter a bit, but perhaps not enough to really make a difference for the Sox. The Yankees seem to be the better – certainly the hotter – team right now, as we near the end of the regular season.

There are just nine games remaining until the playoffs begin. The Red Sox had better win the division so that the Yankees have to play their nemesis, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, California, USA. The Angels have been hell for the Yanks going back to 2002. But the Sox will still have to beat the Indians to earn a right to play for the Pennant. And this year the Sox won’t be the favorite.

Winning the division would be nice, but it won’t matter if the Sox are bounced in the first round, or lose to the Yankees in the ALCS.

Do we pray for the Angels to win? Pick your poison.

Are you feeling confident about any Red Sox starter other than Josh Beckett right now?

Copyright © 2007 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

OFFENSIVE ANEMIA

The Red Sox offensive outburst against the White Sox last weekend was an anomaly. The Red Sox scored an astonishing 46 runs in the four-game series while the hapless White Sox could only muster a meager seven runs.

Then came a quick return to reality.

In the three-game disappointment against the Yankees, the Red Sox scored a combined 6 runs on just 13 hits.

But none of this should be surprising.

The lower-than-normal power numbers of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez have been well-documented. Ortiz hit his 25th home run of the season last night against Roger Clemens, simultaneously breaking up Clemens’ no-hitter and shutout bid. But with just over a month left in the season, Ortiz has less than half the 54 homers he hit last season when he set the Red Sox single-season record.

And though Ramirez hit his 20th home run on Tuesday night -- becoming just the 12th player to hit at least 20 longballs in 13 consecutive seasons -- his nine-year streak of 30 homer, 100 RBI seasons appears in jeopardy. With 86 RBI, he seems poised to reach the 100 plateau once again. But his recent oblique injury may have eliminated whatever chance he had at reaching 30 homers this year. Since 1995, Ramirez has never hit fewer than 26 homers in a season.

But the focus on Ortiz and Ramirez has somewhat obscured the fact that other Sox hitters are also underperforming this season.

Coco Crisp and JD Drew, two-thirds of the Sox outfield, have combined for just 12 home runs – the same number as Jason Varitek. But it’s not just an absence of power that has limited the two Sox outfielders. Crisp is batting just .268 with 121 hits, while Drew is batting .260 with just 100 hits. To make matters worse, Crisp has only 35 extra-base hits and Drew just 33.

The corner outfield and infield positions are traditionally the power producers. That’s not the case for the Sox this year. Ramirez and Drew have combined for 27 home runs, while Mike Lowell and Kevin Youkilis have combined for 31. Considering that 11 different Major League hitters have launched 27 homers by themselves, this lack of Sox power is rather glaring.

Only five Red Sox hitters have reached double digits in home runs (Ortiz – 25; Ramirez – 20; Lowell – 17; Youkilis – 14; Varitek – 12), and they’re likely to be the only ones who will. Cumulatively, Sox hitters have combined for just 131 homers this year. By comparison, the Brewers, who lead baseball in this category, have blasted 180.

All of this is surprising to those of us who’d become accustomed to a team that slugged its way to victory year after year. The Red Sox led the majors in runs for three straight seasons, from 2003-2005.

Measured against other MLB teams this year, the Sox are fourth in runs, fourth in RBI, seventh in hits, seventh in slugging, eighth in total bases, and 19th in home runs. But this last statistic is clearly the most glaring. For decades, the Red Sox have been a premier power hitting team. Not this year.

However, the Sox aren’t just suffering a power outage this season; they’re also suffering through some uninspired – and uninspiring -- hitting as well.

Though the Red Sox .278 team batting average is tied with the Braves for fifth best in baseball, it is buoyed by the exceptional and consistent hitting of Lowell (.324), Ortiz (.322), and stellar rookie Dustin Pedroia (.316). And though Ramirez is hitting below his career average while Youkilis is suffering a second half slump -- just as he did last year, both are hitting at least .290. But after that a dramatic falloff begins.

Take a look at these batting averages: Varitek - .264; Alex Cora - .254; Julio Lugo - .238; Doug Mirabelli - .212; Eric Hinske - .201.

Ramirez, a career .313 hitter, is batting .292 this year. Youkilis, who was hitting .328 before the All-Star break, has been in a freefall and is batting just .225 since the break, dropping his average to .290. Before the break, Youkilis had just 40 strikeouts, but with just over a month to go in the second half, he’s already struck out an additional 44 times. And the first baseman had 147 total bases in the first half but has just 64 since then.

The 2007 Red Sox are built on pitching, and clearly that is how they will have to win. Pitching usually beats hitting, but as the Yankees have just proven, that is not always the case. Having the second lowest ERA and the second most shutouts in baseball didn’t make a difference for the Sox in this series. Though the Boston staff has surrendered the third fewest hits and fifth fewest home runs (second fewest in the AL), those distinctions didn’t help against the Yankees.

The Sox could very well face the Yankees again in the playoffs -- should they get there. There are no guarantees this year; there are just three games separating New York, Seattle and Detroit for the Wild Card. The Yankees will surely out-slug the Sox, and the Sox best hope is having superior pitching. But despite what most of us have believed all year long, that is not a given. We’ve just witnessed the Yankees limit the Sox to just six runs over three games, while scoring 14 themselves.

It would be nice if the Sox offense could find a way to come alive and show some vigor before the season ends. But at this point waiting for Manny Ramirez, JD Drew, Julio Lugo, Coco Crisp, Jason Varitek, Doug Mirabelli and Eric Hinske to find the pop that's been missing from their bats may be a lost cause.

Once the playoffs begin, anything can happen. Just consider the 2006 Cardinals. The Sox will have to ride their rotation and bullpen into and through the playoffs. But if the old axiom “pitching wins championships” proves to be true again this year, the San Diego Padres will be hoisting the World Series trophy in October.

Or maybe the Sox hitters will finally find a magic elixir. Do you believe in magic?



Copyright © 2007 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.






Sunday, August 26, 2007

BASEBALL'S MOST OVERPAID, UNDERACHIEVING PLAYER

With a .262 average, 7 homers, 46 RBI, and a $70 million contract, that's the most polite way to describe JD Drew.

Coming into this season, JD Drew was supposed to be the potent number five the hitter the Red Sox had been lacking the last few years. Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz had been consistently carrying far too much of the offensive load and Drew was billed as the answer.

Instead, Drew has been nothing more than an enigma.

Before homering against the White Sox on Sunday, Drew hadn't hit round-tripper since June 20th in Atlanta. His Sunday shot amounted to just the seventh homer of the season for Drew and was his first in 51 games, ending the longest drought of his career. Drew’s homerless streak had reached a mind-boggling 165 at-bats.

To highlight how disappointing Drew has been at the plate, Bobby Kielty -- who had four RBIs on Saturday -- now has more RBIs (6) this month in just 19 at-bats than Drew has (5) in 68 at-bats.

As we approach the end of August, baseball's most overpaid and underachieving player has a grand total of just 46 RBI.

The 31-year-old Drew entered this season as a lifetime .286 hitter, with a career- total of 162 homers and 509 RBIs -- an average of 20 and 64 per year, respectively.

Apparently it didn’t faze Red Sox management that a guy who’d averaged 20 homers annually could be expected to knock in just 64 runs each season. That should have been a red flag indicating that Drew wouldn’t be an adequate five hitter. It’s now clear that he won’t even come close to approaching 20 homers this season. At this point, ten dingers appear to be a pipe dream.

Despite the underwhelming numbers, and the fact that he’d never been an All Star, the Red Sox made Drew one of the highest paid outfielders in the game. His enormous and unjustified contract was predicated on a pretty slim resume.

Sure, last season Drew led the Dodgers with 100 RBIs, 89 walks, 34 doubles, and a .393 OBP. And he also tied Nomar Garciaparra for the team lead with 20 home runs.

But there was another side to that coin. Drew had hit 30 home runs just once. He’d hit .300 only twice. And his 100 RBI for the Dodgers last year were a career high. His best season in the majors came in 2004, with the Atlanta Braves, when he hit .305 (.436 OBP) with 31 home runs and 93 RBIs, and finished sixth in the National League MVP voting.


That's very similar to Trot Nixon's best season (2003), and yet no one offered him $14 million a year. And one of the Sox' primary concerns with Nixon was his frequent injuries and a lack of dependability. While Drew has thus far remained off the DL, he is clearly lacking Nixon's heart, desire, and grit.

But here's the most amazing aspect of the Drew deal; before he signed, no Sox player had been given a contract of longer than four years by the current ownership. And for further comparison, David Ortiz -- arguably the team's MVP -- receives an average salary of $12.5 million annually.

Without question, Drew doesn't even come close to approaching the value of Ortiz, despite the fact he also plays defense. Yet, the Red Sox have invested superstar money in a player who is not a superstar, and who never will be. Did I mention that Drew has never been an All Star?

So far this season, the $70 million man is batting a paltry .262 with a .362 OBP. That amounts to a meager 99 hits with 60 walks. Some are still talking about Drew’s “potential” and hopelessly waiting for him to eventually come around. A Mo Vaughn comeback is about as likely. Drew has been in the majors for nearly a decade. At this point he is what he is: an average player with an out-sized, undeserved, bloated contract.

Here's what I predicted on this site last December, when the Red Sox signed Drew:

"Due to injuries and an underachieving performance, the Red Sox will try to move Drew before this contract is up. But they'll have to eat some of this oversized, bloated deal because a wiser team will see him as the overpaid, damaged goods he is. And at that point, said team will have the Sox over a barrel. Just you wait and see."

The evidence is in. Based not only on his performance this year, but also over the course of his nine-year career, it can now be definitively said that the signing of JD Drew was a grossly over-priced mistake.


Copyright © 2007 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

POWER OUTAGE

With a quarter of the season remaining, Red Sox fans and management are still waiting for the sleeping giant that was supposed to be the Red Sox offense to awaken.

How often have we heard people say that Manny, Papi, and JD Drew are going to come around any time now and start producing runs? Stop holding your breath. With three quarters of the season already played out, a clear pattern has been established. The heart of this offense isn't what it was expected to be.

At this point, Ramirez and Ortiz have combined for just 38 homers — one fewer than Alex Rodriguez. Add Drew to the mix, and the Sox alleged power trio have combined for a grand total of 44 home runs this year — just five more than A-Rod all by his lonesome.

And A-Rod has already driven in 114 runs. While we've gotten used to similar production from Ramirez and Ortiz, this year they're way off the mark. Ramirez has 79 RBI. Ortiz has 71 RBI. And Drew? Forget about it. Baseball's most overpaid and underachieving player has just 44 RBI. How pathetic.

Though the Sox remain in first place in the AL East, the offensive impotence of the 3-5 hitters has had consequences.

The Sox have scored one run or less 18 times this season. And in 38 games, the Sox have scored three or fewer runs, having an 11-31 record to show for it. When your best pitcher, Josh Beckett, has a 3.24 ERA and the other starters have ERA's ranging up to, and beyond, five runs per game, it's surprising that their record isn't worse in such contests. They clearly won't win too many games in this manner.

In April, the Sox scored three or fewer runs eight times and had a 1-7 record in those games. In May it again happened eight times, resulting in a 2-6 record. In June they scored three runs or less a staggering 12 times, leaving them with a 5-7 record in those situations. In July it was 10 games and had 1-9 results. So far this month they are 2-2 in these contests.

The reasons for Ramirez's power decline are unclear. At 35, has he suddenly and rapidly gotten old? In 55 at-bats during “late and close” situations — when a team is winning by a run, tied, or with the potential tying run on deck — Manny has driven in five runs, while striking out 14 times — or about once every four at-bats.

Ortiz's diminished power can attributed to his bad knee and, perhaps, his recently injured shoulder. Big Papi doesn't seem so big at the plate any more and hasn't fared much better than his teammate. Over 54 at-bats in “late and close” situations this season, he has also knocked in just five runs.

At this point, it's pretty well established that the Sox success so far this year can be attributed to their incredible starting rotation and exceptional bullpen. The Sox staff is the only one in the Majors with three starters having at least 13 wins apiece. And with a 3.79 ERA, the Sox have the second lowest ERA in baseball, following the Padres (3.46).

The offense has been the problem, and it is largely the reason the team is just 36-32 since the start of June. Case in point; the offense has scored a total of just four runs for Daisuke Matsuzaka in his last four losses. The team's blisteringly hot start in April and May — when they went a combined 36-16 — has masked just how mediocre they've been since then. It's taken them 2 1/2 months to win as many games as they did in the first two months, and they've had twice as many losses.

But here's the rub; the Sox offense has been better than you think it's been. Are you ready for this? The Boston offense has scored the fourth most runs in all of baseball this season. That's right, the Sox have driven in 613 runs, following the Yankees (710), the Tigers (678), and the Phillies (645). Why doesn't it seem that way?

It's largely because players like Mike Lowell, Kevin Youkilis and rookie revelation Dustin Pedroia have stepped up and helped carry the load. Lowell could well be the team's offensive MVP, and Pedroia is a credible AL Rookie of the Year candidate. Even Julio Lugo, who — with his .238 batting average — hasn't been much more likely to get a hit than the rest of us this season, has driven in 57 runs.

Despite having an off season compared to his prodigious and prolific past, on Sunday Ramirez passed Jimmie Foxx for fifth place on the Red Sox career RBI list. Ramírez now has 791 RBIs in a Sox uniform and will likely remain in fifth place until his playing days with the Sox are over. Even if the Sox were to exercise the two option years on his contract ('09 & '10), it's hard to imagine him knocking 457 more runs to pass Bobby Doerr (1,247) on the all-time Sox list. Overall, Ramírez has 1,595 RBIs, tying him with Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt for 30th on the all-time list. Ramirez is also in fifth place on the Red Sox all-time home run list, with 253 dingers. It seems certain that he'll never pass Dwight Evans (379) for fourth place.

Ramírez has a chance to become only the fourth player in history to drive in 100 or more runs in 10 straight seasons. The others are Hall of Famers Foxx (13), Lou Gehrig (13), and Al Simmons (11). Ramirez needs 21 RBI over the remaining 42 games to maintain his streak.

What could be in jeopardy is Ramírez's streak of 30-homer, 100-RBI seasons. He has done it nine straight times. Foxx holds the record at 12; A-Rod has now done it 10 straight seasons. Ramirez presently has 19 homers this year. He could get hot at any time — 10 homers in a month is not beyond him — and that streak could also remain intact.

That would be a good thing for the Red Sox and their World Series aspirations. Yes, it's been said countless times before that pitching wins championships. But in order for that to happen, the Sox offense needs to score at least five runs a game, considering that their AL-best pitching staff can be expected to allow at least four runs a game. Other teams should be so lucky.

Bobby Kielty and/or Jacoby Ellsbury might help, but neither will be the savior. Kielty was never that guy and Ellsbury isn't yet — if he'll ever be. No, for the Sox to have post-season success and hoist another World Series trophy, they'll have to hope for some of the old magic from Messieurs Ortiz, Ramirez, and.... JD Drew?

As I said, don't hold your breath.

Copyright © 2007 Sean M. Kennedy. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.