Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Friday, October 16, 2009

Red Sox Efforts to Improve May Be Limited

Despite scoring the third most runs in baseball this season, the Red Sox offense couldn't rise to the occasion in their brief post-season. That's because two of those three games were played away from Fenway Park.

The Red Sox 481 runs scored at home led the Majors. But they were ninth in the Majors (fifth in the AL) in runs scored on the road, with 391. That 90 run differential is their Achilles heel.

The Red Sox season can be defined as a tale of two teams; the Red Sox at home, and the Red Sox on the road.

The team's lackluster road offense haunted them all season; they were was just 39-42 away from Fenway. And the Sox batted just .257 on the road, a number that ranked ninth in the American League behind teams like Cleveland, Oakland and Chicago.

The Sox road deficiencies were especially obvious in the ALDS; the Sox hit just .131 in Anaheim. But they exploded for six runs in Game 3 upon returning to Fenway.

Fenway is clearly designed for offense, and naturally the Red Sox should thrive there; seven Sox regulars hit at least 30 points higher at home. That can also be attributed to the familiarity of home field, waking up in your own bed, and playing in front of a very supportive home crowd.

But no team can realistically expect to win a World Series with a losing road record, and an anemic road offense.

The Sox .257 road batting average ranked 17th in the major leagues, behind the Nationals. And they were 12th in slugging at .414. That is in direct contrast to their offense at home, where they were first in slugging at .498 and fifth in average at .294.

In last year's ALDS against Anaheim, the Red Sox averaged 4.5 runs per game over the four-game series. Then, in the ALCS against Tampa, the Sox averaged just four runs per game over the seven-game series.

In this year's ALDS, the Sox averaged just 2.33 runs per game. Unless its pitching is overwhelmingly dominant, no team will win while averaging so few runs.

As constructed, the current Sox team is built for the regular season, where it can beat up on weaker AL teams. But it is not built for the post-season.

So what can realistically be done about this? How can the offense be re-tooled?

The key word is realism. The Sox can't trade underperforming players for superstars. And if they make a trade for a high-caliber player, that would mean sacrificing a high caliber player, or players, of their own.

However, this year's free agent class will be thin, so a trade is still a distinct possibility.

Let's work our way around the diamond to see where the Sox might improve for 2010.

Catcher: The Red Sox made a smart move in dealing for Victor Martinez. The Sox hold a $7 million club option, which they will surely exercise. The only question is whether they will attempt to extend Martinez this offseason. Both parties would be well served, as there is a mutual admiration and respect. The Red Sox offer Martinez a legitimate chance to win each year. Martinez brings versatility, much-needed offense, character and leadership.

The Red Sox will not pick up Jason Varitek's $5 million team option for 2010. But Varitek holds a $3 million player option, which he can, and likely will, exercise. His days as a starter are over, but he brings valuable experience, preparation, knowledge, and leadership in a backup role.

First base: The Sox are set with 31-year-old Kevin Youkilis, who is still in the prime of his career. Youkilis can hit for power and average, and spends a lot of time on base. In addition, he possesses Gold Glove-caliber defense. His ability to play both first and third – quite skillfully – makes him highly versatile.

Casey Kotchman, a mere 26, is an enviable backup who would be a starter on many teams.

Second base: The Sox have 26-year-old Dustin Pedroia, who has already won a Rookie of the Year Award, an MVP Award, a Silver Slugger, and a Gold Glove. Need I say more?

The only question is who the backup infielder will be; Jed Lowrie or Nick Green?

Third base: Next season, Mike Lowell will be 36 and a year removed from hip surgery. He will be entering the final year of a contract that will pay him $12 million. The Red Sox will get what they can out of Lowell, who was still quite productive this season (.290, 17 HR, 75 RBI) despite his limited playing time (119 games). Considering his age, injury history, and hefty 2010 salary, he is not tradable – unless the Red Sox agree to pay about half his salary.

Lowell is still a solid defender, despite his lost range. Whether you think the Sox are stuck with him or lucky to have him, he will be the team's starting third baseman in 2010. And don't surprised if he has a terrific bounce-back season – assuming he's healthy and plays regularly. That's a big if.

Shortstop: This is one of the few areas where the Red Sox can attempt to upgrade the offense through a potential trade. At almost every position, they are either committed to a young, productive player who is under contract, or they are saddled with an aging, unproductive veteran (more on this in a moment). Shortstop is an exception.

The Sox hold a $6 million club option on Alex Gonzalez and seem inclined – at least for now – to bring him back. They might prefer to work a deal for less money that would give them more flexibility next season and beyond. Gonzalez is a terrific defensive player who prevents runs, and he gave the Sox an unexpected jolt of offense upon his return to Boston (.284 Avg. / .789 OPS).

But he will be 33 to start the season. The Sox would like to get younger, and more productive, at the position. Even if he returns, Gonzalez is simply a stopgap. He is yet another short-term solution on the seemingly endless shortstop merry-go-round for the Red Sox.

The club had hoped that Jed Lowrie would step up and stabilize the position. He was given every opportunity to inherit it and prove himself. But Lowrie has been hindered by a wrist injury that may, or may not, improve. Lowrie will only be 26 next year, but he batted .147 this season and just .258 in 2008, when he was healthy. At this point, he nothing more than a question mark. Will he ever develop, and how good can he be?

It should be noted that the Red Sox will be paying Julio Lugo $9 million to play shortstop for the Cardinals next season. That's money that can't be used to address their own needs at the position, and it will surely be factored into any other acquisition.

Left field: Bringing back Jason Bay would be ideal. He loves Boston and Boston loves him. The Sox had leverage earlier this year when everyone was waiting for an economic cataclysm. Then Bay went out and had a career-year, securing all the leverage for himself. Oddly, the Sox may still be waiting for an economic cataclysm to drive Bay's asking price down. The truth is, there aren't many other good options, as I detailed in this story. The Sox still need more offense even if they reacquire Bay. They can ill afford to lose him.

Center field: Jacoby Ellsbury became just the 12th player in Major League history to hit at least .300 and steal at least 70 bases. The 26-year-old has developed into a fine leadoff hitter, with a .310 average and a .355 OBP. He is also a stellar defensive player, though he at times attempts to do too much. With a tendency for the spectacular, Ellsbury often dives for balls that are simply uncatchable. That can lead to extra-bases, and even injury. He will continue to mature. The center fielder is part of the Red Sox core of young, talented, inexpensive, homegrown players, and he will be under team control for four more seasons.

Right field: JD Drew is a prime example of an overpaid, underachiever. The Red Sox are committed to overpaying him $14 million in each of the next two seasons. He is un-tradable – unless the Sox are willing to eat about half his salary. The problem with Drew isn't just that he underperforms (in three years with the Red Sox, he has yet to score, or drive in, 100 runs); it's that his ridiculous salary raises the floor of every other free agent's asking price. With Drew making $14 million annually, just how much is Jason Bay worth? $20 million? Drew's contract distorts all others. If he were making $7 million annually, then we'd feel that he was at least earning his pay and not disrupting the market for corner outfielders.

Designated hitter: Though he salvaged his season by finishing with 28 HR and 99 RBI, David Ortiz was mostly painful to watch. He routinely looked off balance and couldn't catch up to fastballs. He popped all too often, and struck out a career-high 134 times. He has been in decline for three successive seasons, and it's hard to imagine what he's got left in the tank. But it's easy to speculate that his best years are long since behind him. Ortiz is under contract for $12.5 million in 2010, and the Red Sox are stuck with him, for better or for worse. They hold a team option for the same money in 2011, but that is unthinkable at this point.

Ortiz is nothing more than a DH, and cannot play in the NL. That leaves the Sox with little trade leverage and limited trade opportunities. Once again, unless the team is willing to eat a significant portion of his contract, Ortiz will be back.

Ultimately, the Red Sox are deeply financially committed to aging, injured and unproductive players at third, left, and DH. That's one-third of the lineup. It will inhibit them in 2010. Their best trade bait happens to be the young, talented players they are loathe to trade (i.e. Ellsbury, Pedroia, Clay Buchholz, etc.).

Short of bolstering the offense – which may only be possible at shortstop (signing utility infielders and backup outfielders is just tinkering at the margins) – the Sox may look to improve their starting rotation. That rotation was too old this season, with the likes of Tim Wakefield, John Smoltz, and Paul Byrd.

Daisuke Matsuzaka is a mystery. Once thought of as a potential ace, this year he looked like a minor league pitcher. The righty doesn't trust his stuff and avoids the strike zone. He walks all too many batters and throws far too many pitches. At this rate, his Major League career could be brief; if it's not cut short due to injury, he may wash out of the Majors entirely. Who knows what to expect from him in 2010? One way or the other, his trade value has plummeted.

The Sox have two consistent and reliable starters (Jon Lester and Josh Beckett, in that order). Clay Buchholz looks promising. But then again, we've been saying that for a few years.

After all the injuries to the rotation this year – one that was initially viewed as especially deep – the Sox need to add more depth. If they can't win games with a consistently reliable offense, then they must possess a virtually unhittable pitching staff, 1 through 5.

Unless they are willing to part with numerous top level prospects to land Felix Hernandez, the free agency route will be thin. Players young enough and talented to be be worthy of consideration are few and far between.

Erik Bedard has been injured and ineffective. Justin Duchscherer is soon to be 32 and has been a starter for just one season. Tim Hudson, Brandon Webb and Cliff Lee all have team options that will likely be exercised.

There are no easy solutions.

John Lackey, anyone?

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