Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox

Friday, January 18, 2013

2013 Red Sox Season Preview

If great expectations can be a burden, perhaps low expectations will be a blessing.

In 2011, the Red Sox entered the season under the weight of some mighty expectations. Many baseball observers projected that the team would win 100 games and eventually the World Series. However, the Sox famously flamed out after enduring a 7-20 record in September.

As that 2011 Red Sox team proved, a general manager can build an apparent powerhouse during the offseason, but some teams only look good on paper and never live up to all the hype.

Yet, the 2013 Red Sox will enter this season with low expectations and no hype whatsoever. Though the Red Sox have recently added David Ross, Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew, Ryan Dempster, Koji Uehara, Joel Hanrahan and Mike Napoli, none of them is a true star. Though some are former All Stars, most are considered past their prime (Victorino, Dempster, Uehara) or were never stars at any point in their careers (Ross, Gomes).

Now that the Red Sox have finally gotten the Napoli situation resolved, the team has added eight free agents this offseason, which is as many as they’ve acquired in the John Henry era. The Sox also added eight after the 2004 season. By any measure, the Sox have had a very busy offseason.

Yet, despite all of those additions, it may not be enough to make Boston a playoff contender once again. That's troubling since this is a team that hasn't made the postseason since 2009 and hasn't won a playoff game since 2008.

The most glaring thing about most of the Red Sox offseason acquisitions is their advanced age, which increases the risk of injury. Uehara (38 next season), David Ortiz (37), Ross (36 next season), Dempster (36 next season), Victorino (32) and Napoli (31) are all on the wrong side of 30, as far as baseball is concerned.

This is worrisome because last season, as in 2010, the Red Sox were decimated by injuries. The Sox are assuming the same risks in 2013 by loading up on veteran players in their 30s.

Pre-season predictions are a tough business, but one man has made a career of them.

Famed Red Sox statistician Bill James has some rather uninspiring predictions for the 2013 Red Sox rotation, as far as wins are concerned, at least:

Jon Lester 12-12
Clay Buchholz 12-11
Ryan Dempster 11-10
John Lackey 12-12
Felix Doubront 12-11
Total 59-56

As you can see, James envisions just three Sox pitchers breaking .500 this year and none with more than 12 wins. If the Sox are to win as many as 89 games this season, the bullpen will have to come up with a combined 30 victories. That seems far-fetched. If James is right, the Sox are in for another miserable summer.

While none of the above projections is exciting, if you're looking for optimism, James provides some of that too.

The stat guru projects that Lester, Doubront and Lackey will each pitch 200 innings and that Buchholz will reach 190. James also projects a 3.64 ERA for Buchholz, 3.70 for Doubront, 3.71 for Lester, 3.74 ERA Dempster, and 4.05 for Lackey.

If correct, all five starting pitchers would have ERAs lower than the league average.

When it comes to offense, James projections are much more optimistic:

Will Middlebrooks is projected at .277, .806 OPS, 29 HR, 99 RBI.

Dustin Pedroia has a bounce back season, .296/.367/.459, 17 HR, 45 2B.

Jacoby Ellsbury hits .294/.346/.436, 15 HR, 37 SB, 100 R.

David Ortiz projects at .283/.386/.533, 32 HR, 103 RBI

Ryan Lavarnway projects to have a solid rookie season: .261/.335/.435, 16 HR, 66 RBI (115 G)

Mike Napoli projects at .248/.350/.469, 29 HR, 75 RBI, 127 G.

Shane Victorino projects at .269/.338/.418, 14 HR, 29 2B, 7 3B, 29 SB, 85 R.

Jonny Gomes is projected with 16 HR (in 322 AB), .337/.441/.778.

Ryan Kalish projects at 10 HR, 21 SB, .320/.384/.704.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia is projected at 19 HR, .309/.454/.752.

Stephen Drew projects at 11 HR, .325/.411/.736.

That amounts to three 30-ish home run hitters, two 30-base stealers and four players with an OPS of .800 or better. Not bad.

For what it's worth, James has a long history of uncanny predictions. That's why the Red Sox employ him.

But, as the Red Sox know too well, a team's season can be derailed by injuries. The 2012 Red Sox used a franchise-record 56 players, required 42 disabled list transactions, and lost nearly 1,500 total player-games to injury.

The Red Sox had 24 players, 13 of them former All-Stars, go on the disabled list 34 times last season. Since 1987, when records were first kept, no team in baseball used the disabled list more.

That's why depth is so critical. The question is, are the Red Sox deep enough to contend as presently constituted? There's little financial flexibility left to improve the roster.

Peter Abraham reports that $105.275 million came off the Red Sox books by the end of the 2012 season. However, with all of their offseason acquisitions, the resigning of David Ortiz, contract raises for some players, and expected increases for arbitration-eligible players, the Sox have added back $98.66 million.

According to Abraham's calculations, the Sox payroll for 2013 will be just $6.615 million less than it was last season.

In light of all that money spent, the troubling thing is the lack of star power. It's reasonable to question how the Sox can once again approach last year's $176 million payroll without having added any true stars to their roster. The offseason spending also leaves little room to improve the team at the deadline, or in the event of a serious injury to a key player at any point this season.

If Napoli misses time due to his hip condition and is unable to earn all the incentives in his contract, it would give the Sox a few million extra dollars to play with by the trade deadline.

In order for the Red Sox to be competitive this season, all the stars and planets must align. Every one of their regulars will have to play to the top of his ability. That just doesn't seem likely.

The Sox face a litany of questions heading into the 2013 season. Here's a look at some of them:

• Will the Red Sox get the 2008-2010 version of Jon Lester, who was one of the game's best young lefties, or the 2012 Lester, who was a shell of his former self?

More than anything else, perhaps, the Red Sox fortunes may rest on the performance of Lester, who turns 29 on January 7. The lefty entered September 2011 with the highest winning percentage among qualified active pitchers (75-31, .708). However, he's gone 10-17 since then and has fallen to seventh on the list.

This means that Lester went from a career .708 winning percentage to a .639 winning percentage in just one calendar year. If he does not regain his winning ways this season, the Sox won't regain their winning ways either.

Over the last three seasons, Lester’s fastball velocity has dropped from 93.5 to 92.0. Is it mechanical, or is it physical? Somehow Lester and the Sox have to figure it out and get him right.

• Will Clay Buchholz look like the pitcher who went 17-7 with a 2.33 ERA in 2010, or the pitcher who regressed over the last two years, culminating with a 11-8, 4.56 campaign in 2012? Through five big league seasons, Buchholz has never pitched as many as 190 innings. That's got to change this year.

Over the last three seasons, Buchholz’s hits per nine innings have gone from 7.4 to 8.3 to 8.9, while Lester’s have risen from 7.2 to 7.8 to 9.5. Those are troubling trends. New pitching coach Juan Nieves and manager John Farrell will have their work cut out for them.

• Will John Lackey look like the former Angels' ace who once won an ERA title, or the bust he's become in Boston?

• Can Ryan Dempster continually stand up to unfamiliar AL lineups at age 36? How will he fare over a full season against DHs instead of pitchers?

Dempster is 124-124 with a 4.33 ERA in his 15-year career. He has made at least 28 starts and won at least 10 games in each of the last five seasons. That makes him a solid No. 3 starter, and nothing more.

The Red Sox hope he can give them innings, and lots of them. Dempster has pitched at least 200 innings in seven seasons, including four of the last five.

• Will Felix Doubront continue to improve on all the promise he displayed in 2012, or will he regress and suffer a sophomore slump? Doubront made 29 starts last year and threw 161 innings, the most in his pro career. He finished the season 11-10 with a 4.86 ERA. However, he struck out 167 batters in 161 innings while allowing 162 hits, which is pretty impressive.

• Is David Ortiz fully recovered from his Achilles injury, or will it hamper him this year at age 37? Can he be the same powerful presence in the Red Sox lineup as in previous years, or is he finally starting to breakdown?

Recent history is not on his side. Last season was the first in 20 years that not one player aged 37 or older hit at least 20 home runs.

How important is Ortiz to the Red Sox? Consider this: Though he missed all but one of the final 72 games in 2012, Ortiz still ranked second on the Red Sox with 23 homers and tied for fourth with 60 RBI.

• Can Dustin Pedroia stay healthy for an entire season, or will his all-out style of play cost him time on the DL, as it has in two of the last three seasons? The Sox will need the former MVP to be at his best this year.

• Will Jacoby Ellsbury be more like the 2011 MVP runner up, or the star-crossed player who can't remain on the field consistently?

Last year, Ellsbury missed 79 games due to a partially dislocated shoulder. It marked the second season in the last three that Ellsbury missed extensive time due to a serious injury. Ellsbury played in just 18 games in 2010 after colliding with third baseman Adrian Beltre and fracturing his ribs.

• Can second-year man Will Middlebrooks show the same flashes of brilliance he did last year, or will AL pitchers make the necessary adjustments to get him out more often? Can he handle the grind of a full 162-game season?

• With the addition of David Ross, how many games per week will Jarrod Saltalamacchia play? Will he even be with the Sox when they open the season, or will he soon be traded? Salty is 27 and will become a free agent at the end of this season, which diminishes his trade value. Moreover, he batted an anemic .222 last season with a terrible .288 OBP. The big catcher struck out 139 times in just 448 plate appearances in 2012. That's just brutal.

On the other hand, Salty led the Red Sox with 25 home runs, the first catcher to do so since Carlton Fisk had 26 in 1977. Saltalamacchia ranked third among major league catchers in home runs and finished with the fourth-best slugging percentage (.454) among American League catchers (minimum 375 PA).

• Is there a place for Ryan Lavarnway on this team?

• Is Stephen Drew's fractured ankle fully healed? Will he once again be the offensive force he was with Arizona? Due, in part, to that nasty ankle injury, Drew hit just .223/.309/.348 with seven home runs and 28 RBIs in 79 games last season.

However, Drew ranks fourth among all Major League shortstops over the last five seasons with a .441 slugging percentage and fifth with a .770 OPS (min. 1,500 plate appearances).

• Is Shane Victorino still the All Star caliber player he was in 2009 and 2011, or an over-the-hill player with fading bat speed? Victorino hit just .229 against right-handed pitching last season, compared to .323 vs. lefties. From 2006 to 2009, Victorino batted .288; but over the last three seasons his average dropped to just .264. That downward trend is worrisome.

Victorino has a career line of .275/.341/.430/.770 and has stolen at least 30 bases in four of the last six years, including 39 last season. He is also considered an excellent fielder.

• Can Jonny Gomes make up for the loss of fan favorite Cody Ross? Ross batted .267/.326/.481 with 22 home runs, 81 RBI and an .807 OPS in 130 games last season. That's a lot of offense to replace.

Ross was tailor-made for Fenway Park, producing 39 extra-base hits at home in 2012. Only three American League players had more: Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler and Robinson Cano.

In the 100 years of Fenway Park's history, only four players had more extra-base hits in their first season with the Red Sox: Ted Williams, Bill Mueller, Jimmie Foxx and Dick Stuart.

Yet, away from Fenway, Ross hit just .232 with a lowly .684 OPS. Perhaps that's why the Sox weren't inclined to enter into a long term deal with him.

Enter Gomes. Over the course of his career, Gomes has struggled against righties, posting a .223/.307/.425/.732 line. However, he has pounded lefties, posting a .284/.382/.512/.894 line. That seems to make Gomes an ideal platoon candidate with lefty Ryan Kalish.

According to BasseballAnalytics.org, of Gomes' 73 hits in 2012, just five were placed to the right side of the field, with all 18 of his home runs going to left field. Considering the league as a whole hit a combined 1.035 on balls hit to left field at Fenway last season (better than any other placement in the park), that seems to bode well for Gomes in Boston.

However, Gomes is inferior defensively to Ross and is more of a liability versus right-handed pitching.

• What is the condition of Mike Napoli's hip and can he play every day? Napoli has been on the DL five times over the past six seasons, missing a total of 123 games in that span. Napoli topped out at 140 games in 2010, making it the only season in which he's played in more than 115 games. That's worrisome.

Yet, Napoli never missed time due to a hip injury. But it now appears that he has a serious hip condition that may in fact be degenerative. That's why the Sox are so concerned.

With the Rangers last season, Napoli struggled with leg injuries and batted just .227. However, he still posted an .812 OPS and hit 24 homers. And in 2011, Napoli had a breakout year, batting .320/.414/.631/.1.046 with 30 homers and 75 RBI.

Over his seven-year career, Napoli is a .259 hitter with a .356 OBP, a .507 slugging percentage and an .863 OPS. For five straight seasons, he has hit at least 20 homers, peaking at 30 in 2011.

However, Napoli is a weak first baseman and is not strong defensive catcher either. Angels manager Mike Scioscia, a former catcher himself, didn't have confidence in Napoli behind the plate. Consequently, the Angels dealt him following the 2010 season.

The additions of Joel Hanrahan and Koji Uehara, plus the late-2012 emergence of Junichi Tazawa, should greatly improve the Red Sox bullpen this year. Red Sox closers were 35 of 57 (61%) in save opportunities last season. That's why the club acquired Hanrahan from Pittsburgh. The pen should now be an area of strength for the Sox.

More than any time in recent memory, the Red Sox enter the season with a huge number of questions, to which only time will provide answers. If all of the above players thrive this season, the Sox will surprise a lot of people. But if these players have mostly average seasons, or if the Sox are again stricken by injuries, this will likely be a .500 team, at best.

It appears the AL East will be even more competitive than in recent years, so the Red Sox will really have their work cut out for them. Not since 2000 has an AL East team won the division with fewer than 95 wins, or made the playoffs with fewer than 91.

That's the challenging history confronting the 2013 Red Sox. Yes, it's a tall order.

No one is picking this team to contend for a playoff spot. But perhaps the low expectations will serve them well. The only way this team will surprise anyone is if they outperform.

The Red Sox open the regular season on April 1st in New York, against the Yankees.

2 comments:

Greg Vitarelli said...

The power of this brand is truly amazing. I have family guests coming in from Perth in Australia who want nothing more than to see a Sox game. I think it's during the Orioles visit so that should be a great one for them to enjoy.

Sean M. Kennedy said...

It's true, the Red Sox are one of the few American sports franchisees that has a global following. When I've travelled out of the country, I've always been amazed by the Red Sox gear (shirts and hats) I've seen on people.