2009 Red Sox Preview
Things that I absolutely guarantee for the 2009 Red Sox.
Terry Francona will manage the personnel to their maximum effectiveness, regardless of what any second-guessing couch potatoes want to think or know. Tito knows more than you about his players, and always will.
The best managers in the game aren’t the men who “X” and “O” better than everyone, they’re the men who manage their people the best. Tito is as good as anyone I’ve ever been around at that. While he may suck at Cribbage, he can manage people. He may be a bit off-kilter since this is his first season as a ML manager without me on his team, but I’ll cut him some slack…..
First the divisional prediction. Cop-out time. I will make the same claim I made last season. The winner of the AL East will be between NY, Boston and Tampa. Whichever team has the fewest DL days of the opening day starting rotation’s five guys and closer will win the East.
One exception to the above rule is this. I think of the three teams that are legitimate contenders (I would add Toronto as a factor but even having Butter on the bench as a General is not enough to overcome the big 3 in my opinion), only the Red Sox could manage a big injury to the staff and not get buried. Not that they will, but I think they could.
The East has been a war of attrition for years and this year people are going to take Tampa for real as a player in this fight. The same folks who last year spent the whole season saying “this month is it,” “they can’t keep it up,” “they’re ready to go down” about Tampa are the same folks this spring saying “they’ll come back to the pack” or “they’ll come down to earth.”
Problem is those comments were made with no logic behind them. Tampa won this division last year with not one player having anything close to a career year. They did it with their ace on the DL for part of the season. They did it with no 40 HR guy, no batting title contender. They did it because Joe Maddon can manage his people, and he got his younger players to understand that winning games is far cooler than being a star. You can have both. Now add to the mix Gabe Kapler, someone who will have a profound impact on superstar young players, a healthy Scott Kazmir, a more seasoned James Shields, Matt Garza and others and I don’t see them ‘fading.’ I think it’s going to be a challenge for sure, but they’ll hold their own in my opinion.
The Yankees? Well in addition to opening what many will come to realize is the most kick-ass new stadium on the planet, they spent about $14.5 trillion in the off season to add more studs and horses. That the formula refused to work in the last eight years didn’t stop them from continuing it. The difference now is they are mixing in some young homegrown studs at the ML level who are impact guys.
Joba Chamberlain has all the makings of being a true top of the rotation guy, or the next Mariano. His numbers and stuff don’t lie, he’s the real deal and I love the makeup I’ve seen so far.
CC, well, he’s CC. That means a guy who will scream for the ball every five days if not every four, want to be on the mound in the 9th and be pissed at less than perfection. What’s not to love? That’s an ace, that’s what you HAVE to have at the top of your rotation.
Now add Tex to the mix and once again it’s a lineup to worry about. If I am not mistaken the new ballpark dimensions mirror the old, which means LHH are going to continue enjoying hitting there. Missing A-Rod will not help them early, no matter what you think, but starting the season without that media BS in the clubhouse every day should be some sort of bonus.
The bigger piece coming into play for them now is the top end of their prospect list. Austin Jackson appears to be a five-tool guy everyone is excited about and supposedly isn’t that far off. People got complacent or just totally missed the fact that having Bernie Williams out there for a decade was an insane luxury. That CF area is enormous ground to cover and having someone out there that brings some pop at the plate will be a huge lift for them. Melancon, Brackman and McAllister are all potential big upside arms. Melancon is being mentioned as Mariano’s heir apparent and that’s not a bad thing for either guy. Meaning one guy is still far from done, but this kid supposedly has the tools and makeup to be the next one. I still think Chamberlain ends up in that spot. Brackman is the wild card. At 6’10” and 270 pounds you are talking massive potential with massive consistency issues. Moving that much mass, under control, consistently, is incredibly hard to do and teach. If they do, and he progresses, you are talking about a right-handed Randy Johnson if he can pan out. That’s ace, top-of-the-rotation stuff that comes along every 20 years. Anytime you hear ‘middle of the rotation’ mentioned in a prospects accolades it means three things.
1) We may never hear his name again
2) He could be an ace
3) Not one of his pitches wows you.
The reason that never bothers me is they continue to do this to kids in their late teens and early twenties, before velocity gain and physical growth has stopped. Many kids getting these labels are in growth spurts and are trying to adjust to new bodies, both in height and weight, as well as learning how to get guys out as the McAllister kid is.
Jesus Montero is listed as a catcher, but with his offensive ability and his size, he’ll switch positions.
One thing to watch out for in the next two years: if Boston doesn’t get that catcher of the future, and Minnesota doesn’t re-sign Joe Mauer, he’s going to go off the charts after the 2010 season as a free agent when the Sox and Yankees will be at the front of the line.
So New York needs to stay healthy, get 30 or so from Burnett and Sabathia, 25-30 from Chamberlain and Wang becomes as good as any #3 in baseball, right alongside Dice or Lester. The Yankee defense, if it’s not solid, could prove to be a huge issue for them this year as far as Wang is concerned. He’s won consistently with a below average defense and he won’t suddenly start striking guys out. I expect his numbers to remain the same, or maybe improve outside W/L. He is a guy that could have across-the-board improvement in all categories but W/L if he doesn’t get consistent defense.
If they get that many starts from their rotation they are going to be very very good.
Boston, and yes there may be some bias here but it’s because I know them and I understand how they are approaching things, is the favorite for one reason. They won the wild card last year, were within nine outs of a World Series, and never had their ace. Josh had a tough year last year. He was far more hurt in the playoffs than anyone knew. You put him out there healthy, which he is, with Jon Lester, Dice, Wake, Penny/Smoltz/Masterson, and you can’t help but feel good.
The top three pitchers have a legitimate shot at finishing in the top 10 in Cy Young voting. It would not surprise me if two things happened I don’t think anyone is expecting this year:
1) Jon Lester is better than he was last year.
2) Dice is as good, if not better, than he was last year.
The Lester progression to me is natural. Given his makeup, his stuff, and the Farrell factor if he stays healthy there is no reason his numbers won’t continue to improve over the next few years. Add in the life experience (which cannot be underestimated imo) and you have a perennial Cy candidate.
Dice is just smart. He ‘grew’ last year and progressed and the W/L total, while surprising given the IP, was not a fluke. There are pitchers with marginal stuff who can throw out the occasional W/L % like he did last year, and then there are pitchers with good stuff who know how to make pitches in big spots. Dice is the latter. He knows how to execute when he’s in a bind and that means he gives up far fewer runs than you might expect. If he can improve his command and mindset early in counts, he can move into lofty company.
After those three you figure the combination of Wake, Smoltz, Penny, Masterson, Buchholz needs to make 72 starts. Can they do that and win 45 of them? Absolutely.
If Justin masters getting ahead and beating LHH he’s looking at a long and prosperous career as a starter in the big leagues. When your feature pitch is a sinker with more tail than sink, left-handed hitters can be a huge issue (reason being the ‘tail’ sees the ball move more to the barrel of a LHH’s bat than happens with sink, when the ball has dominating downward movement; Kevin Brown and Brandon Webb have massive sink). Few guys can do that and master the inside part of the plate to LHH. The key for Justin is that it’s something identified already and being addressed. Believe it or not, identifying the problem has been the most missed step in the process in the past. Even so, identifying it is one thing, but properly addressing how to ‘fix it’ never seems to get put in the mix.
You do that, imo, with command of the inner half of the plate to LHH through a cutter/FB mix. Greg Maddux was a master at this. He threw a sinker and a cutter to BOTH sides. If you know what side of the plate I am throwing to that can be an advantage. But if I can throw two pitches to that side of the plate — one that moves TOWARDS you and the other moving AWAY from you — it’s almost to my advantage that you ‘guess’ right as long as I am throwing the ‘other’ pitch. Add his pitching IQ and knowledge of hitters to the mix and you get 350 some odd wins and 100% of the HOF ballot. Justin will need to, again imo, be a guy that learns hitters more than some guys. He’ll need to learn LHH’s tendencies and create an ebb and flow that keeps LHH guessing and uncomfortable. If he can do that he’s going to win and win a lot.
Brad Penny remains the potentially biggest bargain of the year. I’ve known Brad since early in his Florida days and he’s a fantastic kid. Unfortunately, and fortunately, for him he’s got a high-maintenance body. Speaking as someone with experience in that department he’s got to keep on top of that and it appears he knows that and is doing that exact thing. If he’s healthy and pitches like he can, with Tek, Farrell and this bullpen, he could be a 15-20 game winner. That’s a lot of ifs, but certainly not out of the question. If he is in fact healthy then he immediately becomes the best #4 or 5 in the game and the Sox could win 110.
Smoltz, damn. Another “if” but I’ve heard nothing to think he won’t be healthy. If that is the case then things get even brighter. I bet you any amount of money, if you asked every manager in the game what rotation they would NOT want in a best of 5, or 7, it would be a healthy Sox rotation. Two of the best big-game pitchers in baseball (Smoltz and Josh), along with Dice and Lester? I’ll match that group with anyone all time in October.
That’s another huge if. October is a loooong way off. As a fan though you have to feel good knowing that the training staff, led by Paul Lessard, along with Tito and John, will manage their guys and the innings in the best possible manner to see that this staff arrives in October as healthy as possible.
I don’t even need to go into depth on the bullpen. Another “if,” but if they are healthy they present the one thing every opponent dreads. The ‘seven-inning game’. In the late 80’s and early 90’s it was the Reds. Mid 90’s it was the Yankees with Rivera and Wetteland. A few years ago you had the Angels with Rodriguez and Percival.
Managers manage different, offenses play different. You know on nights when everyone’s available that not having a lead after seven pretty much means you lose. It’s not a “fait accompli” but you know going in….
This bullpen not only has that potential with Saito, Paps, Okie, but you have multiple arms able to fill both spots. Not just any arms either, but power arms. This is where I see the Sox having a huge edge given the coaching. You won’t have a “pitch Scott Proctor until his arm falls off” scenario here. They will be able to mix and match on almost every night and not burn any one guy out. That’s just huge, even more so in the East.
The offense? Let’s put it this way. Manny‘s gone and there’s only one Manny. At the plate there is no comparable player in the game when he wants to play. Having said that, this offense is going to score runs and wear out pitchers. One of the keys will be Jacoby and his progression. On base he changes everything about the game for the hitter, pitcher and defense. Not many players can say that.
The Yankees have two players you could legitimately see as top 10 MVP candidates. The Rays? Not sure they have one beyond Pena right now. Longoria certainly could be that guy, Upton as well, but if you were betting and using track record there is nothing in the numbers that says Petey, Youk and David couldn’t be as well. If David is healthy, which it appears he is, he’s going to see his protection come back. No matter how the lineup shakes out Papi is the ‘don’t let him beat you’ guy, but he’s also surrounded by four guys who can beat you just as well: Petey, Youk, Bay and Drew. Don’t discount a healthy Mike Lowell either. The lineup is just so damn deep that other teams are going to have a hard time winning a series in which they don’t run out a No. 1 or 2.
The Red Sox lineup, like the Yankees, just crushes mediocre pitching. Not only that but the series in which you start your 4 or 5 in game 1, or 1 and 2, can get away from you fast because there are many games that these lineups are in your pen in the 3rd inning. I’ve watched many managers in the past five years lose all three games of a series in the first five innings of game 1 by mismanaging the bullpen.
What people miss is not the immediate effects, which often times are obvious, but the lingering ones. You use your pen for six innings in game 1, three in game 2 and three or four in game 3, and that’s 12 of your 27 innings being thrown by your pen. You arrive at the ‘by availability’ day when you have at most two or three guys available and the starter craps the bed again. That first game of the previous series can take you out of games for a week if a manager mismanages the bullpen.
No one wants to be considered ‘strong’ in middle relief. It’s a calling card for teams that suck because middle relief is something you want to use 1-2 times a week tops. It’s the spot many teams park their 11th or 12th arm, or the young developing kid. Teams with payrolls like NY and Boston manage to park very talented, somewhat expensive veterans or young, up-and-coming studs in that roll. Their staff never misses a beat and combined with these offenses they end up turning three or four games a year every other team loses into wins.
One of the mandates of the Epstein era was revamping and recreating a truly deep minor league system. Is there any question as of today as to whether that’s happened or not? You’ve got a stable of arms that are primed and close to ready to make a difference in the big leagues and they are catching up on the position player pool as well.
I never thought having stacked prospects in the position player area was a major concern simply because having tons of arms means you have the ultimate bargaining chip in any trade.
Take a poll of GMs around the game and I would bet you’d see the ratio 2-1 or higher as to ‘untouchable pitching prospects’ vs. position prospects.
How many teams could create a package of talent that would garner a front-line catcher with one or two minor league pitchers and maybe a position player? Not many.
So there you have it. Another long winded post and another opinion…..
My call is the Sox win 105 games this year, the Division as well. No post season predictions yet.
Oh and I also think the Cy will go to a member of this staff: Beckett, Lester or Paps.